From Peach Tree to Bacon — Smoking Literally Start to Finish

Our friend, the scarily smart Ollalieberry expert and Chicken Alchemist Natty, had a peach tree in her backyard.

The valiant Peach.

It was an intrepid little tree, producing as many peaches as it could.  It withstood the cold winter rains, blustering windstorms, broiling summer sun, and the other various indignities suffered by trees in backyards with dogs.  It kept up its job like a trooper, even when Natty noticed that it seemed unwell, and had to prop it up.  It was not too much later that she discovered that it had been infected with oak tree fungus. Soon afterward, it died.

Having a tree die on you is not an easy thing when you don’t have that many.  First of all, you feel like you’ve let down Mother Earth and/or Gaia and Arbor Day and Al Gore and the reversal of global warming and pretty much every National Geographic special you saw as a kid.  Second, you have to find somebody to do something about it, which usually requires money you don’t have because it’s a TREE and not some random weed, unless you’d like to wake up at midnight and see its tortured skeletal remains lurking in the dark like some sort of creepy spiritual entity, and then suddenly you’re in a horror movie.  All of these results suck.

So what Natty did was exactly what any decent thinking Alchemist would do — use the tree to create something new.  She cut us off a beautiful branch when she took the tree out, and we left it outside to season the entire winter.  It dried through the late spring and then baked a few weeks in some hot summer sun we were lucky to receive.  A few days ago, we took a look at it.

The peach tree branch, seasoned.

It was ready.  I needed to make a batch of bacon — you can see how it’s done here — and to do it properly, you need to smoke it.  Yes, yes, you can roast it in the oven or cook it on the grill and it’ll be perfectly fine.  But it’s not bacon unless it’s really smoked, not just doused with smoke flavoring and caramel coloring (which is the stuff you get at the grocery store).  Really, truly, smoked.

That leads us to the next question. You can’t just stuff a branch into a smoker or a grill. You have to prepare the wood first.  Now there’s a dispute among folks who smoke meat that has reached almost religious proportions — what types of wood to use, pellets versus sawdust versus chips versus chunks, and the breaking point — to soak first or not.  I’m not afraid to draw my own line and say I prefer fruitwood over hickory, cherry over apple, chips over sawdust, and I soaked. Briefly. (I am impatient.)  But here I had a big-ass branch of peach, which I’d never used, and somebody had to do something about it.

Enter the UUH and the Den Of Dangerously Sharp Things That Make Loud Noises And Probably Won’t Stop When You Want Them To.

The UUH in the Den, with him and the branch eyeballing each other.

I handle large quantities of caustic lye on a regular basis for soapmaking — stuff that can burn your eyes out and strip your skin like a knife if you screw up — and yet I am absolutely terrified by some of the machines that the UUH has in the Den.  (Note please that this does not make me a “girl,” it makes me a “wuss.” Precision is important.)  When the UUH whipped out the Sawzall and what looked like a clamp from a medieval torture house I fled to eat bonbons or watch soap operas or do my nails or something.

The Sawzall. I sawz it not for long.

After it was chopped into manageable pieces, then the Other Thing was employed.

The Other Thing. I’m pretty sure this is a primitive SkyNet extensional.

This bandsaw is about a million years old.  Okay, not a million, but it’s old — decades at least.  (At least 26, says the UUH.) The manual, which the UUH somehow found on the Web, looks like it was designed by Don Draper in “Mad Men.”  And you can still find parts for it and it still works.  That’s how we used to make things, I think.  So once the UUH had Sawzalled the branch into manageable pieces, it was up to the bandsaw.

I have to hide when he’s using things like this.

OHGAWD OHGAWD

 

 

I have visions of emergency rooms and prosthetics and extensive occupational therapy.  I am a catastrophist.

 

But in the end, we had first this:

Not so tough against the ancient bandsaw, are you?

And then the bandsaw again to get them into chunks.  My first chunks. I was so proud.

Peach tree wood chunks, ready for the smoker.

 

I’m not going to go through all the prep stages for bacon again, as you can see them here.  But this is what the smoker looked like, once those beautiful peach chunks got themselves up and going.

Whoah!

 

I don’t have one of the high-tech, programmable beauties that I know some folks have.  Mine is a steel box with a few vents, a propane burner, a thermometer that’s about as reliable as a politician (I use an oven therm inside for reliable reports), and a desperate need for niggly vent-attention if the wind or temperature fluctuates even for a few minutes.  God help us all if it rains.

Yet this peach wood is a beautiful thing. Deciding to explore one side of the religious war, I’d chosen not to soak the chunks but rather let them start dry.  We’d experimented the day before with this approach on a tri-tip and it came out like it’d been made by an angel.

There she is! THERE SHE IS!

So for the bacon, I did the same thing.  There was no bitter scent at all, no hint of creosote, even with a heavy smoke at the beginning.  It settled down, started smoking evenly, and then laid down the work after it was done.  It took another hour or so to finish cooking the bacon to the appropriate temperature (150F, as the bacon is cured).

