Monday, October 31

End of Season Blues

October is heaving her last sigh and it signals the end of our busiest seasons. In the heady days of summer and the colourful days of autumn foliage, a steady stream of visitors come to Muskoka, Algonquin Park, the Almaguin Highlands, and right here to Fern Glen Inn. And though you might think the pace wears us down or uses us up, quite the opposite is true.

While our guests are recharging their own batteries and filling up their own buckets of adventure, we somehow thrive on their energy, buoyed by their excitement. The pace is slowing now, as it inevitably does for the month of November, and I know I'll get a bit of the end of season blues. What can I say, I miss our guests already!

It's not like we don't have things to do. At this time of year, Jim and I fill our days with all sorts of things that need doing. Bringing in firewood to see us (and our many winter guests) through the snowy season is nearly a full-time job in itself. Many local residents start the process in September and are well finished the task by now. There are also maintenance jobs to take care of, repairs to make, equipment and outdoor furniture to put away until spring. Jim has his design clients to take care of and I teach a course in self employment for one of the local service agencies. 

So our pace isn't much slower, but it is different. And it doesn't generally include the whirlwind of people from around the province and around the world passing through our doors. This year we had people from England, Scotland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Zimbabwe, China, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, and of course Canada. I know I'm missing some countries but I think I've covered the continents!

We've welcomed newlyweds, and "oldlyweds", all sorts of couples, some family groups, solo travelers, life-long friends, and happy pooches. Everyone is different, yet we're all the same. Everyone has a story -- an interesting one! -- whether they realize it or not. And it's so amazing for us to enter into it and take up a small role in their history.

So we'll try to make use of the empty hours while we have them. And we'll happily welcome the guests who do come to share in the quiet season (it really does have its own charms). Then before we know it, it'll be mid-December; the snow will come and bring with it all sorts of people who will come to play in it. I can't hardly wait!

Friday, October 28

Cornmeal Drop Biscuits, the Souper Sidekick

Fern Glen Inn •

At this time of year, with the days getting shorter and cooler, a big pot of hot and hearty soup is the superhero of supper. And what does every superhero need? Why, a sidekick, of course! That's where biscuits come in.

Like every upstanding citizen knows, a good sidekick should support the superhero, with complementing -- not competing -- strengths. It should contribute essentially to the victory, but not take all the glory. It is content to be simple and steadfast, leaving the complexities and flashiness to the superhero. A sidekick can stand on it's own in a pinch, but it really shines when working as part of a team. Does this have you thinking of Robin, Tonto and Cornmeal Drop Biscuits? It should!

Biscuits have all the characteristics of a great sidekick. They're unassuming and rather plain-looking, but hot and fresh from the oven, they're the perfect partner just about any type of soup or stew you can conjure up. And drop biscuits are super-easy and quick to whip together. Unlike flaky biscuits, they don't have to be rolled or patted out. No cutting into neat pucks or squares. Just drop the dough by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and pop them in the oven. They'll be golden and ready to eat by the time the soup comes to a simmer.

I like the cornmeal in these biscuits for the added crunch and interesting texture. You can also dress these up for more of a staring role by adding all sorts of extras. Try stirring any of these into the bowl after you've cut in the butter but before adding the wet ingredients:
  • sliced green onion
  • snipped chives
  • diced ham
  • diced or shredded sharp cheese (cheddar, gruyere, emmental are good)
  • crumbled feta or goat cheese
  • chopped sundried tomatoes
  • roasted red peppers or jalapenos
  • hardy herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage)
  • toasted walnuts
  • whatever super accessories will work well with the flavours in your soup

Partner these biscuits with a stellar soup and you'll have a victory at the supper table!

Cornmeal Drop Biscuits
Makes 10-12 biscuits.
These are best served hot or warm, fresh from the oven, but can be reheated in a microwave or crumbled into a bowl of soup the next day.
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) cold butter, cut into dice
  • 1 cup heavy cream, table cream or buttermilk*, plus more if needed
Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two knives; or rub together with your fingers.
Mixture should look like coarse meal with some pea-sized pieces of butter. Add any extras (herbs, cheese, etc).
Make a well in the centre and pour in one cup of cream (or buttermilk, if using). Stir with a spoon until just combined and no dry flour remains. Add more cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed to fully moisten the dough.

Drop by large spoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheet. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve within half an hour.

* For the richest, most tender biscuits, use heavy cream and don't think about the fat content -- let a hearty, tomato-based bean-and-vegetable soup be the virtuous partner in this duo! 
But if you can't do that with a clear conscious, use a lighter cream (table cream or half'n'half).
Buttermilk is an excellent low-fat alternative. The biscuits won't be quite as tender but they'll have great flavour.

Monday, October 17

The Turning of the Tamaracks

Visitors make a mad rush to Algonquin Park and the surrounding area every autumn in order to admire the scarlet hues of the hardwood forest. 

There are a number of Fall Foliage Reports tracking the progress of the maple trees—the amount of colour change and the amount of leaf fall—culminating in the status of Peak Colour. And once the peak has past, the park and its neighbouring towns quickly empty out with the collective understanding that it's all over for another year.

What visitors don't realize is there's a second act. One that I call The Golden Encore. I've written about it before and I'm compelled to write about it again because, year after year, it delights me still.

During this encore performance it's the tamarack trees who move into the spotlight instead of playing backup. By now the maples have lost their leaves, especially in the high canopy of the forest and the crests of hills. This allows the sun to reach the leaves in the understory, turning the maple seedlings yellow and peach. The birch trees are sporting bright yellow leaves and their clusters stand out among the bare deciduous branches around them. And dotting the hills, skirting lakes and bogs, the tamaracks are a brilliant gold.

An oddity in the tree world, tamaracks are the only coniferous tree (native to this part of the world, anyway) to turn colour and lose their needles in the fall. They can reach magnificent heights and are impossible to miss at this time of year. I love that they wait until the flashy reds of the maples are finished before they begin their show, so that we can best appreciate the vivacity of their colour against a more muted backdrop.

So while others are bemoaning the end of "leaf season" I am loving my walks in the woods, admiring the colourful carpet of fallen leaves underfoot and the swish of my feet shuffling through them. I'm driving the back country roads to town, where the trees press right up to the shoulder and I can see into the yellow interior of the understory. I'm walking up to the little lake and admiring anew the tamaracks that stake their hold along marshy shores. It's the denouement of leaf season, the turning of the tamaracks, the golden encore. And I love it.