PhotoBike Tour 10: Cheese and Cows and A Bucolic Seminole County Bike Ride

Those of you who know me well can probably appreciate my fondness for doing things alone. While I do enjoy and love the company of my friends and family, there’s nothing quite like having a few hours to myself in which to indulge the caprices which worm their way into my psyche. It usually happens like this: I do what I have to in the morning, and then spend some time with Blueie the lovebird. He likes to nestle in my right hand (not the left) and look out into the backyard with me. He notices butterflies and lizards and other birds (wild and unruly) from behind the safety of the sliding glass door, and then I realize that I’m spending WAY too much time communing with this bird, and that it’s perhaps time to get out on the bicycle. (If you click on the pictures you’ll be able to see them in their original entirety.)

It’s one of my favorite things to do, and now that it’s slightly cooler, I’ve been ramping up the hours I spend cycling. “Slightly cooler” is relative, of course; the temperatures are just as high as they were in July-August, but there’s something comfortable in the air which makes biking a lot more pleasurable than it was two months ago. Still, my ball cap ends up a sopping mess, but who’s watching?

Today I went back to the Winter Park Dairy to buy some cheese. It’s up on Howell Branch Road, its property backing up to Lake Florence. There’s a sign now, and you bike (or drive) down a dirt road past horses and cows, and at the end you’ll find another sign that directs you to the farm store. You can buy cheeses there, as well as local honey (Dansk Farms) and other dairy products like milk and eggs. What’s amazing is that these wholesome wares are located just a short drive east of the manic intersection of 436 and Howell Branch Road. Some years ago– not very many– I was taking pictures of an old barn located just off that corner, and a kindly old woman came out of the farmhouse next to it and asked if I’d like to see the inside of her home. (I must have one of those faces that doesn’t automatically brand me as an axe murderer.) She had a wood-burning stove in the kitchen with a pipe that led through the wall, and I had to remind myself that it was 1995, not 1935… it was all very surreal, and now there are apartments there, and clipped hedges, and I suppose a pool. I couldn’t tell you because there’s an electric gate that keeps nosy people like me away.

David and Dawn Green are the owners and operators of the Winter Park Dairy, and they are pleased to present their products to customers who appreciate the vital importance of patronizing and sustaining local businesses. It’s not a trendy, yuppified concept that the Greens are offering: this is a working farm with all the smells and sights you’d expect, utilitarian, honest, and simple. You won’t find cinnamon brooms for sale, or cat dolls stuffed with potpourri, but you will find healthy local products. I tell you– the cheeses are phenomenal, made from milk from cows that you actually see on the site. Last week I bought a chunk of parmesan, intending to grate it into a pasta dish, but it didn’t last that long. Today I bought a hunk each of their Black and Bleu and Cheddar. They’re in the refrigerator and, believe me, it’s all I can do to NOT land on them with a sharp knife and a glass of wine; the pleasure of eating these wonderful cheeses will have to be disciplined and moderated. Go– GO AT ONCE– to this farm store and avail yourselves of this wonderful local product. You might even find some locally┬ábaked goods for sale, but you should go early.

Dansk beehives.

The farm store... and my bicycle.

Content.

It was so beautiful that, after filling my white basket with cheese, I continued further east just to see what was going on in the neighborhood. I like to check up on certain favorite places, probably just to see if things are staying the same. I did see a large sign posted on a property that’s for sale, but I won’t even go into the how and why of all that; I just want to say that I think we have enough anonymous subdivisions in Seminole County already. And just to the right of that sign is this spreading oak tree on a property located at Eden Point, which isn’t even on most maps. Cars speed past this spot, but a casual cyclist like myself can tool along and see what’s what at leisure. Sometimes cows will gather under this tree to escape the heat of the noonday sun.

The mighty oak.

Grand Road is a mysterious byway (at least to me) wedged between Dike and Dodd Roads. The property here is partly taken up by a belt of electrical pylons, but there are still wild, kudzu-swathed areas just off the road. There aren’t many cars on Grand, and those that I did see were (mostly) attentive to the lone cyclist moseying along. I try to ride with my left elbow pointing out, to force cars around me, but sometimes they like to play chicken. Excuse me?

Heading back towards the house, I stopped at the San Pedro property, a meditative retreat center maintained by the Orlando diocese. You can get to Lake Howell along paths that have been blazed through the forest, or you can just sit quietly in the chapel or on a bench near pasture land which is rented to farmers. The cows were in the pasture further west today, and a gentlemen I spoke with said that it would be pretty easy to traipse through the meadow and find them, though he himself wouldn’t– “swamp monsters.” Sometimes at night he can hear the cows bellowing loudly to one another. “I don’t know what they are upset about,” he said. “Something is spooking them.” Swamp monsters?

I like stopping in the cool, quiet San Pedro chapel at the height of the day. I can turn off my ears and shut out all the noises in my head, listening instead to that still, quiet voice. I’ve figured out quite a few things in this silent place. And I can refill my water bottle at the cooler. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person around for miles. Here, the chapel looks out onto the forest that ends at Lake Howell.

On the way home, I pass through an area called Slovak Village. It was founded in 1949 to accommodate Slovak families and farmers who had settled in the area. There is a cemetery there– the Slovak National Cemetery– in the little lanes located between Eastbrook subdivision and 436. Its name hints at something vast and filled with rows of Slovak graves, but it’s actually very small, though scenic.

