The town I consider my home is nestled in a valley surrounded by gently sloping hills, split in two by the river Morava. The sun sets fast behind the peaks of Ovčar and Kablar, two mountainous brothers watching over each other for eternity. Their sister, Jelica, sprawls for miles, flanking the town on the southern side, not rising above her brothers, feigning subservience, but reaching out for miles with her green fields studded with white herds of sheep and red earthen roofs. She is generous and fertile. She holds in her embrace orchards swelling with purple plums, rows upon rows of bursting red tomatoes, brambles protecting luscious wild blackberries, and acres of raspberries that feed all of Europe.
Three decades ago, Father bought a couple of acres of land on the side of mountain Jelica overlooking the town. Completely immersed in our teenage adventures altogether a world away, we did not share his newly-fetched enthusiasm for agriculture and homesteading. He would arrive home from the hospital and invite us to go with him to “The Ranch”, and we invariably had too much homework. We could not skip our scheduled karate classes or a choir practice or navel lint harvesting – anything to avoid going up there with him. Back then I lived for the lazy strolls along the river bank with my boyfriend and occasional moments of bliss when our knees would touch seemingly unintentionally. I preferred to join our friends at a sidewalk café, drink a Schweppes’ Bitter Lemon, and plan another bicycle outing. I would gladly stay home and engage my sister in yet another fight that would end up with me crying and her stubbornly pouting and refusing to talk to me. Even this was preferable to the Ranch.
Mother was another story. From the beginning, she was a bit skeptical about the whole idea. Father running a hacienda? She accompanied him to the Ranch a couple of times and attacked the gardening tasks with the vigor and energy she had used when working in her parents’ garden. She would not stop until she was done. Father laughed, reminding her that she was not an indentured servant, pointing out the three square feet of perfectly weeded garden that he managed to accomplish in the same time. Yes, it was flanked by waist high overgrown grass, but he did not break a sweat. He was doing it for fun. In the end, she gave up, knowing that his grandiose plans were meant to fail.
In the meantime he indulged his fantasies and had a log cabin moved and installed on the foundation of the old house. Walnut trees and hazelnut bushes formed the southern border of his property. Raspberries and blackberries hugged the fence on the eastern side. The northern half of the Ranch held an orchard, planted mostly with plums, apples, and pears. But he could not stop there. He added a couple of peach, apricot, and quince trees. Pretty soon they were joined by several cherry trees: two red cherries, two sour cherries, and one bing cherry. He planted some kiwis, a gooseberry bush, and three figs. Returning from his trips, he would bring home seeds and seedlings, the more exotic, the better. He planted a vineyard on the sloped hill and dreamed of pouring his own ruby red wine into bottles and sharing it with friends. He bought chickens of several different kinds, turkeys, and even pheasants. He dreamed of letting several sheep graze around the plum trees and a small herd of goats that would give him milk every day.
I am sitting here, almost melting, imagining the rustic idyll. But the reality is harsh. Father is a dreamer. Father is also an accomplished surgeon, a genius diagnostician, and an extremely poor homesteader. He loves his Ranch, and ever since he retired, he spends every free moment on the hill, getting up at dawn, and returning for the midday meal. His friends are getting less and less willing to join him and do the majority of heavy labor to make his dreams come alive. The fox has eaten his pheasants. The hawk got several of his chickens. The potatoes were as small as peanuts because he refused to spray against the potato bug. The cherries were rotting on the ground because he did not have the time to pick them. His neighbors goats got entangled in a chain and broke his kiwi trees. At the same time two of his figs disappeared, only to magically resurface in his neighbor’s yard.
At home, Mother rolls her eyes with exasperation when he unloads daily the crates of overgrown zucchini that were hiding in the weeds he did not pick, and the buckets of pears and tiny heirloom apples that stubbornly refuse to yield to the knife and give you blisters after fifteen minutes of quartering. She does not know what to do with cupfuls of gooseberries and crate upon a crate of cherries. It is, after all, only the two of them living in the house now. He promises every year that he will pare down significantly, but as soon as the snow starts to melt in early March, he starts rummaging in the garage, looking for the seeds he collected in the summer, and making a grand design destined to break his septuagenarian back and send Mother scowling into her room where she can forget, if only for an hour or two, the deluge of produce, almost all flawed, yet pristinely clean and organic, bound to appear on her kitchen table the next summer.
His apples are misshapen, and his pears small and overripe when he picks them. His scallions and onions arrive with a clump of dirt hugging the roots. His potatoes are not worth peeling and something always gets his figs before he can collect them. He brings these inferior gifts to Mother proudly, and inevitably getting the same reaction that our cats received when they caught the moths whose wings spanned more than three inches, and deposited them, still alive, wings a-flutter, at Mother’s feet.
But when he pours his golden yellow whites and ruby red “black” wines from the five-liter wicker-covered glass casks, we forget Mother’s suffering. He keeps them in her light-blue and white dining room making it look like an unorganized warehouse. It does not help that Mother is allergic to alcohol. Our praises to his wine-making skills, as random as we think they are, make him smile proudly, and recite every single detail that went into producing the wine from its inception. We nod, listen to his never-ending agricultural stories that inevitably connect to the summers in the 50s, and raise our gold-rimmed, light as foam wine glasses that belonged to Deda-Ljubo.
I have not tasted Father’s wine for two years. And he tells me I missed the best ones yet. Every year he puts away a five-liter cask of his red wine for me and my sister. My sister and Thomas drank my share for two summers. But I intend to break that trend. I hope this Fall’s harvest yielded some magnificent grapes that will end up in my gold-rimmed glass next July.
I read a lot recently about pasta cooked in red wine. It intrigued me, and I decided to take the challenge. The earthy aroma of sauteed mushrooms, the sweet bite of garlic, and the crunch of roasted walnuts balanced beautifully the deep-red noodles which encased the essence of a fruity red wine and sharp nuttiness of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. The dish was definitely autumnal, albeit light. Every bite brought a smile to my face, as I imagined Father pouring his wine into our glasses, as the linden trees released their perfume on a sultry summer evening in Serbia.
RED WINE PASTA WITH MUSHROOMS AND NUTS
- 1 lb pasta (I used farfalle, but spaghetti work as well))
- 3 cups red wine (Zinfandel)
- ½ walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped
- 3 Tbsp butter or olive oil
- 8 oz cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
- salt, freshly ground pepper
- a handful of parsley, chopped
- ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved (those who follow Eastern Orthodox fast or a vegan diet, skip the cheese)
Cook pasta in salted water for 4-5 minutes and drain. Pour the wine in the pot and return to boil. Add back the pasta and cook for 6-7 minutes, occasionally stirring gently, until most of the wine is absorbed. Pasta should be al dente.
Heat a dry non-stick skillet on medium heat and toast the nuts 2-3 minutes, shaking the skillet to prevent burning. Take of the heat and set aside.
Heat the butter or oil on medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cook for 5-6 minutes, until mushrooms are soft and golden brown. Mix in the nuts, parsley, and pasta. Shave the cheese on top.