Peak of the Harvest San Diego Market Tour

When summer begins to wane and the autumn leaves begin their transition, the tables at the farmers markets explode with color. Whether it is San Diego or Detroit, the September harvest is a magnificent time to be in our local farmers markets which have become our community centers, weekend playgrounds and the instigators of culinary foreplay for foodies across the country.

While visiting San Diego recently, I went to five farmers markets and a community farm.  One of my favorites, the Little Italy Mercato, is the jewel of the San Diego urban markets.  Overlooking the breathtaking harbor, the five blocks of booths offer local crafts, delicious prepared foods, stunning colorful fruits & vegetables and some of the best street music in the area.  One of my favorite vendors, Sage Mountain Farm, told me the Armenian cucumbers were a big hit the day I was there while the Rose apples and prickly pear fruit were selling fast at Rancho Lindo Mexico’s booth.  As always, a parade of canine friends, sniffing for samples, create a friendly atmosphere unlike any of the other markets.

I was pleased to see that the North Park Farmers Market is finally starting to blossom, thanks in part to the addition of food trucks and certified organic farms such as Suzie’s Farm and JR Organics.  Moncai Foods, a wholesale vegan dessert company, is now there selling deliciously crafted vegan entrees and desserts.

I headed toward the Mexican border to visit the Wild Willow Community Farm near Imperial Beach.  Over the last three years this farm has grown into an amazing educational center and gathering place for the local community. Director Mel Lions told me the farm is thriving and finally able to distribute produce to the local markets.  They have a potluck and open house every third Saturday of the month–providing volunteers and the greater community an opportunity to reflect, celebrate and appreciate the gifts of the soil. It is a wonderful event which I highly recommend.

Little Italy Mercato’s Market Maestra, Catt White, gave me a tour of the new San Diego Public Market on National Avenue.  It is a two acre site where an old machine factory once stood.  Soon it will serve as an indoor/outdoor year-round marketplace.  The plan includes incubator kitchens, permanent food stalls and a home base for food trucks.  It is very ambitious, but I have no doubt Catt can achieve her goal after seeing firsthand what she has done with markets around San Diego. Wednesday and Sunday markets have already begun in this location, which I look forward to visiting the next time I’m in San Diego.

Even though it is a smaller boutique market, Rancho Santa Fe Farmers Market is also one of my favorites.  Each week, market master Raquel Pena transforms a shopping center parking lot into a magical place filled with beautiful music, delicious food, fruits, vegetables and artisans. I find these intimate and cozy markets a refreshing change from the crush of the crowds at some of the more popular ones. My good friend Akram Attie is front and center here in his Thyme of Essence booth.  He not only sells the freshest harvest of California olive oil and custom Zaatar spice blends, but sumptuous, out-of-this-world Manoushe & Falafel sandwiches toasted on a Mongolian-style grill.

Nicolina Alves of Terra Bella Ranch took over the vibrant La Jolla Open Aire Market last year. The word is out and it has become a destination place for anyone in or near La Jolla on any given Sunday.  There are a large variety of food stalls, a plethora of vegetable & fruit farmers and a dizzying array of crafts and artists.

The market is on the verge of adding thirty percent more space and it is only going to get better.  Of course, Terra Bella Ranch is an anchor vendor and has always been one of my favorite organic farms.  They specialize in walnuts, almonds, avocados and dried fruits.

I enjoyed visiting with Dennis Stowell of Tom King Farms and tasting his giant football-shaped Uzbeki melons–sweet and succulent! Some of the best melons I’ve ever had.

The Grande Dame of San Diego markets is the Hillcrest Farmers Market, where most chefs and foodies shop.  I could not resist buying the giant figs, perfectly ripe passion fruit and the voluptuous Reed avocados from Ryan at Creekside Tropicals.

I sampled fresh harvested, dried on the palm Morocco Gold Medjool dates.  They taste like a melt-in-the-mouth caramel, addictive and delicious. I ordered a variety of heirloom beans to be shipped by Michelle Larson Sadler’s Conscious Cookery–Colorado River, Anasazi, Mortgage Lifter and Borlotti beans.

