Friday, October 07, 2011

Harvesting grapes 2011

Hilary picked the white grapes two weeks ago. They were at peak sweetness and ready to roll. Last night, Ron picked half of the Concords. Frost nipped the upper leaves of the vines clinging to the trellis and recent winds have cleared them out. Exposed to the dry air, some of the grapes were beginning to move toward raisins. That’s not a problem for our process since raisins are actually sweeter than grapes. But, hornets seek out the liquid in grapes, especially when there’s a lack of rain. They’ll suck out the juice and leave empty skins. Now that is a problem.

Ron clipped the grape clusters from the vines just as the sun set. All of the daytime bugs had already clocked out and gone home. We sat down to watch “Big Bang Theory” and while Sheldon rolled the dice to make decisions in his daily life, to free up brain space for loftier thoughts, we hand de-stemmed 21 pounds of grapes.

A larger enterprise would use a mechanized de-stemmer but our small operation allows for hand separation of inferior grapes, sticks and stems. I’ve heard that winery standards allow one Asian beetle per bushel of fruit. I guarantee, there are no orange dotted beetles in our grapes.

I just finished harvesting the other half of the Concords. Neither a less than gentle breeze nor a sudden burst of rain could lessen my pleasure in this moment all of those early spring days of pruning and summer days of weeding and wondering work to produce. The entire growing season stretches to this day of physical exertion in breaking of the grape clusters’ natural joints of separation or using my favorite old clippers to cut then drop the clusters on the growing pile in a five-gallon bucket. My senses are tuned to the job. I even notice the glimmer of a multitude of grapes simultaneously reflecting my hand in their individual highlights.

I can’t help but plan for next year’s harvest. We’ll move the Frontenacs that have spent the summer in the soft ground of the garden. They’ll fill the newly landscaped south-facing slope in front of the vinegary. Perhaps we’ll add even more. And then there are those new sweet cherries to try. And maybe a few more apple trees.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I let the chickens out of the coop when I went out to clip the spent daylilies this morning. The 18 pullets have begun to lay eggs while only a couple of the original flock, now reduced to only six, lay an egg now and then. We can’t predict the number of daily eggs, yet, but we hope they’ll settle into a nice production routine.

Moments ago, I heard the shriek of a red tail hawk and went out to check the hens. We think a young hawk has dive-bombed the flock unsuccessfully a few times. While it hasn’t taken any, it’s trained them to be extremely watchful for daytime predators from above.

On Friday, while Savannah was mowing the lawn, she saw the flock happily pecking at whatever chickens peck at in the grass near the raspberry patch. I went out later for a turn at mowing and saw one lone white and black speckled hen cowering in the raspberries. Eight more were hiding in the coop and one was in a dark back corner of the barn. That meant 14 were missing and, try as I might, I couldn’t find them. Later, all of them came out of hiding, from the densest part of the herb garden. The mint and marshmallow, oregano, and a stray squash vine shielded them from preying eyes.

Just now, when I walked out to check, Charles the resident woodchuck made a dash for his hole at the base of the basswood tree. Two yellow shafted flickers flew in opposite directions across the yard and a blue jay swooped into the oak at the far end of the lawn. I couldn’t see a hawk but sixteen of the hens were still in the coop, taking their dust baths in the shelter of the doorway. Eight have apparently scrambled for parts unknown. I hope they’re safe. I really can’t act as a daily chicken shepherd.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

August 2011 update

What a lush wet summer! The rains just keep coming and that's both good and bad. Spring rains during plum, cherry and apple blossom time led to poor pollination and little fruit production. I harvested the cherries, picking a few as I rode the lawn mower between the trees. I enjoyed this year's crop but no one else will. I know, that sounds selfish but the birds got a few, too. And that was it. We will eat the plums and perhaps the apples, too.

The grapes have loved the heat and rain and it looks like we'll have the biggest grape harvest in years. The Frontenacs that were planted last fall won't produce much. It was an important year for them to get their roots established. One vine has a few and we're looking forward to tasting them although they're right at the height for my little flock of roving hens to get to them first.

