When Kurt Timmermeister got fed up with the city, he moved to Vashon Island and started a farm. Then he started writing about his new life on it. And while he didn’t know what he was doing, he’s done beautifully well.
Kurt Timmermeister opened Seattle’s Cafe Septieme when he was just 24 years old. He’d grown up here, gone abroad to college in Paris, then returned to work in the kitchens and the dining rooms of local restaurants — why not just start his own? His pride did not go before a fall. He worked hard and achieved what, by any normal measures, would be considered an unusual success in the notoriously tough restaurant industry. Septieme got bigger, moving into successively larger spaces over what would end up as an 18-year run for Timmermeister.
But it didn’t necessarily get better. After Septieme was ensconced on Broadway, where it became a beloved community gathering spot, Timmermeister found himself in the very peculiar situation of not wanting to eat the food at his own restaurant. The concept of farm-to-table — and the acceptance of the incumbent price tag — was yet to emerge. Meanwhile, the exigencies of running a place where the community could afford to gather involved cost-cutting, including on ingredients. It was the pallets of pale, slimy food-service chicken breasts defrosting in Septieme’s kitchen, day after day, that finally got to Timmermeister. His turned stomach and his shame precipitated an existential crisis: How to live, to make food, better?
Timmermeister says it’s that icky story that sticks with people the most from his first book, “Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land.” His restaurant-industry disillusionment led him to buy a piece of property on Vashon Island, a short and lovely ferry ride from Seattle. When he got there, he had very little idea of what the hell he was doing. His account of breaking in that land, as it did the same to him, was published in 2011, timed exactly right. Full of mistakes and triumphs and the everyday life of a farm, it uncovered mysteries for city people, while also allowing them the luxurious rural fantasy that, hey, they could do that, too (never mind the endless early-morning risings and mud). The book also was, and remains, a timely primer on how real food really comes to be: plants and meats and eggs and cheeses, with all the toil and joy involved.
Kurt Farm Shop
1424 11th Ave., Seattle; kurtwoodfarms.com
“Growing a Farmer” itself grew out of the emails Timmermeister sent as announcements for the Sunday suppers he held in his rustic-picturesque cookhouse. Drawn in by his poetic postcards about what was going on and what was growing, right there, right now, urban types paid a premium to visit Vashon for feasts sourced entirely from the farm (save only flour, sugar, salt and pepper). Chefs like Justin Neidermeyer (the pasta genius originally behind Seattle’s vaunted Spinasse) and Tyler Palagi (now at Radiator Whiskey) came to the island to do the cooking, with Timmermeister as host, a bit amused at the response to it all.
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The butter, Timmermeister notes, was what people remembered the most from those dinners. Churned from the milk of Kurtwood Farms’ happy cows who gamboled in the pretty meadow right out the cookhouse window, that butter is smoother and creamier and just ethereally better than any other — and prettier, too, taking on different golden hues with the seasons. It sounds improbable, but if you ever have that butter, you won’t forget it. Timmermeister also began making cheese with his cows’ milk, and Dinah’s — a soft, buttery, Camembert-like marvel, named after his first cow, to whom he’d sing every day — gained fame.
Fast-forward to today, and Timmermeister also makes creamier-than-believable ice cream, also all from his own herd’s milk (he keeps around a dozen on Vashon now, including Penny, Stella, Dahlia and Nickel). The fruit flavors taste incontrovertibly real, the sweetness as pure as a summer day; the rosemary must be tried to be understood, as much experienced in your nose and your mind as your mouth.