Market days are not just days to stock up on fresh and exciting ingredients.  They are a rejuvenating experience, an opportunity to reconnect with friends and awaken culinary creativity.  I used the passion fruits from Creekside Tropicals to create this recipe.

Passion-Almond Creme Brulee

Serves 4

Passion fruit

4 passion fruits

1/4 cup evaporated cane juice

Slice the passion fruits in half and scoop the fruit into a fine strainer placed over a bowl. Use a rubber spatula push the fruit against the strainer, working the juice from the seeds. Place the juice into a small sauce pan on medium-low heat.  Stir in the sugar. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until it becomes a syrup-like consistency. Reserve.

Almond Creme

1 cup plain almond or soy milk

1 vanilla bean, scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup evaporated cane juice

1/2 cup blanched almond flour

1 tablespoon unbleached wheat flour or 1-1/2 teaspoons arrowroot powder

Whisk all ingredients together in a double boiler on medium heat. Cook for 40 minutes, whisking occasionally, until thick.

Transfer evenly into 4 shallow ramekins (small souffle dishes).

Assembly

4 tablespoons evaporated cane juice

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon evaporated cane juice on top of each ramekin. Using a cooking torch, carefully caramelize the sugar until golden brown. Dress each ramekin with a swirl of passion fruit syrup. Serve immediately.

Note: Many of the highlighted links above will ship!

 

Living Patio Potager

After selling Inn Season Cafe in 2002, Sara and I began to restore homes. Our passion was to breath life back into homes built in the 1920s with Arts and Crafts influences and handcrafted before the age of drywall and engineered trusses.  We appreciated styles such as Tudor Revival, Cotswold, Spanish Revival and Craftsman for the romantic concepts they added to daily life.

We restored the homes to their original luster and outfitted them with modern amenities to accommodate today’s lifestyle.

As one may imagine, the area I concentrated on was the kitchen.  I designed each one with the home chef in mind, one who supports local farmer’s markets and enjoys cooking as a form of relaxation.  For me, it was important for the kitchen to be the hub of the home–the place where raw ingredients are assembled to create nurturing meals.

In every house, I created a potager, a kitchen garden full of perennial & re-seeding herbs, culinary and medicinal plants. Mostly, I planted items not easily found at the local farmer’s markets or plants that are best harvested just before serving.  They included: French tarragon, thyme, oregano, sage, mint and fennel, tender greens like sorrel, arugula, varieties of kale and lettuces, and medicinal plants like chamomile, peppermint and lemon-balm.  Time and again, people would be very excited about the gardens and the vision of fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, herbs and flowers.

The potager goes hand-in-hand with farmer’s markets, victory gardens and the entire concept of local food.  Kitchen gardens were a part of our history as much as the local farmer’s market.  When I saw Dennis Stowell at the San Diego’s Little Italy Mercato promoting the concept of the Patio Potager, I was enthused.  The garden boxes, available on a subscription basis, enable one to pick lettuce, herbs and other vegetables at home just before using them.

No matter where one lives, a large home or a small apartment, they can take advantage of the Patio Potager concept, which can be described as a living CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)– a parallel concept to the one I used in my restoration gardens.

After the box is harvested, it is exchanged for a freshly planted one.  Dennis follows the planting cycles so every week there is something new to enjoy and harvest. Few culinary experiences can surpass eating fresh picked vegetables.

If his idea takes seed, it could be a marvelous solution for all the wannabee urban gardeners with limited land, small verandas and busy schedules.

A little piece of the farm comes to you.







Farm Tour in the Michigan Thumb

One knows a native Michigander immediately when they use their hand to indicate an area in the state.  This is natural considering the oven-mitt shape of Michigan.  Last month at the Birmingham Farmers Market, Lee Chaput of Blue Water Organics invited me to a certified organic Amish farm in Brown City, the middle of the Michigan Thumb.  I took the opportunity to visit three very different farms in the same region: Blue Water Organics in Brown City, Hickory Hill Farm in Clifford and Maple Creek Farm in Yale.

