James Ernest Shaw a talented man, Chicken Tajine


foto: James Ernest Shaw

Some while ago I read about James Ernest Shaw through the weblog of an other American writer. I discovered that James is a man of many talents and passions. Filmmaker by origin, farmer and  writer. This man has a lot of stories to tell. A virtual conversation began through, mail and on social media on his latest book An Italian Journey. I immediately ordered his book and started to read his adventures in the olive groves of Italy. James most ardent question is the why of Italy! I invited him to particpate in “geprekken en gerechten” (conversation and recipes) Let’s see if we can conceive a dish for James Ernest from the answers he gives to my questions. Needless to say that this willl be an organic dish and olives to be an ingredient. And likely more elements from the Mediterranean.
Who is James Ernest Shaw? Tell me some more.
I am a retired filmmaker of documentary and adventure films. I grew up in the middle part of America, in wheat country in southwestern Nebraska. As a youngster I loved bicycling. I took my first long distance ride to the mountains of Colorado when I was fifteen and discovered that people are very open and welcoming to people who tour via bicycle.
How did your attraction for Italy and the Italians start?
My attraction for Italy began early – my best friend was Italian, his family owned a restaurant, and the food was very good. They also had a beautiful daughter. I briefly tell of her in the introduction to “An Italian Journey.”
Currently you own an organic farm, when did you start these activities?
I became interested in small scale farming when I read “The Unsettling of America” by Wendell Berry in the 1980s when I was researching the production of a film for a huge agribusiness client. Berry’s book opened my eyes to the abuses of agribusiness that attempt to overwhelm the natural cycles.
What is your favorite type of agriculture?
Small scale family farming. I love that small farms not only raise great food, they tend to raise outstanding families and citizens as well. Family farms grow strong work ethics.
Which plant do you like the most and which one you dislike? I am very curious about that.
I love lots of plants, but my favorite may well be wild plums. Once when my father was baling hay we discovered a bountiful harvest of plums surrounding the hay fields. My mother turned those plums into a delicious and very tart jam that I loved eating with homemade bread. Decades later, when I discovered that the farm I was considering buying had dozens of thickets of wild plums, I was ecstatic.
You traveled by bike through Tuscany, picking olives, what was your most striking moment? Many moments come to mind, some of which I relate in the book, but in general the thing that I can say is that traveling by bike rewards the rider with many unplanned and unexpected treasures, those special moments when the sunlight paints a landscape with a special glow, or you take shelter from a passing rainshower and are treated to the delicious smells of a field that has just been plowed and wetted down – I love that smell of freshly moistened earth.
Are there differences between American and Italian farmers?
 Yes. The important distinction is not that one is Italian and one American, but the differences are due to what food is being produced. American agriculture tends toward more mechanization because of the food that we tend to raise – wheat, corn, etc. Olives and grapes require more personal involvment – those activities require people and that builds stronger communities.
You talk a lot on the hand of God in the Tuscan landscape. Does that also apply to Colorado and Winsconsin?
No, the collaboration between man and God in creating the landscapes is not so noticeable in Colorado and Wisconsin. Small scale farming such as is prevalent in Tuscany shows off the collaboration much better – whether it is a rock wall defining a field or an odd-shaped pasture, the hand of man is seen much better in Tuscany. In Colorado and Wisconsin and my home state of Nebraska, the landscape and countryside is more a production of big tractors and machinery and less the production of a man working with his hands.
And for whom you would like to pick olives again and why?
 I would like to revisit all the farms where I worked, but I have a special fondness for Pietro and Aurora because in them I saw the battles that I see playing out in agriculture worldwide, between small scale farming and agribusiness, between farming for love and farming for business – both are important. It comes down to a question of balance and coming to the understanding that the land must be respected. We can get in trouble when we get so focused on high yields that we damage the land that sustains us.
On food, which food do you like and which you would never eat?
I can’t think of any food that I wouldn’t eat, except things like ants. I love tomatoes – they bring out the flavors of all foods so well. I also have a great fondness for potatoes – especially when they go from being in the earth to being on my plate in less than thirty minutes. I love fresh potatoes and tomatoes.
What wines do you like?
I seem to like everything I’ve tried from the Montepulciano area. I also have found that I enjoy making my own wine. Last year I made a particularly fine-tasting red wine from our raspberries – love drinking wine from my own land.
Can you tell me something about your “foodprint” A lot of waste we have in the Western world?
My wife and I favor local food. We enjoy getting to know our local producers and our local shopkeepers. We are raising less of our own now that our children are on their own (for the most part). We are now enjoying buying more of our food from our neighbors.
What else do you want to tell/share?
 If you want to get to know more about farming, or about people, I highly recommend volunteering to help with harvest, or planting, or cultivating, especially if you also receive an invitation to join the farmers at their kitchen tables. It will be an experience that you will never forget.

The Dish, chicken tajine with lemon and green olives
The dish I suggest for James Ernest will be a Moroccan tajine made of chicken thighs, olives and cured lemons. I chose this dish for him first ofcourse because of the green olives, but also for its flavors. I prepared this dish many times when giving a cooking class. A tajine is a stonewear cooking pot they use for hot pots like this. It has a conic lid and works like a kind of oven. It can be used on your stove as well on your way on a fire. Cured lemons are easy to make. Make sure they are organic. To drink I suggest a white Languedoc viognier wine. With its fruity tones to pair the 1000 and 1 night flavors.

Ingredients 6 persons:

4 sweet onions
6/8 chicken thighs
6 oz dryed apricots soaked for 1 hour, chopped
1/2 bushel of flat parsley
1/2 bushel of cilantro
3 cloves of garlic finely chopped
1 ts ginger powder
1 ts turmeric powder
5 saffron threads
1 red chili pepper, sliced
juice of half a lemon
1 cured lemon in tiny pieces
olive oil to fry
pepper and salt


Rip the leaves of the parsley and cilantro. Put these leaves aside in a bowl to use later on. Make sure you do not throw away the stems of the herbs. They will be used in the stewing process. In a flat pan you heat some oil and fry the chicken thighs, rubbed with salt and pepper. Fry them golden brown. Get the meat of the pan and put them together with the herb stems in the tajine pot. Put the chopped onions, the garlic, ginger powder, turmeric, saffron and chilipepper in the same oil and fry. Add some water and pour everyhting on the meat in the tajine. Cover the tajine with its lid and let simmer slowly. Do not forget to add some water as to prevent dish from cooking dry. After 30 minutes you add some lemon juice and all the green herbs. At the end when the chicken meat is done you add the green olives, apricots and cured lemons, just to warm. Season with some salt and pepper.
Serve this dish with some steamed couscous.

Cured lemons

Wash the lemons thouroughly. Put a big jar in boiling water to pasteurize. Cut the organic lemons in 4 parts, but make sure that the lemons are not cut in 4 (loose) pieces. Put some salt flakes in each lemon and close. Put the lemons in the jar and press them thightly. Close jar and store for hree days in a dark spot. If after this period the lemons are not totaaly covered by their own juices, add some boiling water and salt flakes. For seasoning add some bay leaves and rosemary. Pour some olive oil EV on top to tighten from air. Store the jar for a month in a dark place.

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