The garlic is ready for harvest. Yesterday was a dry day and I should have started the dig. Instead I weeded, dead-headed flowers, tied up tomato and grape vines and prepared for a tour. The rain has returned today, so will look to the first of next week to dig the garlic.

The hollyhocks are producing an outstanding bloom, as are the daylilies. Though we're into August, which can often be a dry month with grass turning brown and leaves dropping, everything is as lush as a tropical jungle (and we know what a tropical jungle looks like after visiting the Amazon in Peru and Bolivia this last March).

  The vinegar maker is busy waxing newly bottled vinegars this morning. He has plums and apricots beginning the fermentation process, rhubarb finishing in air-locked carboys, and a variety of vinegars nearly ready for infusing or bottling. We've also harvested herbs when they were at their peak. They're in the freezer for use later in the year. The basil is tall and lush; ready for pesto, infusion or freezing. Next month we'll dig horseradish and maybe start some tomato wine.

Hollyhocks 2011

The buildings are almost obscured by the height of the plants
 in the herb garden.

Monday, May 23, 2011


When I drove out of the driveway this morning I noticed plum blossom petals drifting downward. It seems they just opened their buds and already the peak of bloom is past. We've had so much rain, and hard rain, that we wonder if the pollen got washed away. Ron said the bees were really humming on the trees the first day the flowers opened so we can hope that their efforts will result in plums later in the summer.

Next come the cherry blossoms. With a sunnier forecast for the rest of the week, they'll have a good chance of attracting the bees.

I pruned the grape vines in the orchard a week ago today. They're budding for leaves as are the new Frontenacs we planted as starters in the garden last fall. I planted garlic between the grape vines, making good use of the available space, and it has a healthy start.

We're trying straw bale gardening for our tomatoes and peppers this year. I interviewed Joel Karsten, originator of the process who is in his 8th season of gardening this way, for an article for Farm Show. Joel is so enthusiastic about this method and says it works great. Check out his website for the details. Our bales are ready to plant and its on my schedule for later in the day. If Joel is right, we'll have our own hot peppers for vinegar infusions this fall. Maybe enough extra tomatoes that Ron can make more of his famous tomato vinegar, too.

Tours are picking up. Plan ahead for your summer fun and give us a call to schedule a tour. You'll learn about the wine and vinegar making process, sample about 20 varieties, and wander through the orchard and herb garden. Tours are free. Ask about Leatherwood Vinegar; a Winery Gone Sour, the book about life here at the vinegary. You can find it at or ask your local book store.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Lake Country TV visits the vinegary

Last summer, Steve Henning and his camera crew of one visited the vinegary. His special project brings the arts and specialty items to viewers in central Minnesota via Lake Country TV. Steve was generous in also uploading his work to YouTube. This is our first appearance on YouTube. Thanks Steve! We hope you enjoy the vinegary tour.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Summer of the heart

By Laura Leasman

All the cold and snow we have had this winter is making me yearn for summer and the greening of the landscape. Growing up, having a large garden was always a part of summer. The whole family would take part in weeding, processing and eating the wonderful food the garden produced. I can honestly say that I did not appreciate it at the time. I actually hated going out and weeding, or sitting at the table shucking peas. I now realize what a valuable experience and amazing family I have, in part due to the time we all spent together as we grew up and the chores we were forced to do as a family.

I now find great joy in going home and visiting the gardens. I do not have space for my own garden, but I can get my garden fix at my parents' or at friends' homes. Vegetables fresh from the garden are a necessity of summer. Picking cherry tomatoes off the vine, warm from the sun, or pulling carrots, wiping off the dirt and eating them immediately are a joy that can only be experienced.

My mom’s herb garden was added after I left home for college. I can visit and see all the wonderful plants growing heartily due to the cool rains and bright sunlight: sage, rosemary, tarragon, dill, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano, echinacea, and basil are just a few of the herbs that comprise the herb garden. Dad has been able to utilize these amazing plants to flavor his vinegars. The vinegars, made from home-grown fruits such as grape, rhubarb and apple, are infused with the herbs. The flavors meld over time and create a complex and enjoyable culinary experience.