It was a perfect autumn day, cloudless blue skies with a warm gentle breeze.  As I drove into the Thumb region, rows of corn were intermittent with yellow soy bean fields.  The road led me through charming small towns rich with Victorian and early twentieth century architecture.  This was the agricultural heartland of the industrial Midwest.  Now, the fields of corn and soy are mostly those of agribusiness, grown for biofuels and commercial commodities.

However, the increasing number of farmers markets has created a lucrative venue for small organic farms.  In addition to helping existing farms survive, a number of stalwart city-folk have discovered their calling by growing fresh, organic produce for weekend markets around metro Detroit, which now boasts twenty markets.

As I approached my first destination, a sign read Welcome to Brown City, where the motorhome was invented — no small irony as an Amish horse and carriage trotted by.   Lee met me at the grain elevator nearby and I followed her to Elmer and Edna Slabaugh’s Amish farm, known as Blue Water Organics at the markets.

The lack of telephone poles and wires going into the house were my first indication that they were off the grid and living a traditional Amish lifestyle.  As Lee and I entered the house, Edna was in the kitchen rolling out pie crusts with one of her daughters, while one of the others was sewing.  The house was simply appointed with hand-crafted furniture and quilts.  It was charming, yet practical, and everything had a purpose, even the suspenders hanging from the door.

Watch my video of the Amish farm tour

Lee began the tour at the barn.  She described how it had burned down a few years earlier and that immediately following this potentially devastating loss, the members of the Amish community came together and raised a new barn within ten days.  The 150 or so community members had specific skill sets and the work was completed like clockwork, almost without speaking, a marvelous example of a tightly woven community working to help each other.

Watching the Amish Build a BarnFrom the book Growing Lavender and Other Poems
Iris Lee Underwood

I hear their hammers in summer
the steady rhythm of work
welcoming dawn, waking me
with the musice of building a barn.

I spy them from my bathroom window;
straw hats glowing in sunrise,
blue shirts and blacks pants with suspenders
raising timber from the ground.

They stride scaffolds into autumn,
waltz on two-by-fours like ballerinas in boots,
carpenter belts hang on their hips
as if some universal law says they cannot slip.

Like super-heroes, they climb ladders
in snowfall, dance on the roof
until the veil of dusk falls on the barn,
and they descend in the dark for dinner.

Watch my video about Iris’ Yule Love It Lavender Farm

We proceeded to the vegetable gardens.  The majority of the farm is a working, certified organic commercial farm run by Elmer. The gardens are Edna’s domain; Lee helps her to grow and supply the vegetables, berries and herbs for the farmers markets. The fields were strewn with Roma tomatoes, squashes and sweet red bell peppers dangling from the plants, marking the end of the season.

The dogs followed us to the basement where Edna has her canning pantry.  The ten by twenty foot room was fully stocked, telling the story of the summer harvest.  Canning is a family operation and is scheduled with the ebb and flow from the gardens.  Elmer and Edna’s refrigeration is an ice house, still full of ice from the previous winter, even with this year’s insufferably hot summer. They also use a large unplugged chest freezer which is used as a modern ice box containing a few fresh-cut blocks of ice to keep certain items cold.

Back in the house, the air was full of the intoxicating aroma of Edna’s fruit pies, which were cooling in the oven.   Her kitchen was like everything else here, simple and efficient.  She bid us farewell with a warm smile, while she served three of her eight children lunch.

Next, I made my way past more golden cornfields and pastoral landscapes to Clifford, where the Birmingham market master, Cousin Don Hobson, operates Hickory Hill Farm, an 80 acre farm which has been in his family since 1888. Unlike the previous farm, this one had many vehicles and farm implements in various states of repair and a very old barn.  While driving the rural roads, I had noticed many dilapidated barns.  Cousin Don explained that barns shelter hay and hay keeps barns dry.  Today, it is not a cost effective crop, so many barns have become obsolete.

Cousin Don and I spent time in the vegetable field admiring the Peruvian blue potatoes and baby leeks.  He entertained me with stories of farming and the common-sense relationship farmers have with Mother Nature.  As we stood in the field, it felt as though every inch of his farm lived and breathed history and I could feel the deep connection he had with his land.  I could have listened to his stories all day, but it was time to get to the next farm.  He sent me off with some beautiful tomatoes to use the next day in my cooking demonstration on Channel 7.

