Jacko is a farmer. He lives and farms in a village at the foothills of the Montseny mountain called Arbúcies, about an hour north of Barcelona. Jacko is a permaculturist avant la lettre; but he doesn’t like to call himself that. He has been practicing farming in this way long before the term permaculture became popular, but he also makes a point to draw a line between himself and a movement, which he casually scoffs as trendy. Jacko is a man of firm values and opinions. He just farms. I like that.
My first encounter with Jacko took place during one of his delivery days to Barcelona. My friend Juan thought it was a good idea for us to meet, so the three of us had lunch together between Jacko’s visits to his Michelin-starred clients. I loved that Jacko stood up when I walked into the room; his gentlemanly manners and heavy French Quebecois accent just added to his charm.
Pushing 60 (in fact, our second encounter took place the day after his 58th birthday), Jacko is in amazing shape and has a shiny twinkle in his eyes. He was elegantly dressed in a button down shirt buttoned all the way up, and wore thin gold-framed round glasses. I’m sure he can be very flirty. Over lunch, we discussed a possible visit to his farm, as if he felt that without that visit, one can’t truly understand him. Though he loves to talk, he is most in his element while he’s working on the land, wandering up and down, picking what’s just ripe enough, moving stuff around.
“A Wednesday is the best day for me,” he said, “because Tuesdays and Fridays are my Barcelona delivery days, so Mondays and Thursdays are harvesting days. Wednesdays, I rest.”
I wanted to bring my family along, and was eager to make it work sooner rather than later, knowing that weekdays in August are still permissible, while September will bring us back to routine and business. And that’s how a late summer Wednesday turned into a leisurely Sunday, paella and all.
We reached the given Arbúcies address and found a typical old village home, made of stone, painted a fading pink, narrow and with many stories. No one answered the door when we rang.
“Are you looking for the foreign man who lives there?” The only person around was a woman cleaning the streets, clearly eager for conversation (I later learned that the village employs intellectually disabled people to take on some municipal tasks.) “He’s down there in the fields, watering. Poor man, in this heat!”
I texted and Jacko came right up, and took us back down again to show us around this, his newest little plot of farm land. This time he was dressed more casually in green pants and a black T-shirt, but his composure is just as elegant. Most of the land is owned by very old people, he explained, and the owner of this particular plot was no longer strong enough to make it up and down the hill (the town is at the foothills of a mountain, as I’ve said) so he lets Jacko farm it in exchange for some vegetables. If only barter were still the law of all the land! Such a smart way to live, right? We are pretty much in between seasons, so the land is not too bountiful right now.
“So what have you planted?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” Jacko grinned. “That’s how I work. I throw some seeds around and wait and see what happens. When I see things that are ready, I harvest them.” I was starting to get him.
Soon enough, Juan arrived and we departed for Jacko’s main farming patch, a short drive away, higher up the mountain, on a secluded and very uneven patch. Because of the in-between seasonality, the land was messy and it was almost hard to see exactly what was growing where. But that’s Jacko’s style, too, and he seemed right at home harvesting edible flowers, and some varieties of plants that are not at all easy to find in the region, such as African cucumbers or tomatillos. Jacko works with some Mexican chefs, Juan explained to me later. So he grows the things they might need.
Here’s the thing: Jacko works directly and solely with chefs of fine dining restaurants in Barcelona. And when I say directly, I mean it: later, over lunch (and after quite a bit of wine), he told us a story of a well-known restaurant group (which shall remain unnamed), which one day decided to set up its centralized buying department for all of the group's restaurants. Jacko got a phone call from a woman who stated she was the new buyer and that they wanted 2 kilos of X, 3 bunches of Y, and 4 units of Z for the next day.
“Hold on a second,” said Jacko, not making much of an effort to hide his frustration. “I talk to the chefs only.” So he did. And he told them it was over between them.
“If the chefs can’t see with their own eyes what I have,” reasons Jacko, “how can they possibly know whether it’s right for their food?”is his very reasonable reasoning. Farming this way is not hard science; yield varies greatly over time, as well as flavor, texture, and availability.
Jacko also refuses to play the market game of offering the lowest possible prices for the highest possible volume of product. When we visited, tomatoes were at their peak season, and we tasted some amazing ones! Tiny yellow pear-shaped cherries, and another variety that looked like and tasted somewhat like an apricot were our favorites. We asked him how many varieties he was growing. “Only 7 or so,” he modestly replied. “Tomatoes aren’t a big thing for me, because I don’t want to sell them on the cheap.”
One of his clients suggested that if Jacko lowered his prices, he would buy more volume from him. Clearly, he didn’t know Jacko well. He is not about volume, he’s into growing the best-tasting produce he can grow, in a harmonious, albeit somewhat chaotic-seeming system. As chaotic as mother nature herself, anyway. If a client wants high volume at low prices, he should find another purveyor; Jacko won’t let his arm be twisted, even if it means giving up a Michelin-starred client.
