Florida Natural: Rusticating in Paradise
By Mary A. Nelen
The winter of 2014 was kicking our ass. It was April and the snow was outrageous. The plan was simple. Get out of New England. My husband and I flew non-stop to Florida to a place called Paradise Farm.
This organic farm promised free breakfast and sunshine. There would be no GMO’s or meat or processed food of any kind. There wasn’t even cell service. We wouldn’t have our own bathroom but Paradise wasn’t expensive.
We are locavores and eat only local food. In New England, that means one root vegetable after another in the wintertime. But Florida! What we didn’t count on was what the flowers had in store.
Day One – Welcome to Paradise
When we showed up at the place, a cattle fence stood before us. Behind it was a huge compost pile filled with rotten fruit. I tried to scale the fence but my husband pulled me back. “Honey,” he said. I hadn’t had a piece of fruit in months.
Skirting the property, we drove due north to a sky blue mailbox in front of a sandy drive that led us through a stately avocado grove. Swallows swooped and dipped as we drove about a half a mile to the guest parking lot where a pair of hounds came out to greet us. We were very far from our home in New England.
The air smelled of fruit and when we got out of the car and the dogs raced around us as we lifted luggage from our rental car. “Welcome…” a voice said. From behind bamboo, a woman in cut-off shorts and a midi blouse appeared. “Thor, Ivan…” she whispered. “Please….”
Gabriele Marewski, the proprietress, had the level stare of a farmer. She gave us the once-over and began her tour. “Welcome to Paradise! You are so pale!” Tropical plantings intermingled with gardens, greenhouses and shelter for workers and guests. There was no air conditioning in the place. Palm trees were placed strategically to pick up wind and fan the humans below.
“We encourage an intimate relationship between the plants and earth,” said Gabriele leading us to the main garden, a circle shape with plantings in various stages of flower. We stood in the center surrounded by greens and flowers in various stages of maturity. These were her cash crops.
“We send about 250 lbs of edible flowers off a week,” she said and sprinted ahead to our bungalow, a screened-in affair on stilts. It was rustic and ready for us. On the other side of our bungalow, just off in the palm trees, some white boxes quivered in the fading light.
“Our bees do their work and retire to the corners of the farm,” she said. Our hammock swung lazily. Inside the bedroom was all white. Gabriele walked ahead of into the room and propped up the window with a bottle of Champagne. Heaven.
Day 2 The Flowers
On the first night, we fell asleep immediately under the whirring ceiling fan. A rooster woke us at dawn and then birdsong got us out of bed several hours later. We padded past early morning gardens to breakfast where a young woman with flowers in her hair wordlessly poured coffee from a French Press into white mugs. The wind fluffed the palms overhead. Flowers from the farm filled our granola bowls.
“Go ahead and eat them,” said a voice.
It was our proprietress, Gabriele. “You close your eyes, breath in the scent and enjoy the experience….”
We proceeded to inhale, chew and swallow wild petunia, Johnny jump-ups and begonia. We became acutely aware of whispering. It was an art curator, a female of about 24 with a boy’s haircut. She and two very beautiful Asian artists spoke briefly to us about their search for indigenous flowers. “We plan an installation about tea,” said one of them. They were in search of a rare flower, the clitoria.
After they left, pushed back our chairs and jumped into our rental car. Our plan for the first day in Paradise was to hang out but instead we followed complete strangers to Biscayne Bay. A Dog from the Chinese Zodiac stood sentry. This was part of a large outdoor exhibit at the Perez Museum. The work was by artist Ai Wei Wei.
The Perez, which opened earlier in the year, is dedicated to the work of Latin American artists. The indoor/outdoor museum sits squarely on Biscayne Bay festooned with vertical gardens. Inside we discovered photography, hanging boats in the lobby, life-sized silouettes, a Calder, a Joseph Cornell and a Donald Judd.
A nap was tempting but we prevailed upon the gift shop where we bought post cards and peeked around corners for our elusive friends. There was art in the gift shop and scarves made with organic dyes. We opted for the café’s display of French baked goods and ate on the terrace in company of a cruise ship docked for the day.
Perez Art Museum Miami
1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami FL 33132
Back at Paradise Farm, we napped in the bungalow. After an hour or so, a hostess appeared not far from our hammock. Soon after people in hats showed up. Paradise opened its gates but to whom?