And then home, which is maybe ten minutes away from all this by bicycle. Mind you, I’m not complaining about living in a suburb-cum-rural-exurb as I do, because I know I can easily get away from the noise and the traffic in just a few minutes… and find some artisanal cheese on the journey.

September 2011 in the Garden

Not me.

This year I swore I would have the yard ready in time to plant tomatoes in September, rather than wait until early spring when it’s already too late. For three reasons, today was the day I found myself getting Officially Ready. My friend John in Massachusetts is a serious green gardener, and his eMails read like missives from the extension program over at the university. They are inspiring and informative and they goad me, year after year, into at least trying to duplicate his Herculean efforts and abundant results. The second reason came about as I was reading Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which my very culinarily accomplished friend Linda gave me. I love Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, and the one with the green cover, but this current book I’m reading is a departure into a non-fiction world of eating locally-grown and produced fruits, vegetables, and livestock. It’s a challenge, and we all need to do our share rather than make the corn-syrup fueled agro-monolith families any richer; besides, it’s more fun to go to local farmer’s markets on a weekend rather than fretting about the waxed fauna at the supermarket. The third reason is that Kirk moved the lawns in this heat, and I felt guilty.

Those are very good reasons for anyone to go out into his own yard and start turning the earth with a spade, which conjures up visions of healthy human beings marching out into the fields and singing as they how rows, row hoes, and try to avoid the anthills which appear like mushrooms after soft summer rains. Did I mention the heat? It’s six thousand degrees out there, but dig I must. Also, my middle has stubbornly been holding onto a chinchilla-sized ring of flab which must, MUST be made to fall away. So, dig I must.

What happens when you dig and weed earth that has not been touched since April? I and my cousin Nicola, who is about as close to the land as Lady Gaga is to joining the Republican party, was with me last sometime in April soon after he arrived from Italy. Conveniently forgetting that he is an indoor boy, I had us both hieing our way to Lukas Nursery in Oviedo for bags of mulch so that I could, hopefully, keep the weeds down that sprout like… weeds during the soft summer rains. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to spread twenty bags of mulch in a yard, but Nicola didn’t; he must have been a peasant in a former life because he soon went into the house (after helping me unload the bags) to relax in front of a comprehensive German grammar. And I think that was the last time I was in the yard, other than to gather tomatoes and clip herbs for sauce. We had some wonderful yields, I must say; there’s nothing quite like tomato sauce that you’ve grown yourself. It tastes earthy and green and actually healthy, with none of the sweetness that you find in jarred varieties. I mean, it’s nice of Paul Newman‘s company to donate all his profits from his sauce to charity, but mine tastes better.

Today I reacquainted myself with the yard, and it was like meeting a friend who has been away for months, only to return with the most unflattering beard and bushy eyebrows you ever saw. The areas of the yard that were never mulched were knee-deep in weeds, helped along by the strange, fleshy plants that apparently grew from the cow manure I’d used to plant the tomatoes in. After they were done, I distributed the cow manure throughout the year, and was astounded to see, after just a few days of rain, weeds like you never saw in your life: big fleshy things that resembled miniature jade plants, with yellow flowers… weeds that looked like rosemary, but smaller and unfragrant… and mushrooms the size of golf balls. Fore! Away they all went, into large black bags.

A pile of leaves and weeds that I actually created in March, but forgot since it was hiding behind a giant desert rose, turned out to have created a rich, loamy pile of compost. This I blended into the area where the tomatoes were, adding a bag of leftover tomato manure which I had neglected to distribute earlier in the season. (It was very hot that day; silence hung in the air like private lamentations during a virgin’s funeral. The sun stood in the sky like a yellow ball of recrimination, baking– or burning– the sins of a generation. A mockingbird trilled its song in a dusty Dutch elm which should have statistically been dead, and willows soughed their sighs on the breeze. Somewhere, a dog barked.)

Shoveling up the compost pile revealed a host of tiny black bugs that looked like snakes, and which attracted lizards from all over. It’s funny about lizards: normally they’ll skitter away from you, but if a sudden bonanza of treats is revealed, they’ll run right over your shoes to get at them. I wish they’d helped me move the giant chicken wire enclosure back into place, as it had become rather unwieldy after serving its purpose. (I had made it to keep the squirrels away from the tomatoes.) It was like wrestling an accordion while blindfolded, made especially more difficult because I was wearing flip flops AND white socks, like the old Vietnamese ladies at Mass, but I eventually got it in place, sort of. This year I plan on having it settle over stakes in the four corners, and then I’ll cut “doors” into the mesh so I can reach in and pluck tomatoes. Last season Kirk and I, like madmen, would take turns tipping the cage over while grabbing at tomatoes; you should have heard the cries: “My forearms are getting pierced by the ends of the wire! It feels like thousands of hypodermics!” “Oh, shut up.”

I’m very proud of getting a leg up on the situation this year, which is a good metaphor but not to be put into practice literally while gardening. If you MUST raise a leg while in the yard, for any reason, make sure you are wearing shorts under your shorts, because some bugs have wings, and they bite. I’m just saying.