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Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton

This story is the first episode in an odyssey in which we’ll be following ingredients from the field to the plate. We’ll be talking to local chefs about ingredients they love, then journeying to their source to learn more about them, photograph them, and follow them back to Brooklyn to watch those chefs work their magic.

First up? Rhubarb. Emily Elsen of Gowanus pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds loves rhubarb. She grew up surrounded by it in South Dakota. When she and her sister Melissa opened their shop in the spring of 2010, their dad, a farmer, sent them boxes of rhubarb from his patch, populated by plants transplanted from their grandmother’s own patch, via Fed Ex.

In search of a more practical source, the sisters Elsen found Albert Wilklow, the sixth generation scion of a family that’s been farming the same land in Highland, New York, since 1855. They liked his rhubarb. He liked their pie. A partnership was born.

And so we begin our journey, along with Red Hook-based photographer Heather Phelps-Lipton, at Wilklow Orchards, a farm about two hours north of Brooklyn near the western shore of the Hudson River, in a rhubarb patch, with Albert.

From the patch…

So Albert, tell us about rhubarb.

It’s a perennial. It just keeps growing, comes back every year. This patch is four years old now. We’ve got another patch up by my grandparents’ house that’s been there since I was little. It’s a pretty invincible crop. After Hurricane Irene, this patch was completely underwater for a few days, but it still came right back.

Freshly plucked rhubarb, in the patch at Wilklow Orchards in Highland, New York.

What’s the season for rhubarb?

It started in early May this year, which was a few weeks earlier than usual. Most people cut it for about a month and stop after that. You could keep it going right through the summer. When you stop cutting it and let the flowers come, the stems get really big and woody. Some people like the big fat stalks, but they’re generally a lot tougher and stringier than the smaller ones like this. When they’re and inch or two at the base, like these are now, they’re just about perfect.

We keep harvesting our rhubarb a little bit longer than everybody else because we’ve got people who come to us specifically for it. We kind of quit doing it when everybody gets rhubarbed out. So rhubarb season pretty much ends when people get tired of rhubarb. Then they want to eat peaches. Ha ha ha.

When winter comes we’ll cover them with hay to keep them from freezing. During the season keeping the weeds out of them is important, although it can get to be almost impossible to keep up with at this time of year.

How do you harvest it?

You just work your way through the patch with a knife, cutting the longer stalks when they’re ready. We leave the short stalks growing on the plant until they’re ready to harvest. It’s pretty simple.

Albert Wilklow, in his rhubarb patch. Albert represents the sixth generation of Wilklows to farm this land. The family moved to Highland, New York from Germany in 1733, and purchased the land they now farm in 1855.

Tell us about the farm – how long have you been growing here?

My family bought the farm in 1855, so I’m the sixth generation. My family actually moved here, to Highland, New York, from Germany in 1733. In 1855 they bought this farm, and we’ve been here ever since. It’s kind of cool that my family has been in the same town since before the Revolutionary War.

It does make you feel like you’re a part of something. Every stone wall here was built by one of my ancestors. Everybody across all these generations has added their own piece to the puzzle that’s the farm today.

The farm used to be a lot smaller. Now we’re doing a lot more, because there are more people to support. I have three sisters. One runs the greenhouse, one does all the jam, and my other sister helps my mom out full time in the office now. The more people you need to support, the more you need to farm, so we keep spreading out, growing different crops, more crops, and selling in more markets.

Farming definitely has its advantages and disadvantages, like any business. But it’s kind of awesome. My dad’s been very good at growing the farm to support everybody in the family who wants to be here. So everything spreads out, and there’s more work to do, but there are more hands to help. Everyone pulls their own weight here, and that’s allowed us to grow accordingly.

The land here has been in our family forever, but the farm itself is always changing. You’re always looking for the net big thing. Like heirloom tomatoes. No one was growing heirloom tomatoes a few years ago. We grow thirteen different varieties now, and people love them. Kale is big now. Even rhubarb – it was really dying out for a while, then the Times did a big writeup on it and everybody started eating it again! Ha ha ha.

Rhubarb in the field hides it's crimson stalks beneath a lush canopy of broad leaves.

So if the Times writes about something, you’d better get it in the ground the next morning?