One of my favorite recipes, due to its simplicity, bright contrasting color combinations, and fresh taste is a dish made from fresh basil, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella cheese. Simply slice the tomatoes and cheese and arrange on a plate. Fresh basil leaves, either whole or sliced into thin strips, are then sprinkled on top of the tomatoes and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar (perhaps Leatherwood Garlic), and top with cracked black pepper and a little salt. This salad is indicative of summer and always a crowd pleaser.

Oh Summer, you are so close and yet so very far away!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Leatherwood Vinegars add zing to Mediterranean cooking

By Laura Leasman

Within the last fifteen years, I was introduced to the fresh taste of Mediterranean cuisine. My first experience was with the family for whom I used to nanny. One night after work I was invited to join the family for dinner. They were making falafel and had hummus and pita bread on hand. We snacked on Kalamata olives and chatted as the falafel cooked in extra virgin olive oil. The falafel was served on the pita bread with humus, tomato, and lettuce.

I slowly became hooked to the light fresh flavors that can be found in Mediterranean cooking. I now love the large quantity and variety of vegetables, and the contrasting colors, they impart to the savory dishes. Eggplant is one vegetable, often used in Mediterranean cooking, that I am still working with. I find the eggplant to be very versatile, it absorbs the flavors of the food it is cooked with beautifully, but I have yet to perfect my cooking technique. Hummus, falafel and pita bread are still a favorite. These three ingredients, layered with tomato and lettuce, are a light and flavorful meal.

My favorite Mediterranean dish is the Greek, or Turkish, salad. The basic ingredients are: lettuce, tomato, red onion, Kalamata olives, Peperoncini peppers, and feta cheese. This salad is wonderful drizzled with olive oil, Leatherwood Vinegary vinegar and topped with freshly cracked black pepper.

I like to make my own dressings. It is easier to control the amount of the ingredients and I can tailor it to my taste craving of the day. I love to use the herbal vinegars. Ones I would recommend include basil, thyme, rosemary, and garlic, as well as any of the fruit vinegars. If home-made hummus is on the menu to accompany the salad, a dash of vinegar added to the hummus adds depth to its flavor.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Vinegar has a mother?

By Laura Leasman

I was thinking about vinegar today and kept returning to two aspects of vinegar: its smell and its mother. Why? Because I had time on my hands while plucking big yellow feathers at work (I make Big Bird for stage shows). How do these three things, vinegar, mother, and work all fit together?

Vinegar’s strong aroma seems to be an affront to the senses of someone who is not accustomed to it. I have acclimated to the smell and when entering Dad’s Vinegary I feel much the same sensation as when walking outside on a below-zero day in a Minnesota winter. Your breath is stolen for a moment and it almost hurts to breath; but the body acclimates. I have come to, almost, enjoy the smell. It reminds me of home and the enjoyment the process of making vinegar brings my Dad. It may not be a great idea to cook a generous quantity of vinegar in a microwave at work however. The aroma may be found off- putting to the less vinegar-educated individual.

I, as well as my siblings, have learned a bit about how vinegar is made from our Dad. Through this process we have learned that the gelatinous mass that forms in some vinegar is called “mother.” It may start as a wispy cloud and, if left to form in a large quantity, it can form a thick slimy layer. The mother is not harmful and is a product of the process of making vinegar.

I work at the same company as my sister (she makes Ernie’s shoes)and one day her boss came up to me with a vinegar question.

“Laura, I have a bottle of vinegar that has a cloudy substance in it. Do you think it is still okay to use?”
I was able to respond with the knowledge I had learned about vinegar mother. It is fine to use vinegar that has mother in it. It does not negatively affect the quality of vinegar. Most people probably don’t eat the mother, but some believe it has health benefits and even look for vinegar that has mother in it.

I am slowly trying to educate people around me on the benefits of using herbal vinegars and a variety of its uses. The easiest way to incorporate vinegar, other than a daily undiluted dose on a spoon, would be to pour a small amount on fresh fruit. Cut up fresh fruit, such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or blueberries and drizzle with a fruit vinegar such as cherry or rhubarb. If you are feeling more adventurous, drizzle with an herb vinegar such as ros
emary or basil. The vinegar brings out the flavor of the berries and is surprisingly refreshing. It is also much healthier than dosing the fruit with sugar or cream.