Those who understand Jacko’s ways, on the other hand, are happy to oblige. In fact, one well-known restaurant in the city has even granted Jacko a rooftop urban garden, which he tends to on his regular city days.
After our visit to the mountain plot, Jacko opened the doors of his home to us. Juan had brought along all the necessary ingredients for paella (what else?), which we combined with some of the fruits of our harvest (can’t get more farm-to-table than that). It turned into a “find the rice” paella, as Juan called it, full of colorful goodies.
In true Spanish Sunday style (it was a Wednesday, remember!) we sat down to feast around 4pm. In the meantime, we nibbled on Jacko’s tomatoes with 3 different varieties of basil, and a chicory salad I whipped together with some thinly sliced raw beets and a vinaigrette with the last bit of a jar of a superb Dutch mustard I found in his fridge.
The find-the-rice paella turned out amazing, even though it defied some of the paella basics I teach to my American students. We almost got rained out by a summer storm, but were able to linger outside as the afternoon lingered with us. Jacko entertained with stories of his youth and the time spent working as a lumberjack in freezing Quebec.
It was also fun for me to hear some bit of gossip from some of Barcelona’s most famous kitchens, which I won’t share here either.
After we’d been sitting at the table for a while and the wine had been pouring profusely, Jacko became even more chatty, if possible, and his eyes even more twinkly. He disappeared to the kitchen for a moment (his first time in there since we had arrived, since the meal had been mostly taken care of by Juan, with me as his sous chef -or really just keeping him company) and brought back two gigantic jars of mysterious liquid. The summer heat had clearly had had its effect on them, for both of the jars released a big fermenting pop upon opening. We proceeded to try two of his concoctions: a plum liqueur and then another one that smelled utterly familiar, but was hard for us to place.
“Do you give up?” Jacko teased. “It’s pine!” Of course it was! A complex, forest-scented elixir made from local pine cones, which had been fermenting over the past five years sealed our meal together. Apparently, according to Juan, Jacko is also a great chef, who cooks in his own intuitive way, how else.
At one point, we realized it was actually Wednesday and we needed to get back. The goodbye felt a bit rushed, after the day’s leisurely pace; on a proper Sunday, we would have hung out longer, over coffee and something sweet, perhaps.
I feel like I’ve learned so much from Jacko already: he is an example of strong values and warm hospitality. I know we will stay in touch, as a visit to his farm with a meal at his home is an experience included in Sobremesa’s Barcelona one-day excursions (which you can check out here). I hope to keep learning from him.
Of course we came home with some goodies, such as more purslane than I could hold in my two hands, some tiny red kuri squash and a huge white scallop squash (an heirloom varietal I’m not sure yet what to do with). There was also a huge yellow beet that Jacko dismissed as not being at its prime in the summertime, and a small Chioggia beet.
We are still waiting on our container to arrive from Spain (it’s been 8 weeks now!) so my kitchen utensils are still very limited, which is no excuse, I know, but I just can’t wait for my fermentation crocks to come. So I took a short cut and cut the two beets into thin batons to make quick pickles out of them, and they were mostly devoured from the jar by Olivia, though a few of them made it into our profuse summer salads. Here’s an easy recipe for quick-pickling almost anything. You won’t get all the nutritious benefits from slow lacto-fermentation, but they will add tang and depth to lots of dishes. I also flavored them with a bit of huacatay, another treat from Jacko, an herb native to the Andes, used as a condiment in Peruvian cuisine, with a strong, herbaceous scent.
Farm-to-Table Anything Pickles
1 pound fresh vegetables (I used beets; the fresher the vegetables, the better the results)
2 tsp fresh herbs, such as thyme, dill, or rosemary (I used the huacatay)
1 to 2 teaspoons whole spices, such black peppercorns, coriander, or mustard seeds (optional)
1 cup vinegar, such as white, apple cider, or rice (I used white)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar (optional, I used coconut sugar, which is what I had on hand)
Have one or two clean wide-mouth pint jars prepared. Prepare the vegetables by washing, peeling and cutting into the desired shape (I used batons for these, but you could also do half moons or coins or whatever shape you like.
Add the flavorings to the jar (herbs, spices, or garlic). Then go ahead and add the vegetables, and pack them in nice and tight, leaving a bit of space at the rim of the jar. Once they’re in, make the pickling liquid: combine vinegar, water, salt, and sugar (if using) in a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until you see that the the salt and sugar are dissolved. Pour the pickle brine over the vegetables.
Place the lids over the jars and screw on the rings. Let cool to room temperature, then tighten the lids and then place refrigerate the jarred pickles in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready soon but try to wait overnight to let them get more flavor in them.
Eat as is with your fingers, chopped in salads, or you can even add to cooked dishes to give an extra punch of flavor.