 

And now, here we have it, right out of the smoker.  I’ll be peeling the rind after it cools a bit and wrapping it, and feeling it was a good day’s work — even if I do smell like a forest fire and the neighbors are almost certainly going to report me to the Bay Area Air Quality Nazis any minute now.

Maple syrup bacon, smoked over peach.

But for real bacon, what sacrifice isn’t worth it?

 

 

The Sea, The Sky, The Burning Moon

India sticks with me.  During the extraordinary trip in January through Goa and Kerala, I gathered such a treasurehouse of images, scents, tastes and experiences that I don’t think I will ever be able to fully assimilate them all. If you have a “Bucket List,” India should be on it. As, like, number one.

But let’s get to the point.  One of the advantages of alchemy is that you can try, at least in some small way, to bring those experiences back to immediacy — from memory into real presence.  Of course you can’t truly replicate anything; even a video or a photo won’t really explain how that breeze came through the trees right then and a glorious purple sari hung in a tiny booth shop lifted for a moment and brushed silk against your skin, or the sudden marvelous hot, rich and sweet shock of a Goan sausage as you eat it in a narrow street restaurant lined with plants clinging to an old rock wall, the chef an armslength away in a miniscule kitchen where he produces miracles.  Your mind is the only thing you have to really reproduce those experiences.  But you can do something almost as good, by cooking or writing or, like me, making soap.

“Monsoon Wedding.”

 

Now I’ve tried this before.  The first experiment (actually done before the trip) was “Monsoon Wedding.” The fragrance was the tricky part here, requiring the layering of scents of earth, spices, and flowers.

 

“Kathakali Dance.”

 

The second soap was an attempt at capturing the overwhelming sensory experience of Kathakali dance, a swirl of propulsive drumming, explosive colors, glowing light, and an absolute perfection of expression and gesture by the dancers as they told an ancient story.

 

There was another adventure I wanted to try to capture.  As part of our stay in Goa, we visited the “Queen of Beaches” — Calangute Beach, bordering the Arabian Sea.  Goa‘s been legendary since the 1960’s, first as a place for “hippie” travelers, and then as a draw for tourists from all over the globe.

Calangute Beach is one of Northern Goa’s crown jewels.  It is a wide swathe of warm, soft sand that stretches for what seems like miles, backed by a vibrant arc of restaurants, shops, and little booths selling everything from T-shirts to incense to artworks. There are couples and families everywhere. You can rent a sun chair and order drinks and food from the restaurant right behind it, to be brought to you as you lounge.  Music plays from every direction. Vendors selling scarves, jewelry, and toys wander past (I bought two worked-silver ankle bracelets; the UUH bought a really cool laser pointer that makes a stunning pattern of green stars).   And usually it looks just like the pictures you’ll see posted on everything from TripAdvisor to Lonely Planet — bright sunshine, blue sea.

But sometimes it doesn’t.  And that’s what really captured my imagination.

We went twice.  Once it did look like a calendar picture of “The Perfect Beach” — you know, the image that you use as Your Happy Place when everything around you is going to hell at lightning speed and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The other time was a little different.  There was some cloud cover that gradually intensified, like a thick opaque silk slowly drawn along the horizon,  and the entire color of the beach, sky and sea changed.  The sky became first a blue-gray and then a cool steel gray, and the sea gradually shifted to match the sky.  It was still warm, and the breezes gentle and comforting, but we had crossed some line from blue and gold to gray and white.  It was like something had slowly, casually bled the color from a photograph while you held it in your hand.

The gray, coming in.
Calangute gray sea and sky. (Photo copyright Regina Williams.*)

The whiteness of the foam atop the steel gray waves became even sharper to the eye, because it was hard to pick out where the sea stopped and the sky began.  And the grayness stayed as the afternoon went on, the sea and sky darkening further and further, until there was one moment at twilight when the grayness thinned and the moon burst through.

It was as fiery gold as a burning coal. I have never seen anything like it before or since.  I think I stood up, involuntarily, when it tore through the darkening gray and hung above the sea like a torch.  If I’d had a drink in my hand I would have dropped it (maybe I did, it’s a little unclear right now).  And the moon stayed that way, burning and burning, as the light finally left and the sky turned to black and all you could hear was the music, thumping behind you, and the waves.

That image haunted me (in a good way) for months — the steel gray sea and sky, the brilliant white foam of the waves, and the incandescent red gold of the moon.  So I had to try.  I gathered up some olive oil, palm kernel oil flakes, shea butter and a bit of cosmetic clay for richness, and activated charcoal for the color.  And it needed a fragrance that could try to . . . explain how extraordinary this event was — an incense scent, rich with sandalwood and cedar, with hints of jasmine and clove.  For the glimmering white break of the waves, I used a pearly white mica mixed in a little of the oils and tightly swirled the top.  In the end, I had “Moon over Calangute.”

“Moon over Calangute.”

