A Magic Forest and Divine Dinner

October 17, 2014 – Introducing someone to Cooley Hammock delights us.  We gave Jim H. a tour of the hammock on Tuesday afternoon.  His reaction?  “Oh, this is SO COOL!”
True south Floridians know I’m not talking about one of those woven-rope things that you can fall into for a perfect nap on a warm afternoon.  I’m talking about a tropical hardwood hammock – a type of woods found throughout south Florida.
You could say that hammocks are found around, or next to, wetlands, or you could say wetlands are found around hammocks.  It makes no difference.  Hammocks are just a few inches higher in elevation than their neighbors, the wetlands.  The term “upland wetlands” can include hammocks, and so can “uplands” – some of what defines a “hammock” is the soil drainage.
A thicket of native snowberry on Cooley Hammock.
Jim H. unwittingly had a role in our finding this hammock for sale.  He’s a realtor who had a home listed for sale in a west-end Sanibel subdivision.  In the spring of 2013, Tom and I saw that house, which was a low-country style, and something clicked.  Although the house wasn’t quite right for us, seeing it made me realize that yes, we do need/want a bigger house.
We intensified our searches and perusals of real estate for sale, and that included looking at Zillow.com – a service that many realtors scorn, because it allows potential buyers to help themselves to information.
I found a 3.6-acre parcel of land listed for sale near the very end of Sanibel, close to Captiva.  It was listed in the Lee County Multiple Listing Service (MLS) but not in Sanibel’s MLS.  So the realtors on the island were missing it -- for years.
There was a “for sale” sign barely visible on Sanibel-Captiva Road, but most people seeing that sign probably assumed it was just another low-value, ordinary-sized lot directly on that highway.
However, anyone who bothered to check it out on the tax maps or Zillow and Trulia maps could see that it was so much more: a full 3.6 acres stretching all the way from San-Cap Road back to the far reaches of Pine Avenue.
Seaside gentian on Cooley Hammock.
We ended up buying that acreage in July 2013, and people are still surprised that it exists.  That much undeveloped land in one piece on Sanibel?  Rare.  We bought it from the family that had owned it since 1925.  Only one home may be built upon it.
Tom and I have a very good idea of the type of low-country home we want to build.  When I was an adolescent, my friend Kathy and I drew home plans for “dream houses.”  When I was in high school, an aptitude test told me that I could be an architect.  And I’m the kind of person who can just naturally read and understand blueprints, more or less. 
So I ordered large sheets of graph paper and started drawing the house plans.  Then we hired Edgar the architect to make them into real plans – a project he’s still working on, but one that is coming about.
We are excited when we look at the house plans, but we also are excited when we visit Cooley Hammock and see the great assortment of native plants thriving there.  Invasive exotic Brazilian Pepper trees had been re-invading (since their last city-ordered removal years ago), making the land impassable before we bought it.  Over the past year and a quarter, Tom has worked hard on removing those invasive exotics (including Australian Pines).
A November sunset.
Our gardener Ray, a tree service guy named Dickey, another tree service company called Coastline, and an excavator named Henry have also done some of that work and some site prep. 
But much of Cooley Hammock remains and will remain untouched (except for the removal of exotics as needed). 
There’s an unexpected historic feature on Cooley Hammock which I’ll tell you about at another time.  This land is a magical place; one corner in particular we call “the sacred grove,” because of its intense and high canopy of very tall palms.
The City granted us the development permit in July.  The current status of the project is “soil sampling/cores about to be done.”  This little engineering project will help to determine what kind of foundation our home will have.  We’re hoping for concrete, although many homes on Sanibel are built on wood pilings.
While we’ve been waiting for this soil analysis to happen, we’ve had a busy week of work and some music gigs for Tom, my new column published in contextflorida.com, lots of meetings for me, a shopping adventure with Sally-Jane for Tom, and dinner afterwards at Blue Windows Bistro for the three of us.
Blue Windows is in south Fort Myers on route 41, across from the entrance to San Carlos Park.  The chef, Christian Vivet, is from Paris, although he’s been in Florida for a long time now. 
I’ve enjoyed a fun rapport with Christian on Facebook, and I always wish that Tom and I would be over there together at dinnertime more frequently so that we could dine there more often.  Mari Vivet was warm and graciously friendly as we arrived and also throughout the dinner.  We’re going to make a greater effort to go there more because the dinner at Blue Windows last night was magnificent!
The escargots were better than any we’ve ever had in Paris; they were right up there with chef Tom Johnson’s escargots that we remember from twenty years ago.  Tom and Sally-Jane also munched on superb truffle fries before the main courses.  Christian sent out a complimentary slice of country terrine for us to share.
The magret de canard that I had was much more tender and juicy than what I’ve had in Paris.  The honey-based sauce with it was a touch of golden autumn, melting in my mouth.
Tom had a great veal chop that he ate with gusto, savoring every bite.  Sally-Jane had the classic beef bourguignon, which she said was excellent.  She ordered a crème brûlée for us to share for dessert.  It was lighter and thicker than other crème brûlées that we’ve had, and it was presented with flaming calvados, at the table – really different, dramatic, and really wonderful.
The dinner was the best of both worlds – excellently and supremely French cuisine, served with American touches – like butter that came to the table without anyone asking; delicious and elegant salads that came with the main courses, but were served before the main courses; and boxed leftovers to take home, no problem.  Sally-Jane, who can be quite critical (and funny), was ecstatically happy with this dinner.

Whenever we miss Paris, we can go to Blue Windows – and it will be even better than Paris in many ways.  Thank you, Christian and Mari Vivet!

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