Yale was nearly eight miles from Clifford.  Compared to the other two farms, Maple Creek Farm was cranking.  As I walked up, I was again greeted by curious dogs who loudly announced my arrival.  Michelle Lutz was tying hundreds of bunches of basil, while a few people were washing squash in what looked like a large apple-washing machine.  They were preparing the 200 CSA boxes which needed to be delivered the next day.

It had been a tough year for Maple Creek Farm with unusually hot days and little rain.  According to Michelle, farms just a few miles away had plenty of rain, but the cloud pattern did not unload on this area.  Michelle is one of the most dedicated farmers I know.  She is active in the community and shares her knowledge and perspective at the markets, events and educational venues.  She reaches out in a way which endears people to the farm and the idea of organics.

We hopped into her ATV wagon and took a tour.  Michelle pointed out one plot after another that had been lost to the weather.  Although the farm is completely irrigated and the well pumped day and night for a month, they still could not keep up.  I looked at the weather map on my iphone and tried to comfort her with the prediction of rain.  As I drove away, I promised to visit her at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.  When I did, she told me my prediction of rain was right, ensuring that she could fulfill her farmers market and CSA commitments for the duration of the season.  The ups and downs of weather makes Michigan farmers tough and adaptable to adverse circumstances.

Connecting to the land through farmers like these is one of the simple joys of life.  I encourage everyone to run, not walk, to your nearest farmers market and remember to connect the dots with your food, know where your food comes from and support your local farmers!

My interview on TV5 Grosse Pointe talking about the farms, markets and Autumn harvest


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Ideal Gathering Places

Farmers markets are ideal gathering places within a community, a custom which goes back to the beginning of humanity.  It is a niche where like-minded enthusiasts can gather and accomplish a variety of community goals centered around fresh food, gardening and farming. Farmers markets are becoming more and more popular across the country, especially with sustainable and organic foods (see links).  At the Hillcrest Farmers Market, one of the largest in San Diego, many of the patrons are very active in their community and are at the market to connect with the farmers.

Although the idea of going to local farm markets is an ongoing tradition dated to our ancient origins, this part of the modern food revolution is notable because our society has strayed so far from a local-based economy. The local concept goes well beyond the economic model by getting people to the farms, teaching them how to grow food, how to eat it and, in the process, getting their hands into the soil.  The result is a healthy respect for the land, the food and how it affects our physical, mental and spiritual health, thus helping people understand a natural definition of quality. When a “local” mindset is incorporated into a daily lifestyle, we connect with the planet, food and people in a way rarely experienced in modern urban society.  Like a human version of being “a fish out of water,” we are not in our natural element until we shop, eat and live locally.

With globalization, many of the products and foods which were formerly regional specialties are now in our backyard or at least in a market down the street. Learning about the cultures and traditions connected to these foods allows us to experience them in a similar manner as the original. This is not only aesthetically important, but intertwined on every level with our health. At the Hillcrest Market, there are a number of opportunities to interact with farmers and their land in order to learn and connect. Here are three options in no particular order:

Sage Mountain Farm offers the Inland Empire CSA where one can invest in the land, usually through a weekly fee, and get a share of the organic produce from it. CSA’s are becoming popular across the country and in San Diego, offer a real year round alternative to regular grocery shopping while dealing directly with a farmer.

La Milpa Organica is a 5 acre organic farm near Escondido. Owner Barry Logan is one of the agricultural sages of the Hillcrest Market and he offers student internships to help people learn about organic farming. He also has a CSA and hosts a potluck/open house every third Saturday of the month.

San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project holds classes is a variety of sustainable practices such as grey water systems and building adobe brick ovens. Their main mission is to help people understand and get involved in sustainable food production. Their mission statement says: “San Diego Roots was formed to strengthen the local food movement in the San Diego region and to create a sustainable urban-rural partnership that brings healthy local food to our communities and sustains the working landscapes and people that feed us.”

So, the next time you are at a Farmers Market, don’t just look at the fruits, vegetables and food products—look to the farmers. By working with them and learning what they have to teach, the degree of separation between you and the land is minimized. The food you prepare and consume will have added meaning, leading to better health and overall well-being.

