After our long winters, we Wisconsinites greet summer with abandon. Just being out in the sunshine is reason enough to celebrate, and if you go to the north side's Troy Gardens on Aug. 12, you will find a celebration.
Troy Gardens' Savor the Summer Festival will feature music, cooking demonstrations, gardening workshops, kids' activities and picnic lunches fresh from the farm. The festival also will give you the opportunity to try, among other things, the unsavory-sounding fungus corn smut, more eloquently known as huitlacoche, which is cultivated and sold at Troy Gardens.
Even after the opening of a new grocery store, Pierce's, and the return of the Northside Farmers' Market for a second season, the north side's local food scene remains unexplored by many Madisonians. Executive director Sundee Wislow describes Troy Gardens as Madison's "hidden treasure," but she hopes the gardens will be less hidden after their proverbial doors are opened for the festival next weekend.
"We want to put Troy Gardens on the Madison map, so people will use [us] as a resource to get out onto the land and enjoy all that we have to offer," she says.
Tucked away on the 500 block of Troy Drive, Troy Gardens is a rarity, an urban organic farm. It sits on 31 acres of land formerly owned by Mendota Mental Health Institute and, in addition to the farm, includes community garden plots, prairie and woodland restorations, and mixed-income affordable housing.
Garden plots at Troy currently are tended by 340 families, and over 100 people receive weekly boxes of farm produce through a community-supported agriculture program. Vegetables from Troy Gardens also are available at a weekly farm stand there, as well as at the East Side and Northside farmers' markets.
The north side is a diverse place, and you can see that in the variety of vegetables growing in Troy Gardens' fields. Many plots are filled with herbs and vegetables not always seen in other parts of the city, like lemongrass, coriander, Chinese broccoli and bitter melon.
There is an especially strong Hmong presence at the gardens, and planners have created a special Hmong herb garden with rows of plants native to Laos and Vietnam. Many of these will be featured at the festival, in cooking demonstrations by Hmong gardeners, so you can learn how to bring out, for example, the flavor of lemongrass.
Back to smut: Huitlacoche is a centuries-old Mexican delicacy, a mushroom that grows naturally on ears of corn. Farmers at Troy Gardens recently began cultivating huitlacoche in an effort to reach out to the neighboring Latino community. In certain refined culinary circles, corn smut has joined the ranks of another epicurean fungus, the truffle ' some even call huitlacoche the Mexican truffle.
So don't let its unappealing name keep you from giving corn smut a try during the Savor the Summer Festival, because fresh huitlacoche is tough to find, and delicious.