Custom Cutting Boards

by Sarah Owens


Over the last four years, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's tree collection has been tested by record snow storms, hurricanes, micro bursts, and now construction.  What has sadly resulted is a ready supply of wood waiting to be turned into something beautiful and useful. 

The stately trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden make a striking contrast against spring crocus emergence.

The stately trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden make a striking contrast against spring crocus emergence.

The story of the cookbook I am writing is one of sourdough closely intertwined with inspiration from the seasons and specifically the 52 acres which I tend professionally on a daily basis.  It is difficult not to form attachments to our woody sentinels, resulting in a great sense of loss after succumbing to their inevitable but never timely death.  To pay homage, I have taken the opportunity to use some of their wood for props in shooting the cookbook.  

Our arborists are overwhelmed this spring with winter storm damage and capitol projects but thankfully had a few minutes to spare...

Our arborists are overwhelmed this spring with winter storm damage and capitol projects but thankfully had a few minutes to spare...

A few weeks ago, I was able to capture a few minutes of our very busy arborist's time to custom cut a few pieces that were lying around.  We walked through our stacks while he pointed out which pieces were specific trees he knew I appreciated and might make for beautiful cutting boards.

Alnus glutinosa has beautiful orange wood when oiled.  By keeping the bark intact, the character of the tree is not lost.

Alnus glutinosa has beautiful orange wood when oiled.  By keeping the bark intact, the character of the tree is not lost.

I chose three boards, including a long piece of one of my all-time favorite specimens of Alder.  Removed for 'capitol project purposes', this was perhaps one of the most beautiful Alders I had ever laid eyes upon.  It's smooth gray bark coated a strong and stately trunk that gave way to a balanced and sculptural canopy.  Each spring, it was laden with chestnut brown catkins, a rebellion against the chilly nights and sometimes freezing rain it encountered while trying to reproduce.  It was a tree that greeted you upon entering the southern gate and promised to be there upon your return until someone decided to end its life.  Its gorgeous warmly colored wood is now my choice cutting board, immortalized with each loaf that graces its surface.

Late winter catkins of Alnus glutinosa, blowing in the wind.

Late winter catkins of Alnus glutinosa, blowing in the wind.

Another piece was a lovely light colored ash.  Most trees in our ash collection were nearing the end of their lifespan before Hurricane Sandy hit in the fall of 2012.  I decided to cut a chunky handle and keep the deeply grooved bark.  

The wood of the Ash tree is pale but with a beautiful grain and bark.

The wood of the Ash tree is pale but with a beautiful grain and bark.

The third choice was a piece of Cedar of Lebanon, a large tree whose seed was collected in the Middle East and propagated specifically for the garden.  As it became shaded out by other trees over the years, the tree's root system became compromised.  With a combination of a micro burst in the autumn of 2010 followed by an extremely wet spring and high winds, it simply couldn't hold itself in the ground any longer. Sanded without any bark, this is perhaps the most intricately patterned grain of the three. I will perhaps use this one for presentation only, avoiding any knife marks!

A loaf of Khorasan Apricot Levain on the beautiful wood of the Alder tree.

A loaf of Khorasan Apricot Levain on the beautiful wood of the Alder tree.

It's important to use a natural, food-safe oil that will not go rancid.  Mineral oil or beeswax are good choices.

It's important to use a natural, food-safe oil that will not go rancid.  Mineral oil or beeswax are good choices.

I am on the hunt for some good beeswax (anyone want to trade bread for wax?!) but until then, mineral oil is my choice for satisfying the thirsty sanded wood.  Laden with bread or tartlets, I am so proud to add these to the kitchen not only for their simple beauty but for the history as well.  The mark of the hand and rustic flavor is kept in their presentation.  For me, using items on a daily basis that have this human connection to nature is pure pleasure.