Red Walnuts

It was a quiet Sunday morning two days after Christmas and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.  For the first time this year, I pulled into the Hillcrest Farmers Market parking lot and found a space immediately.  Even though many of the regular vendors take this week off, days like this at the market can provide opportunity for new discoveries.  What happens is, the market master offers the farmers on his waiting list, who often have a regular presence at other markets, the opportunity to sell their wares on this day at the coveted Hillcrest Market. This brings in a variety of new and unusual products.
Terra Bella Ranch was one of the “new” vendors this day.  Jeff and Nicolina Alves are second generation farmers with agricultural degrees and are dedicated to organic and sustainable farming.  Their booth was full of information, including a “daily feed-your-brain” product sheet and descriptions of their wares.  The written information was bolstered by their enthusiasm and knowledgeable chit-chat.
As I surveyed their table, I felt as though I had discovered gold.  Right before me were packages of ruby-red walnuts.  Jeff explained that these treasures, developed through natural hybrid methods, take seven to eight years to produce fruit compared to the normal three years.  Jeff told me there are groves scattered around California, the biggest being no larger than five acres, thus making these delectable jewels very rare.
The sign proclaimed:
“The Red Walnut is also known as the Livermore variety.  The Red Walnut is an English Walnut with a mild flavor similar to the Chandler Walnut.  It is naturally grown with a beautiful burgundy/red wine colored skin making them a perfect addition for salads, cheese plates or baking.  Walnuts are the HEALTHIEST of all nuts”
After my initial “wow” over the red walnuts, I began to notice the other items on their table–Chandler walnuts, apricots and almonds, all fresh and relatively local (some are grown further north in California).  I felt like I hit the jackpot and bought a bag of everything.  Because the oils in nuts are delicate, creating a relatively short shelf life, most of us have become used to nut meats that are not at the peak of freshness and often a little rancid.  I usually refrigerate or freeze them to avoid this.  Using freshly-harvested nuts when cooking makes a world of difference, providing subtle flavors that are usually not present when using store-bought varieties.
When I arrived back at the house, I set the ruby-red walnuts out for everyone to see and taste.  At first, they were intimidated by their vibrant color, but decided to take a chance and try them.  The nuts were sweet and velvety with a pleasing walnut-flavor and did not have the slightly bitter aftertaste characteristic of many walnut varieties.  This made it necessary to refill the bowl within a matter of minutes…..
For more information about Terra Bella Ranch, mail-order info and a list of all the markets they sell at, contact Jeff and Nicolina at terrabellaranch@gmail.com.

Topsoil Tales… …or Nourishment from the Ground up

weed it and reap

Discovering life in earth…
Growing up, I often noticed my father’s dog-eared copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening laying about in handy locations with scraps of paper marking pages.  He was a devoted organic gardener who discovered the earth at the age of 30 and incorporated it into his life from then forward.  The key to his bountiful gardens was soil development.

scan0090

In the beginning, most of his prospective plots were full of weeds and clay, allowing no drainage. Within a year or two, each garden would become resplendent with vitality, full of color and abounding with supportive wildlife.  Early on, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of plucking herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini flowers and discovered the tremendous difference it made in the food.

scan0085Beyond the surface…

My father saw his gardens as something more than a source of food.  He interacted with them personally and even believed that a weed has the same beauty (and right) as chosen species and used them decoratively throughout his gardens.  Perhaps this was inherited from his mother who scoured the neighborhood every spring for wild dandelion greens and young tender grape leaves.  He encouraged bees, butterflies, frogs and other denizens of the land to join his garden community.  He planted food for foraging animals, such as rabbit and deer, to provide an alternative to his plot without denying their natural hunger.  Over the years, his gardens turned into lush havens and he could often be found admiring the beauty and life of the plants.  Sometimes he would speak to a plant, coaxing it along in a welcoming manner.  Most often he just enjoyed the contrasts in his cultivated spectacle, between light and color or scent and sound. In the last couple of years he was unable to maintain his own garden, but could often be found in my garden, picking weeds and waxing romantically about a flower, bird or flavor.  His legacy continues in my own gardens and my approach to food.  He taught me how to coax life from the earth and those residing upon it.