Timmermeister now sells his ice cream and cheeses, as well as the work of a handful of other Washington creameries, at his Kurt Farm Shop on Capitol Hill (he’s there himself, making the ice cream, several days a week). There you will also find his latest book, a slim volume called “Farm Food, Volume One: Fall & Winter.” (A second volume is set for this spring.) It is self-published — in between came another book called “Growing a Feast,” which, Timmermeister says in his unvarnished way, didn’t sell so well, so his publisher dumped him. But if that conjures up poor typeface choices or bad design, banish that from your mind: The book is gorgeous, starting with the cows grazing in the mist on the cover. Timmermeister was going to hire a photographer, but then decided to do it himself — he’d loved taking pictures as a teenager, so why not? He shot with real film using a Hasselblad, and the results cement Timmermeister’s status as a sort of very specialized Renaissance man, as masterful with photography as he is with cheese and letters.
For Timmermeister’s prose in “Farm Food” pulls you in — you walk with him, through the weather of the wintry days, sharing his troubles and satisfactions, meeting the farm’s very small but infinitely important cast of characters such as Mario, his dairyman whom he considers like a son. Warming recipes of local wintertime ingredients are all through the book, and the writing about cooking is also full of Timmermeister’s contemplative tone, with the feeling of being spoken to by a trusted, longtime friend.
“There are few dishes that embody this place as much as a Bolognese sauce with noodles,” he writes, in his elegant but unaffected cadence, in the introduction to the following recipe. “It just tastes like here. It’s dark, rich, and fatty … Most of the ingredients are from here: the vegetables and the cider and the meats. The eggs from my chickens make golden noodles. Even if you don’t have a farm, you can still make this dish yourself. It will be great.” It is calm writing, low in key but strong, reassuring, maybe a little hypnotic. There’s no reason to overstate anything on the farm — the simple food made with care, the days lived right, and the food all speak for themselves.
Kurt Timmermeister’s Bolognese Sauce
YIELD: Ample for four to six hungry folks.
Ground beef, 1 pound (450 g)
Ground pork, ½ pound (225 g)
Large carrots, peeled and finely sliced, 2
Shallots, peeled and finely diced, 3
Garlic clove, peeled and finely diced, 1
Butter, 2 tablespoons (30 g)
Tomato sauce, 1 quart (950 ml)
Hard cider, 12 ounces (350 ml)
Bay leaf, oregano, thyme and parsley, a small handful in total, tied with string into bouquet garni
1. In heavy-bottomed sauce pan, cook pork and beef together, using their own fat, until fat has fully rendered and the meats are cooked through (between 5-10 minutes).
2. Add diced carrots, shallots, and garlic together with butter. On medium heat, stir together with beef and pork until everything is incorporated and butter has melted. Cook until vegetables sweat and begin to cook through (another 5-10 minutes).
3. Add 12 ounces of hard cider and bouquet garni to pot.
4. Bring to a simmer, then lower heat and allow ingredients to reduce slightly before adding tomato sauce and bringing back to a simmer on medium heat.
5. Cook slowly for 45 minutes until beef is tender and has lost its firmness. Remove bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper. Serve over noodles.
Master Pasta Recipe
All-purpose flour, 1 cup (120 g)
1. Mound the flour on the counter, then make a well large enough to hold two eggs in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the center of the flour. Mix the eggs with a fork until the yolks and whites are combined and then begin adding flour with the fork. Slowly add more and more flour until the flour is fully combined with the eggs. Bring the combined egg and flour mixture together into a ball.
2. With your hands, knead dough until smooth, then wrap in plastic wrap and set aside to hydrate (about 30 minutes).
3. Unwrap dough and divide into smaller pieces. Roll out individually in pasta machine, laminating as needed, until dough is very thin and smooth. Set full length of dough aside on counter to dry. Continue on with the remaining dough.
4. When sheets are firm and nearly dry but still bendable, cut them into 12-inch lengths, discarding ends. Gently and loosely roll up each individual sheet and cut to desired width. Unroll and allow to dry fully. On a hot, dry day the sheets of pasta will dry in just a couple of minutes, on a wet winter day it could take at least a half-hour.
5. Cook the noodles in salted boiling water till done, drain. Toss with Bolognese sauce and serve.
— Note: From “Farm Food, Volume One: Fall & Winter,” by Kurt Timmermeister