Ha ha ha. The Times is a big one. It’s funny. A few years ago they did a big story about ramps. To us, ramps were just a weed that grew in the woods. After that story, everyone wanted ramps, so we started digging ramps. When the Times writes about something, it creates a real market.

It’s crazy how things can just explode all of a sudden. The market’s always changing. People are always interested in what’s new. Now they’re interested in what’s old too. When it comes to farming, what’s old is new, I guess.

What’s the next big thing for you?

We grow a lot of apples, so me and a friend have started doing a hard cider. Every generation’s got their piece of the puzzle on the farm. My piece is going to be the cider. We’ll see how it goes.

How long have you been selling at the Greenmarkets in the city? And how important is that in terms of sales?

Greenmarkets have been a really big deal for us. My dad started in the early eighties. I think he started selling at Borough Hall in eighty-four. When he got out of school, things were a lot different. The farm was on its last legs. My dad heard from someone that they were selling apples for fifty cents a piece near Yankee Stadium. My dad was like, “Fifty cents a piece!?” He couldn’t believe it.

So it actually started with my mom and dad loading a pickup truck with apples and driving down to the city to sell them out of the back of the truck. That basically saved the farm. Eventually they found the Greenmarkets, and when they started selling there, with a legitimate stand and everything, things really took off. Most everything we grow now is for the Greenmarkets.

A view of the the farm. Apple trees occupy the hillside, while vegetables and berries are grown on the valley floor.

It’s a different kind of farming, farming for the markets. You get to talk to the people who are eating your product. It’s satisfying. Even setting up the markets is fun – putting out all the peaches and plums and tomatoes and berries…filling up the stand with all these things you grew. And you get to talk to people about it. It’s cool. And if we weren’t selling directly to people through the markets, we wouldn’t be able to grow things like rhubarb or currants. There’s just no wholesale market for those kinds of things.

Another awesome part of coming into the city is just the density of people. There are so many people. I love it. I’ll see more people in an hour at the market in Brooklyn than I’d see in six months at our roadside stand up here. Almost all the food we grow goes to Brooklyn. It’s funny – people in Brooklyn probably know more about our farm than our neighbors probably do. Ha ha ha.

So I know the Elsens have been buying fruit from you for a while. Have you ever had a rhubarb pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds?

You know, I’ve had a few of their pies, but I haven’t had the rhubarb. Every once in a while they’ll show up with a pie, which is really cool. They’re a lot of fun. I really like them a lot and I like working with them.

…To the pie

The pie. Rhubarb, at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus. Owners Emily and Melissa Elsen have been sourcing their rhubarb from Wilklow Orchards since shortly after they opened the shop three years ago.

So Emily, rhubarb. And rhubarb pie. Talk to us.

As far as rhubarb itself, we grew up in South Dakota where rhubarb is, like, everywhere. All summer long. There is no rhubarb season there. It grows all summer and we eat it all summer. Around here, you can’t really get it after early summer.

Albert said everyone just stops harvesting it because people get tired of it after a few weeks.

That’s funny! I always wondered why that was. We kind of phase out the rhubarb pie here too, because people get tired of it. But I love it. I’ll eat it year-round.

Emily meets Albert at Wilklow Orchard's Greenmarket stands a few times a week to pick up rhubarb and whatever other fruit they need. Here, she walks a case of rhubarb into the shop's kitchen.

When we first started, we didn’t know anything about sourcing. Before we met Albert, our father sent us rhubarb from home in the mail. He has a huge rhubarb patch, filled with rhubarb that he transplanted from our grandmother’s patch. He’d pick it for us, pack it up, vacuum seal it and send it by Fed Ex. Ha ha ha. He’s a farmer so he didn’t mind doing it.

As far as the pie…we grew up with rhubarb pie. My grandmother made it with straight rhubarb, which is what we do here. We don’t mix it with strawberry like a lot of people seem to do here. I had never heard of that until I came to New York, and it’s not really my thing. Sometimes we’ll mix rhubarb with raspberries. We like that. But for the most part we do straight rhubarb.

Chopping the 'barb.

We started out with my grandmother’s recipe, and we’ve tweaked it. Hers was a little more traditional, but that’s where it came from.

Tell us about your version of rhubarb pie. How do you make it?

During the season, I pick up rhubarb and fruit from Albert at the Greenmarket a few times a week. We bring it back here and chop it. We actually chop it all right here with a knife. We do pretty much everything by hand.

