Story and Photos by Guest Columnist Stephanie Levin.
Snippets of independent, quiet conversations from our little band of hikers erupted as an umbrella of oak trees narrowed to a dirt trail that ascended, descended, twisted and ascended again before leveling out. I had signed on for the pre-dawn two-mile hike up to La Cocina Que Canta, translated as “The Kitchen That Sings,” Rancho La Puerta’s organic garden and cooking school. I’d never actually hiked anywhere before the sun came up; in fact, I don’t like to get up before sunrise, but the opportunity to enjoy breakfast at La Cocina Que Canta with ingredients from the renown organic garden was too irresistible to pass up. As the hike progressed, the serenity, the crunch of our shoes on the dirt, the aroma of sages, salvias and shrubs peaked my senses. I scanned the eastern sky as the sunrise yawned awake.
We stop and Barbara, one of the hike leaders and Ranch nurse, points to a long stretch of fence blighting the pristine landscape, a long-jagged scar disturbing nature. It’s the fence the US has partially built to deter people from crossing into the US from its border with Mexico. Conversation halts; we soldier on silently, and descend around a dirt hill where the chaparral morphs into a verdant landscape. It takes me a second to realize I am entering the garden through rows of broccoli stalks, beans and lettuces.
We enter a terraced gate leading into a courtyard that leads to a working kitchen- spacious, expansive, wide open, welcoming; the real joy of cooking kind of kitchen housing a shared dining room with long wooden tables and chairs set for guests. On the long tiled island a bouquet of fresh flowers complements the scent of fresh baked muffins, primed with a hint of carrot and coconut. I idle over the palette of fresh fruit selection-saffron-colored papaya, ruby red strawberries, mint colored melons, and juicy pineapple chunks, I could breakfast just on fruit, but there is also creamy yogurt and oatmeal, and the traditional Mexican chilaquiles verdes, roasted tomatillo salsa, mellow ancho chile salsa and cream, all to regale the hungry hikers. It’s a rainbow of color, texture, taste and design. Coffee and traditional Mexican hot chocolate as well as hibiscus aqua fresca, or Jamaica round out breakfast. I try not to make a pig of myself, and slow down to marvel at the kitchen, the cooking, the long tables where we sit and savor breakfast. It’s apparent by the presentation and taste of the meal that the two young chefs take great pride in their kitchen and cooking skills. Every bite is crafted with culinary love. Pepin and Pollen would certainly give their culinary stamp of approval.
Before heading to the organic garden-the raison d’etre for the hike-I sit on the patio and tune into nature’s chorus, willow trees swaying in the early morning breeze, hummingbirds whirring around the olive and persimmon trees, and in the distance, a bubbling fountain. The resident cat sits patiently beside me hoping for scraps of my second muffin. He’s out of luck.
After breakfast and conversation with the chefs, we stroll out to the garden to meet Enrique Ceballos, gardener extraordinaire, who has worked on “the Ranch” for many years. He’s sporting a straw hat, a faded denim work shirt and Levi:; his face is the color of copper, bronzed by years of working outside. His welcoming smile casts the crowd closer. Most in our group could most likely define organic in our sleep-this is the kale and collard crowd Enrique addresses- but he is quick to explain that organic has different sensibilities, variations depending on a country’s origin. There are commercial growers without chemicals, and small farmers who grow without chemicals, yet the unspoken truth about organic farms in many places is the interdependency between the farmers and the community, notes Enrique gesturing at the green fertile treasure of broccoli, fennel, kale and beans. In Mexico, families produce food in rural areas, then take the produce once a week to tianges or mercado, better known to our little group as a farmers’ market.
Just as there is a symbiotic relationship between organic farmers and the consumer community, there is an organic symbiotic partnership between soil, plants and rotation-it’s all about variation and needs-yes, just like humans, plants have needs too. Tomatoes sidle up to nitrogen; kale loves calcium and let’s not forget the legumes who reign with their natural root system making the patch of land nitrogen rich. Nitrogen is the gold standard for soil, the one in most demand. It’s the soil’s building block, chock full of proteins and cellular constituents critical to all forms of life in this garden.
I’m so focused on the horizon of feathery fennel stalks as far as the eye can see, I almost miss Enrique’s point. It’s the nutrient rich eco-system, an underground vitamin store of soils that dictates the taste and health of what we put in our mouths. Every scrap of unwanted food on the ranch from eggshells to herbs is composted on “the Ranch”-a kind of aerobic digestive returns to the soil. The breakfast I enjoyed, the flowers adorning the table in the dining room, all had their tender beginnings here.
I thought I understood the definition of organic, but realized then what a novice I was. While some guests arrive at La Cocina Que Canta to take evening cooking classes with guest chefs, working together to create a divine meal from the garden, others sometimes have the opportunity to work a few hours side-by-side in the garden with the gardeners. Since today isn’t a work day for visitors, a few of the hikers, myself included, opted to take a detour to the Las Piedras Environmental Education Center, a non-profit founded by Rancho La Puerta to support sustainability within the community, inspiring a love of nature and culture. I will get my hands on those carrots I see growing the next time I visit “the Ranch”.
As each in our group bid our farewells to Enrique, I notice something on his beaming face that I seldom see in the face of individuals of great importance, and that is a sense of contentment and pride, the knowledge that working with his heart and soul, sustains life, our food. What could be more important?