Picking weeds NJ 1991 Top of the soil to you…
Soil development is critical to growing  healthy food.  Decomposition,  side by side with fermentation,  are  how food products change through production of enzymes, thus creating compost.  Living organic soils contain key nutrients and minerals which are passed on to us through the food grown in them.  History has demonstrated time and again when civilizations over-cultivate the land, it becomes depleted of nutrients and results in societal decline.  Over the last 200 years in the USA alone, the average topsoil layer has shrunk from twenty inches to six.  The current rate of depletion is one inch every sixteen years.  At this rate, local production will not be able to sustain the population in a few short decades.  At its own pace, it takes nature 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil.  As long as we maintain methods of growing that strip the land of nutrients, healthy organic food will become an expensive commodity only the select few can afford.

For the love of compost…
Not long after purchasing Inn Season Café, I was able to buy the house across the street from the restaurant.  My parents moved into it to help with the restaurant as well as care for my son.  From the start, my father saw the challenge of a neglected yard and began plotting the gardens.  Excited by the source of nutrients nearby (my restaurant), the first thing he built was a giant compost facility with two side by side bins, each holding four to five yards of soil. Healthy development of soil relies on recycling food products back into the earth, primarily through some form of composting.  There is a direct link between nutrients and how the soil is tended. Consulting his Rodale book, he developed an ideal “recipe” for compost and requested buckets full of kale stems, lettuce trimmings and orange peels.  Soon, his bins were “cooking” and the following spring he began  hand-feeding the garden, turning compost into the soil one shovelful at a time.  The plants quickly responded and soon the ragged yard became a lush paradise resplendent with ever changing colors and plentiful herbs.  Years later, they moved out and I moved in, dismantling the compost bins, spreading them and re-landscaping with defined plots, patio, paths and two ponds.   The soil was so rich it did not matter what I planted, everything grew resplendently.  It was indeed my “secret garden” (see article below).

San Diego 12 2007 062

In loving memory of Spyros Vutetakis

1921 -2009

www.spyrosvutetakis.com

 

 

Spicy Almond Creamed Corn

almond-creamed-corn.jpg

This year, the peak of the corn harvest has passed.  Still, just before frost, there are still fresh ears available that are a little tougher, but retain some of the sweetness.  This recipe is ideal with peak harvest corn, but is also a good way to use any fresh corn. The level of spiciness may be adjusted by the amount of jalapeno used, even to the point of removing it entirely.

Serves 6

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and minced

2 1/2 cups sweet corn, cut off the cob

1/2 cup sweet onions, finely diced

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 cup water

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 1/2 cups plain soy milk

1/2 cup almond flour

1/4 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground

Heat oil in a saute pan on medium heat, then add jalapeno, cook for 10 seconds and add corn and onions.  Cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes until corn starts to lightly bown around the edges. Stir in salt, water, Dijon, soy milk, almond flour and white pepper.  Cook until liquid becomes creamy.  Serve hot as a side dish.

Swiss Chard

swiss-chard.jpg 

Popular throughout the Mediterranean, Swiss chard is thought to originate in Sicily and is widely available throughout the U.S.

Swiss chard has a very specific taste that ends to take over any dish it is put in. While pleasant, sometimes a different flavor and use is desired.  This recipe is just that.  It is a variation of the Sicilian eggplant relish, caponata.  Onions, dried cherries and balsamic vinegar create a sweet and sour effect that works with the chard, making a delightful condiment or side dish.


Sicilian Swiss Chard

Serves 6

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 sweet onions, sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (omit for a milder version)

1/4 cup dried cherries

1/4 cup slivered raw almonds

1 large bunch Swiss chard, stemmed and thinly sliced (4 cups packed)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper 

In a saute pan on medium low heat cook oil, onions and crushed red pepper flakes until the onions are clear. Add almonds and cook another minute, then add remaining ingredients.  Cook, covered at a low temperature until the Swiss chard is tender and the liquid gone, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Serve warm or cold.  Will keep in a refrigerator up to 3 days and is excellent for antipasti or picnics.