We learned we were to dine on the farm at an intimate 5-course meal. It started out as a civilized affair. Flutes of local sparkling wine were passed to people from Miami and chefs from Miami hurried about. Tables were set under a gazebo and Gabriele arrived to welcome the crowd in the later afternoon.
“We are in a bubble here,” she said. In Homestead, there is acre after acre of conventional farms. Gabriele extolled the virtues of organic fresh food and took a moment for politics.
“I can tell you our best defense against Monsanto is to grow your own seeds!” A woman asked where she might find some seeds to plant.
A group of about 50 traversed the grounds. When we came to a large tree with pink flowers Gabriele stopped the group. “All hibiscus is edible,” she said Gabriele, “when it isn’t sprayed.” She winked at all of us, somehow, popped a bloom into her mouth. Then she bent down to pluck a blossom and handed it to a man standing next to her. The man put the white flower in his mouth and said, “Caliente!” Gabriele wiped his brow with her scarf.
The tour progressed to the western part of the farm’s 5 acres to sample petunias. “The energy of this plant will put you in touch with your wild pixie,” said Gabriele. A guy held out a bloom to his date and whispered, “Will you become a wild pixie tonight?” They disappeared behind some shrubbery.
Dinner was al fresco and fairy lights festooned the premises. Chefs from Miami were cooking with Gabriele’s flowers and greens. Each course was introduced by a chef and the wait staff worked with the alacrity of an EMT crew.As soon as we finished our baby carrots, black kale and smoked pumpkin, it was replaced by dehydrated oyster mushrooms and crispy potato gnocci.
As the meal progressed the mood at our table elevated from giddy excitement to insurgency. We hatched a plan to stay on the farm indefinitely. It would be a colony of like-minded souls existing on wild pixie energy and living like plants suffused with sunlight and warmth.
Day Two – The Everglades
Coffee brought us back to the current version of Paradise with a puffy conceit of tamarind, honey, ganache of local banana, baby basil and a ginger flower cloud. After the Miami people departed the farm fell quiet except for the bees.
At breakfast the next morning we were served nasturtium with our granola. A voice told us to feel the energy of ‘clarity’ from the orange blossoms. They tasted of pepper.
It was Gabriella with advice about the Everglades, only half an hour away and a far cry from Disney and Miami. Perhaps it was the clarity provided by the flowers. Our desire to get deeper into jungle territory was irresistible.
We drove ten miles from Homestead along route 9336 to the Royal Palm Nature Center. There we witnessed first hand the flora and fauna that exist within the 1.5 million acres of saw grass that makes up the Everglades.
A boardwalk just inches above swamp areas brought us within eye contact of Great Blue Heron, egrets, sea turtles, an alligator, ancient and leathery and a variety of fish, endangered manatees and cormorant. We dove deeper.
At the Marina at Flamingo Bay we shoved off in a metal Old Town canoe and struck out to find an adventure and chose a difficult paddle on water that was choppy. We fell in with an osprey above that flitted from branch to branch in our path across the narrow passage. It swopped down right in front of the bow of our canoe and plucked a fish from the water. We stopped paddling and watched as it flew away with the prey dangling. By the time we returned to the Marina, the guard pointed to a large bushy nest. Our osprey was there, feeding his young. Exhaustion over took us and we limped back to the rental car, hungry for supper of our own.
Everglades National Parks
Flamingo Visitor Center and Marina
$10 per vehicle for 7-day permit
We drove back to Paradise and stopped on the way for some Puerto Rican food in the town of Homestead at Chefs on the Run where we consumed fried grouper with Puerto Rican Fried Rice and pork loin.
It was dropped on our plates by a chef who told us the bourbon maple sauce for the pork loin brought him a James Beard award.
It was delicious, like having a nice stiff drink for dinner if that stiff drink was infused with maple sugar and love.
Chefs on the Run
10 E. Mowry Drive
Homestead, FL 33030
Back at Paradise Farm we woke on the third day to breakfast on a terrace. It was raining and the jungle was even more beautiful sparkling with water. We were served the usual breakfast of granola, fruit, yogurt and fresh flowers. There was no voice. It was off running errands on the back of a motorcycle. We rusticated on our own for the day.
19801 SW 320th St.
Homestead, FL 33030
Mary A. Nelen is writer and food photographer who tries to meet everyone who feeds her. She is currently working on a book called “Locavore from A to Z” and lives in Easthampton MA.