The Ganesh carving usually sits on my desk, close at hand, but it seemed right for him to be here.  Shri Ganesh is a deity of beginnings, a placer and remover of obstacles, and a patron of arts and sciences as well as writing.  I dearly hope he’s cool with alchemy.

* I found this picture at Regina Williams’ site on Virtual Tourist. I have attempted to contact her for permission to use the photograph — I didn’t have a camera with me on the day everything went gray, and her picture captured it perfectly.  I will remove it if there is any objection.

The Calendula Maneuver

Useful and beautiful — the mighty but modest Calendula.

According to the inestimable Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, a poet in the 16th century wrote the following riddle:

What flower is that which bears the Virgin’s name,

The richest metal joined to the same?

John Gay was speaking about Calendula, though at the time it was called the “pot marigold” due to its ubiquity in cooking. The ancient Romans spoke of it and its popularity continued through centuries of history for all its flavorful, colorful, and medicinal properties.  It dries beautifully for arrangements, creates an attractive yellow dye for fabric, and can be seeded for a lovely display of bright, long-lasting flowers in the garden.

But that wasn’t why I was after it today.  I had randomly seeded some Calendula in the side bed right before winter, just to see what they would do, and have been drying flower after flower ever since in the McGuffin.  This plant is prolific.  I wanted the petals for two reasons:  first, they are the only flower petal I know of that maintains its color in cold process soap, and second, they are renowned for making an exceptional skin-healing and smoothing salve. My friend Natty, the Chickenkeeper Alchemist, had grown some in her increasingly expansive garden and gave some to me.  She noted as an aside that in Russia, Calendula skin salves were well known.

The Russians aren’t no fools. Herbalist manuals consistently back up the reports of Calendula’s effects on inflamed, irritated, bruised and scraped skin, minor wounds, and even sprains.  Tomes like Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, (D. Hoffman, Healing Arts Press 2003) , Making Plant Medicine, (R. Cech 2000) and the Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (A. Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley 2000) as well as many others all confirm that this little flower can do some remarkable work in lotions, salves, and balms.  So with Natty’s words in mind, I decided to make a calendula oil and beeswax salve.

The first thing to do was to get the ingredients and equipment together. The bright orange petals in the leftmost jar had been steeping at 105 degrees Fahrenheit for sixteen hours in eight ounces of pure olive oil — after all, the most useful feature of the McGuffin is to maintain a steady temperature over many hours. (God I love that thing.) One ounce of beeswax, which came from the beekeeper a few blocks down the street, had been laboriously grated off the solid unrefined block.  (Memo to me: Next time get the pastilles if you want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome as well as peelers bent into bizarre modern art pieces.)  I had the lavender and rosemary essential oils that I’d use gently to fragrance the salve set to go, and the Chinoise strainer and cheesecloth that I’d use to clarify the Calendula oil.  Now all that was left was to suit up and get going.

Ready to herbwitch!

I’m pretty compulsive about manufacturing practices, even though this is an “anhydrous” (meaning no water) formula using completely dried herbs, so the possibility of ickies growing in it should not be an issue.  But I still wash up and sanitize all dishes, implements and containers, wipe down all surfaces with bleach solution, tie my hair back, wear gloves and a mask in case of sneezles, and of course wear the Herbwitch Hat.  It’s actually a traditional Ghanaian hat I found at, of all places, a Renaissance Faire. I immediately fell in love with it.  Call it cultural appropriation if you will, but I feel pretty cool and competent with the Hat when I’m dealing with herbal preparations because it is simply so spectacular.  I hope I’m forgiven.

Once the oil is strained of the petals, first through the Chinoise (how does anyone live without this thing?) and then through several layers of cheesecloth, it’s put in a bowl atop a saucepan of water.

Melting down the beeswax in the Calendula oil. SLOOOOOOW heat and stirring.

 

The beeswax gratings are added, and the mixture is very, very slowly heated, monitored and stirred frequently.  Getting it too hot will lose a lot of qualities of both the Calendula and the beeswax (in particular the fragrance), so patience is a must. The beeswax will eventually melt. Eventually. Seriously, eventually, although it does feel like geologic time now and then.

Once the beeswax is melted, the clock starts ticking a bit.  10 drops of essential oils — six Hungarian lavender, four rosemary in my formula — get mixed in and then it’s poured into the prepared containers to cool and solidify.  It will solidify fast so that’s why you need to stay focused.  Up to 40 drops of essential oils can be used, but I wanted a very gentle formula, so I stuck with ten drops of oils that have their own known skin reparative properties.

The salve is best kept in a cool place so it won’t melt and resolidify frequently, and with proper care should last for months.  As with all balms, salves, and lotions, it’s best to use something other than your fingers to get it out of the container.  But all minor cautions aside, it’s a wonderful-smelling, comforting salve that’ll come in handy the next time the wall gets spiteful with your knuckles when you’re carrying up the laundry.

Calendula oil and beeswax salve.