Pickles and Horseradish to Covet
by Lauren Bell
Photographs by: Katie Noble
Holly Maitland remembers photos of herself as a 2-year-old in her father’s garden. He always had chickens roaming free and vegetables popping up from the soil. Now dubbed Maitland Mountain Farm, Holly and her fiancé, Andy Varela, have taken the reins. They have created a high-yielding, truly diversified and specialized organic, urban farm in the center of Salem, Massachusetts. While the chickens still roam free, this land has transformed since those days in the ’70s, and now Holly’s father, Peter Maitland, is the one watching the gardens grow.
Now in their third season, the farm is in full stride. Since my first visit, the changes amaze me. In late March I had to imagine the greenery and growth. Now, in the heat of midsummer, Maitland Mountain Farm requires no guessing. The rows of crops are verdant and lush; well-established plants are flowering and fruiting. In their cut flower gardens dahlias are blooming; snapdragons, zinnias, poppies and sunflowers are on their way. Salt marsh hay covers the soil, deterring weed growth, holding in moisture and adding an element of decoration and beauty, a brightness where dark soil normally is seen.
Where the chicken coop used to reside is now home to enormous tomato plants and beds of tender greens ready for salads. Andy says the plants look like they are on steroids, thanks to the especially fertile soil from the chickens. There are brick pathways around the plots, begging for you to explore, an iron café table and chairs near the flowers, and curving rows of vegetables densely planted. Even the solar panels that were just being installed on my last visit have begun to contribute energy back to the grid.
With backgrounds in garden design, cooking and art, Holly and Andy feel that farming was a natural progression. Holly studied jewelry making and photography and while she loved the intricacies of that work, she feels even more satisfaction farming. Andy, also a former photography student, feels similarly, for one can see that this farm is designed with artful eyes. The detail in contouring the rows, handmade bamboo fencing and rock walls are all thoughtfully planned and make for a lovely sight.
Additionally, having previously worked as a chef, Andy learned the value of knowing your farmer and of buying seasonally and locally. With roles reversed now, Andy relishes the direct contact he has with customers, taking their feedback and preferences to heart and reacting quickly. They have a distinct advantage, for they both also work in the restaurants to which they provide produce: Andy at Duckworth’s Bistrot in East Gloucester and Holly at The Blue Ox in Lynn. They get to see which items are eaten, which are left on the plate and what is most popular with the chefs. It is an instant feedback cycle, one they found less frequently in the art world.
Through interaction with customers at the Salem Farmers Market and chefs at restaurants (Duckworth’s, The Blue Ox, The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove and Milk & Honey, to name a few), Holly and Andy have found their niche. They grow less common varieties like Indian mustard greens, spotted lettuces, tatsoi and purple basil. Their heirloom tomatoes range from giant yellow beefsteak to tiny pink pears and everything in between. They grow edible flowers to add to their salad mix and are experimenting with chili peppers and Japanese wasabi. Since they only have one truly arable acre to farm, they practice a companion planting program. You’ll find tomatoes, basil and nasturtiums side by side; borage, marigolds and zinnias throughout.
They claim that by keeping these flowers in the beds, they remain mostly pest free. It also assures that every square inch of land is used in the most efficient and beneficial way possible.
What really makes Maitland Mountain Farm a true standout, though, are their nearly-impossible-to-stop-eating pickles and their spicy, fresh horseradish. There are very few farms in the Northeast growing horseradish, a plant whose valuable roots take one to two years to mature. Given the long and unpredictable maturation time of the roots, most farms dedicate their valuable cropland to other plants that produce a quicker turnaround for profit. Since the plant has grown wild on their land for so many years, Peter has been experimenting with it for a while. It was just last year that they decided they should start treating it as a crop to sell, instead of a wild volunteer. They choose to process the roots at home, taking out the labor for their customers—peeling, grating and adding vinegar to the fresh root—by making a preserved product. Last season, they harvested their crop, processed the roots and jarred the mix for sale. While they sold a few at the farmers market that first week, the following week someone bought their entire stock. Their horseradish is unlike any available on the market. Because it was such a hit last year, they have planted whole rows of the plant this season and are keeping an eye out for readiness. Since the plant takes so long to mature, though, their eager fans may have to wait another season. Time, and attendance at the farmers market, will tell.
While you wait, fill up on pickles. Placed in a simple quart container with a sticker featuring either Peter’s or Holly’s scowl, the pickles seem harmless. Watch out. With an undisclosed recipe, Holly concocts a delicious mixture of juniper berries, coriander seeds, garlic, chili flakes, jalapeño and more to make pickles so sumptuous and enticing that one daring writer opened the container in the car while driving. At the risk of pickle smell forever, these pickles deliver. They can be found not only at the farmers market, but at Duckworth’s Bistrot served with the burger and at The Blue Ox in a “Hot n’ Dirty” pickle martini.
Maitland Mountain Farm is learning and growing with each season. While they no longer read the packets to find out how to sow their seeds, they still appreciate their relative newness to the field. This newness affords them the freedom and confidence to experiment with not only plants, but with techniques and products. They are working on tea mixes, pita bread, dried herbs, different flowers and selling all the pickles, horseradish and eggs they can produce.
The future may hold a farm stand on their property, a new chicken coop and possibly a CSA program (a community “buy in” to a share of the season’s produce). For now, though, there’s a wedding to plan, a baby coming in October, pickles to make and horseradish to hope for. Stop in Thursday afternoons to the farmers market in downtown Salem to meet them—the fresh, young faces of innovative urban farming. Get some pickles while you’re there.
Maitland Mountain Farm, www.maitlandmountainfarm.com
Lauren Bell is a weekly contributor to the website Wine and Food Travel, where she writes about artisans and international travel. She works as the pastry chef for Central Kitchen in Cambridge and as a waiter at The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove in Gloucester. You can read all of her articles on her blog at http://artisanaladmirer.blogspot.com/, and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.