After the rhubarb is chopped and frozen and thawed to reduce the water content, it's mixed with egg, a special spice mix, a dash of bitters, and a little arrowroot. Here, the filling is spooned into freshly-rolled crusts.

We chop the rhubarb stalks into pieces about an inch thick. Or a little bit smaller. We don’t like to cook it down or chop it smaller than that – we like people to be able to see what it is.

And then we freeze it. That’s what we do to reduce the amount of water in it. You can do different things to accomplish that – but we freeze it. We think that works best.

When we’re ready to make the pie, we thaw the rhubarb. We use about a quart of rhubarb for each pie. We add eggs – basically one egg per pie. We add our spice mix – we always try to create special spice mixes for each pie. People tend to usually use cinnamon or nutmeg and that’s it. We like to round it out and balance it a little bit more. So for our rhubarb pie we use brown sugar, white sugar, allspice, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. We like to use bitters too. That’s a little secret ingredient for us. We use different bitters in different pies. We do Old Fashioned bitters in this pie.

Topping the pie with crumble.

And to thicken the filling we use arrowroot. We use a variety of starches for thickening, depending on the pie. Some are better for some fruits and some are better for others. Arrowroot works really well with rhubarb. We use potato starch with peach and stone fruits. We don’t use much corn starch because things tend to get gummy.

Once we’ve got all those things mixed, we start to assemble the pies. We spoon the filling into the crust, and then we top it with a crumble. The crumble we use for this pie is made with some oats, butter, more spices, and sugar. Then it’s into the oven for an hour, and that’s it!

Emily gives the pies one last inspection. Then, into the oven.

How did you find Albert and start sourcing from Wilklow Orchards?

When we started out we didn’t know anything about sourcing. We just knew we wanted to use fresh, seasonal fruit. For the obvious reasons – it’s not only much better tasting and better to support the local economy and local farmers, but it’s a better price point than you’d get for fruit of similar quality from someplace else because it doesn’t have to be shipped all over the world. But really, it just tastes better. And we make pie here. This little kitchen was built to make pie. To me, the whole point of pie is making it with stuff that’s from nearby and in season.

An hour later...pie.

So early on, we started going to the farmers markets and just talking to people. As far as I remember, Albert had some rhubarb and I was like, “Can I get a case?” He said, “Sure!” and it went on to blossom from there. Ha ha ha. Now I talk to Albert like three times a week. I pick up fruit from his a few times a week. He’s been able to provide us with so much fruit that I rarely have to go to anyone else.

Finding someone like Albert to work with is really gratifying. It means a lot to find someone who cares about their product as much as we care about our product, and to be able to work really well with them. It helps that he’s such a nice guy too.

There's a kind of magic about Four & Twenty Blackbirds - there may be no more perfect place to eat pie.

You’ve only been open for a few years, but since the beginning, particularly at the holidays, you’ve had people lining up out the door, and halfway up the block for pie. Has any of this been a surprise?

Originally, it was. We did not expect the sort of attention we ended up getting. It was crazy. But we work really hard. Melissa and I have always felt that if we worked really hard, and put energy into it, good would come. Most successful people that you see are people who work really hard. Nothing is just handed to you. That’s our theory.

Emily Elsen. Emily opened Four & Twenty Blackbirds with her sister Melissa two years ago, in the spring of 2010.

You know, my dad is a farmer. He decided to farm when I was about fifteen years old. He’d been working at other things, but that’s what he wanted to do, so he did it. My mom and her sisters opened a restaurant and ran it themselves. So I think Melissa and I were inspired by that attitude of being ambitious and believing in yourself and doing things you want to do. And caring about how you do them. You have to really care about your product. That’s really important.

So yeah, in the beginning we were both like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just pie!” But it’s all an absolute blessing. So many people start businesses and don’t make it. We’ve been really fortunate.


 

Four & Twenty Blackbirds is located at 439 3rd Avenue, at the corner of 8th Street, in Gowanus.

Wilklow Orchards is a mainstay at the Brooklyn Greenmarkets. You can find them at the Grand Army Plaza, Fort Greene and Borough Hall Greenmarkets year-round.

All photography by the fearless Heather Phelps-Lipton (who hauled her enormous, beautiful large-format camera deep into a muddy field while dressed in shorts, very stylish cowboy boots and a rain slicker for this piece). All rights reserved.

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