When giving a tour of his Witham St. garden, Marvin Roberts apologizes with a humility that reveals his northwest Ohio roots, “Geez, I’m sorry, I can’t remember the common name, but that’s Helianthus tuberosus.”
- Jerusalem artichokes.
Roberts identifies everything in his garden by their latin names; genus and species never fail; only his common English occasionally lapses.
Probably one of the most serious farmers north of Boston, Marvin Roberts doesn’t have a stand at the farmers‘ markets, nor is he hailed as a farmer hero by any local restaurant. Still, his half-acre boasts Red Haven peaches, asparagus, rhubarb, cherries, blueberries, jerusalem artichokes, alliums from Walking onions to Egyptian onions, burdock, horseradish, kale, quinoa, herbs for any bouquet garni, and a raspberry patch as lush as a rain forest.
A couple of small pots by the door hold a watercress experiment.
There’s not a brown spot or a limp stem in the property. Built upon fill – - for years, Roberts pedaled buckets of seaweed up from Good Harbor Beach – the garden is a mini-Findhorn, a fertile crescent in a densely packed Gloucester neighborhood.
I wrote about Roberts on my blog last year, and this year he kindly invited me back to visit.
With a Ph.D. in Botany, Roberts has taught in four different states. His paper on the ballistic seed dispersal of the Illicium plant received international attention. (Exploding llicium seed pods, the plant’s great evolutionary trick, can shoot 40 feet, a serious “ouch!” if you’re nearby.)
He keeps thermometers in his soil; most plants germinate at 60 degrees. At one point in our tour, Roberts bent over with a tool to remove a rare thrust of what looked like common grass, almost lost to my eye between burgeoning horseradish and rhubarb.
“See this,” Roberts points, “ – sedge. It’s a weed that’s driving me crazy. I know exactly when it came here; I bought a bag of cheap potting soil from Shaw’s five years ago, ‘cuz it was on sale, and it was in the mix.” Roberts went on to explain that sedge looks like a yellow grass but it’s not really a grass; it’s an aquatic plant. My point is that Roberts knows more about the provenance and botany of his weeds than most people, including myself, know of their summer squash.
Because he’s got both science and imagination (He referenced McGee’s great book on Food and Cooking, the Science of Lore of the Kitchen a few times in our conversation.) Roberts is a probably also one of the more inventive, adaptive cooks I know. He told me about one thanksgiving he collected mussels from Plum Cove, and put them in his turkey stuffing. Here’s my favorite story: that same thanksgiving Roberts also collected red algae to make his own Blanc Mange.
Marvin generously gave me a jar of his homemade rhubarb, coconut, and almond topping for ice cream, which quickly disappeared, and he insists the recipe is just a jumble. So I am including here a recipe from Amanda Hesser’s wonderful book documenting her year-long friendship with the gardener at the famous French cooking school, La Varenne. This recipe is a wonderful use for all those quarts of raspberries for which Marvin will soon be fighting the happy birds.
Amanda Hesser’s Raspberry Vinaigrette
1 cup raspberries
coarse or kosher salt to taste
1/4 cup best quality olive oil (very important)
Crush the raspberries with a fork on in your fists and push them through a fine sieve to extract as much juice as possible. This should yield 1/4 cup of juice. In a small bowl whisk the juice with a little salt, and slowly add the olive oil, a drop at a time, whisking constantly. As the dressing emulsifies and thickens, you can add the oil in a slow, steady stream, until all the oil has been added and is well incorporated. Correct the seasoning with more salt if necessary. Hesser recommends this on soft bib lettuces.
*note: if the raspberries are bland, add a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.