“You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charibdes
Hypnotized by you if I should linger
Staring at the ring around your finger
I have only come here seeking knowledge
Things they would not teach me of in college.”
Slowly inching along an isolated and heavily-rutted county road en route to Charybda farms on a brilliantly sunny summer’s morning, I’m thinking about the line of questioning I might offer the farms owner, Paul Cross, upon meeting him. Aside from the usual queries an interviewer might ask a farmer, “What do you grow?” “How do you farm your land?” et cetera, the one question burning in my mind is, “do we have Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) of the mega-group the Police to thank for the unusual name he’s given his farm?” Considering the Police’s 1983 album, Synchronicity, introduced Greek Mythology to the masses via their hit song, “Wrapped around Your Finger,” it seems plausible this could be the case. The above quote from said song certainly was the first time I’d heard of the Scylla and Charibdes, the twin monsters who purportedly terrorized ancient mariners attempting to navigate the straights of Messina at the bottom of Italy. The tale has become an analogy for being caught between “a rock and a hard place,” and as my little German car struggles up the last of the steep incline, I’m thinking his Farm is appropriately named.
At the top of the road, one is treated to a panoramic view of the rugged Sangre de Cristo in the distance among a vast plain of piñon, chamiso and chamisa. It’s like something from a postcard; this is New Mexico in its entire splendor – unimpeded views of the azure sky, Father Sun lazily shining crystal light on the montage, creating various shadows and serenely warming the growing day. It’s a beautiful picture, but hardly the sort of place one would willingly choose to put a farm, but then again, Charybda isn’t your ordinary farm. Basically two greenhouses, one, a hothouse for organic tomato production, the other, a place for a more experimental approach. Currently, strawberries are leisurely growing there, but Cross mixes it up from time to time. He affectionately refers to the two greenhouses as yin and yang, although the organic tomato production is his passion, being a bit of a mad scientist in that regard. As we stroll through the hothouse, I’m feeling a bit like Bogart in the opening scene of The Big Sleep; sweaty, amazed, and a little tenuous. It’s evident you’re in somewhat of a shrine in the hothouse. Vines seem to climb the walls among a multi-colored dappling of brightly colored tomatoes, each with their own name and provenance. Cross gently pushes the leaves aside on a cluster, pulling them forth and cradling them in his hand, “This is an Israeli tomato, pollinated by Dutch Bumblebees, protected by British Wasps,” he nonchalantly states. I’m jotting down notes furiously, barely taking the time to regard said tomato. Paul waits patiently for me to stop writing, then pulls one off the vine and hands it to me. The yellow orb explodes in the mouth, initially offering a sweet, honey-like mouth feel that quickly gives way to a refreshing vein of acidity and a crisp finish. Seeing the look of delight on my face, he reaches for another tomato, this a brownish, burnt-umber-colored beauty he calls a “chocolate” tomato. I greedily bite into and, voila, there it is…a tomato that taste like chocolate at the outset, but, once again gives way to that familiar tomato acidity. I can only muster a “wow”, that Paul sphinx-like accepts, obviously not the first time he’s heard such kudos for his product.
Cross admittedly has an analytic/ methodical mind that parlays well into this unique sphere. The greenhouse is a magical space, a marvel of engineering he’s tinkered with over the years, searching for the ideal environment to grow produce in the midst of a severe weather zone. The Dartmouth grad founded Charybda Farms in 1998, certifying organic the following year. In addition to the tomatoes, Charybda produces a variety of herb, flower, and vegetable starts he sells under the Chef’s Edition label. The 3,000 square foot greenhouse was built in 2002, and aside from being a sort of laboratory to Cross’ mad scientist, is an ingenious rainwater catchment system, capturing up to 45,000 gallons per year with the addition of a similar system on his house. Taking a page from the local acequias, Cross uses gravity flow to channel water from the rooftops to his cistern. From there he utilizes drip-irrigation in specific areas he feels warrant it, supplementing the rainwater with calcium and magnesium to make-up for the minerals not naturally present, also adding vinegar to the water for the tomatoes to get a more acidic pH.
As we’re walking out to the greenhouse, I ask him about the Sting/Police connection. He gives a quick chuckle and a nod of the head that seems to say, “You’re joking, right?” quickly adding, “No, I was a Computer Science Major in College, but I minored in Creative Writing and have always been interested in Mythology.” It seems natural, as he seems the prototypical “renaissance man,” part scientist, part artist, and intensely passionate about his inquiry into the mysteries. “So what prompted the Dartmouth computer science guy to become the passionate farmer?” I matter-of-factly ask. “We need to get our hands dirty,” he succinctly replies. “Humans need to get their hands dirty to connect to something in us that’s ancient, primal.” “There’s also an esoteric aspect to farming, a relationship between a living person and living food,” he thoughtfully adds. “We’ve come so far from that. The media skews people’s values to buy cheap food. Turn off the T.V. and find food that’s worth eating,” he proclaims.
I mention that Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the Japanese martial art Aikido, says the perfect training for Aikido is farming. Cross nods emphatically and adds, “I do Tai Chi, and it seems natural next to the farming.” I hesitatingly add, “It seems we go from being on linear time, to being on cyclical when working the Earth with our hands, our efforts co-mingling with the others that have come before us, creating a bridge from the past to the present. He quietly listens, nodding gently, seemingly visualizing my statement. I realize it’s this sort of visualization that’s the cornerstone of his success, allowing the Anglo “outsider” to enter this centuries-old Hispano farming community and succeed swimmingly, where others have dropped off. “Supermarkets really changed things,” he says, “the economy to support local farms disappeared in the 50’s and we’ve never really bounced back.” Despite that fact, it seems he’s managed to deftly balance the world of production with distribution – a contentious point for most small, New Mexico farmers, selling to high-end local restaurants, supermarkets and being distributed to four states through Sysco.
Back in the greenhouse he’s showing me some grafting he’s done, explaining he does so to experiment with plant vigor and acid levels. As mentioned in my previous post on Aceq restaurant, this is exemplified beautifully in their appetizer, Paul’s tomatoes, basil, balsamic, olive oil and mozzarella, the plate which was my impetus for further inquiry into Paul Cross and Charybda. What struck me most about the dish were the complex layers of acid and sweetness, reminding one more of a fine wine than tomatoes. Ironically, Paul pulls back a tangled cord of vines to proudly display an experimental cluster of tomatoes affected by botrytis cinerea, what’s referred to in the wine world and particularly in Sauternes as noble rot, wherein mold eats away at acid, compounding sugar levels. “It’s great for wine, but didn’t really work for the tomatoes – too syrupy and flat,” he evenly states. It’s this willingness to experiment, to try and sometimes fail that puts Cross above his peers. His dialectic with his plot an evolving process that benefits the consumer in the end. His micro-greens belong in any Michelin-starred kitchen, their consistent, bright crunchiness and ability to sexy up any plate evident through the clear packaging. However, the product is not solely for high-end restaurants, but available to the masses at Taos and Santa Fe Farmer’s Markets, La Montanita Co-op, and Cid’s Market, among others. Adding Charybda products to one’s cooking endeavor will provide smooth-sailing for the adventurous cook. Test the waters for yourself.