Enjoy, and ALWAYS use as much vinegar as you like!!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Growing up with vinegar

by Laura Leasman

I think I was like many children growing up in that I never really thought much about vinegar. The extent of my vinegar knowledge extended to two things: my mom soaking the dish rag in white vinegar to clean it and Grandma’s canned dill pickles.

Mom would often soak the dish rag in white vinegar to clean it as well as eliminate any accumulated odors. She would mix a little vinegar with water in the kitchen sink and let the rag soak for a while. I remember running by the sink and catching that tell-tale whiff of the soaking rag and kept running. The vinegar smell was very distinctive and strong to my young nose. The vinegar did the job though, and eliminated the odors. As my dad says, cleaning is about all white vinegar is good for.

My Grandmother’s canned dill pickles are one of my favorite childhood memories. The whole family would pile into the van and go visit my grandparents on a Sunday afternoon. The kitchen table was set with Grandma’s rose dishes and a glass dish of pickles was always at the table’s center. The pickles were to accompany the meal of course, but the kids could never wait. We would all sneak a few pickles before the meal began. I know Grandma knew, but often she would let us get away with the minor thievery. Grandma’s pickles were just that good.

Now that I have grown up a little, I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. The fond memories of my childhood sometimes influence my recipe choices, and I do still love pickles. This is my grandma’s pickle recipe, slightly updated to utilize my dad’s amazing vinegars. Some of the vinegars that I think would best compliment the recipe would include: Garlic, Cilantro, Jalapeno pepper, Serrano pepper or Habanero pepper. Enjoy!

Pasteurized Dill Pickles

1 cup salt                           6 cups vinegar
13 cups water                    sugar
dill and cucumbers

Combine salt, water, and vinegar and bring to a boil. Boil 15 minutes. Put a head of dill in the bottom of quart jar. Pack in washed cucumbers. Add a tablespoon of sugar to each jar and another head of dill. Pour the boiling brine over the cucumbers to within ½ inch of the top of the jar. Adjust covers and seal. Set the jars in a deep kettle. Cover with boiling water and allow to stand until cold. This recipe yields approximately 9 quarts. Allow at
 least 2 months for curing.

Friday, January 07, 2011

New year update, January 2011

I’m still breathing heavy from my trek out to the chicken coop. Ron said the trail would be open. He neglected to consider what the wind has been up to since he blew the snow out yesterday. He blows the snow out, and secretly enjoys either the process or the neatness of a cleared expanse, and the wind blows it back in. Oof da. My socks are wet. And my cheeks are red. And I’m enjoying that exhilarated feeling of braving 3.7 degree weather.

The hens are wintering over in the snuggest coop this side of the Mississippi. Ron spent some quality time last fall pouring concrete, pounding nails into stud walls, insulating and cladding the structure in steel siding. Lovely coop.

Ron’s also spending considerable quality time in the vinegary. He’s just recently bottled more mugwort. The last bottling sold out so quickly all we could do in the latter part of the year was to tell visitors about it. The ginger vinegar went nearly as fast. He started infusing a new batch yesterday.

Other vinegars that are back in stock include: anise hyssop, basil, dill, mint, and cilantro. Brand new on the shelf: lemon balm and Cuban oregano. We’ve been anticipating a lemon vinegar for some time. The lemon balm grew lush and thick this last summer. I harvested it at peak and froze it for later infusion. So, later is here and the lemon balm infused in rhubarb vinegar is ready.

Ron’s wine making classes have been well attended. “Students” make their wine here (some use their own fruit while others use canned fruit or kits), come back to rack off (drain the liquid from the mash) and later to bottle their finished product. It’s been a popular fall activity; some bestowed their new wine as Christmas gifts. Speaking of Christmas, we went to a holiday wine-tasting party with friends back in December. We had just over a dozen wines to sample and more than half of them were “domestic” wines, made by our friends. A home-grown raspberry was ranked number one. Just a reminder: if you are a wine maker in mid-Minnesota, consider getting your wine supplies here. We carry everything a hobby wine or beer maker could want.

See you soon.