November 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
When I’m looking for a peaceful getaway beyond the 650, I head north to West Marin county. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and turning onto Highway 1 brings a sigh of relief as you’re forced to slow down and enjoy the scenery — from the rugged coastal areas as you wind your way down to Stinson Beach, to the glassy beauty of Tomales Bay as you head north to Marshall, and finally to the peaceful, pastoral lands as you make your way east toward Petaluma.
If the natural beauty isn’t enough to entice you, West Marin is rife with history and a rich heritage when it comes to food production. Dairy and cattle ranches have populated Marin county since the 1860’s. Most of these are family-run farms (not “big ag” operations) that have passed from one generation to the next, or between families, as they keep Marin County’s agrarian heritage growing. Traditional, organic, and sustainable have become a way of life among West Marin’s food producers.
From grower to producer to chef, the local food system is thriving. Marin’s farmers provide the organic, sustainable, raw ingredients — dairy, produce, meat — that today’s artisan food crafters and chefs rely on to make their products.
The past two decades have seen the rise of award-winning cheese producers, with Cowgirl Creamery leading the way. (See also Tomales Farmstead Creamery and Point Reyes Farmstead Creamery, among others.) Farming isn’t limited to the land; shellfish is also a top local “crop.” Tomales Bay produces some of the finest west coast oysters you’ll ever try — not to mention mussels and clams. Restaurants like Stinson Beach’s Parkside Cafe and Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station rely on local ingredients to create satisfying, delicious dishes.
Unique among West Marin’s artisan producers are Jan Lee and her husband Lou, owners and farmers of AppleGarden Farm orchard in Tomales and makers of handcrafted AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider. A two-person operation, they have spent the past eight years planting, growing, and harvesting 40 varieties of apples on their 20-acre property in order to create Marin county’s only organic farmstead hard cider. Jan calls it their “retirement project.” (And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the AppleGarden Cottage bed and breakfast, which Jan started up while waiting for the apple trees to mature enough for the first bottling of cider.)
Hard cider, which seems to be on trend lately, isn’t new. In fact, hard cider was the colonists’ original tipple. Cider apples — which are more tart and tannic than the apples we see in the market today — were cultivated by English settlers, and the drink enjoyed popularity until Prohibition. The Volstead Act not only outlawed alcoholic cider, but it also limited the production of cider apple orchards and even sweet cider, also known as apple juice. As a result of Prohibition, orchards of cider apple trees were replaced with trees producing the sweeter eating apples we know now. But Jan Lee is doing something about that.
After leaving behind stress-filled careers managing commercial construction projects up and down the West Coast, Jan and Lou purchased their property in Tomales in fall 2007. Their plan: grow their own apples and make a flavorful, traditional English-style cider using a natural fermentation process that required only fresh juice and yeast. Together they built a barn, which they lived in until their residence on the property was complete, and planted the first apple trees. The first harvest produced enough apples for Jan to make “lots of applesauce.” Harvesting for making cider started in 2010, with the first bottling in 2011.
Eight years on, Jan and Lou have a two-acre orchard of over 300 apple trees that provide the apples for their hard cider. In addition, the farm is home to approximately 30 pastured chickens (who Jan calls “the girls”).
In previous years, when the drought wasn’t as severe, Lou has also indulged his passion for “growing things,” including Cinderella pumpkins, summer squashes, and strawberries. Aside from the apples for cider, whatever Jan and Lou don’t eat or put into cold storage goes to feed the chickens and livestock on neighboring properties.
Biodiversity and sustainability were built into the plan for AppleGarden Farm. With a variety of 40 apples, some types, such as the crabapples, attract pollinators and add a tannic (dry) component to the cider blend. (In fact, Jan and Lou keep bee boxes on their property, although a beekeeper manages the bees.) Cider apples contribute tannins and tartness, while the sweeter apples, such as Elstar, Stayman Winesap, and Freedom allow Jan to play with the sweetness and flavor profile when blending the cider. The diversity of apples means a ripening season from late August through early November. Lou harvests the apples by hand when they’re ready, and nothing goes to waste or is left lingering on the tree. Fruit that falls from the tree on its own is left on the ground to become food for the chickens, who in turn, provide nitrogen-rich fertilizer (manure) throughout the orchard.
Jan and Lou specifically chose trees that would thrive in their coastal region, accounting for foggy mornings and less-sunny summers than inland locations in Sonoma county, for example. Young trees, which take several years to produce apples, receive a small amount of drip irrigation as needed during the summer. Mature trees are dry farmed. Jan and Lou also use large amounts of local organic mulch to keep the soil moist following winter rains.
Apples are allowed to rest in picking boxes until Jan and Lou are ready to start pressing.
Using a new press that Lou built this year, they’re able to extract the maximum amount of juice from the apples. Leftover apple “smoosh” from the pressings becomes feed for neighbors’ livestock. Juice is combined with yeast and left to ferment in large barrels at room temperature for several weeks.
Jan uses commercial yeast for consistent results, but nothing else is added to the cider — no sugar, no flavorings, and no additional carbonation. She tests the cider for percentage of alcohol (maximum 7%) and sugar, acidity, and flavor. Adjustments are made by adding juice — more juice to reduce the percentage of alcohol, tannic juice to balance sweetness and so on. This is the art of blending, and Jan is very good at it.
Two more stages of fermentation, which take the better part of a year in cold storage, happen before the cider can be bottled. Jan and Lou do the bottling on site themselves, using bottling equipment that Lou built. Labels are applied by hand, and Jan delivers the orders herself, driving up and down Marin county to deliver orders to wholesale accounts, of which there are now a dozen.
AppleGarden Farm’s Hard Cider has a moderate amount of alcohol, balance of tannins and sweetness, slight effervescence and sweet-tart apple flavor. Jan calls it a “casual drink, a picnic cider.”
The flavor profile makes it a perfect pairing with Marin county-produced foods — especially full-flavored cheeses such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Mount Tam. Goat cheeses are also a good pairing, and I’m looking forward to trying the cider with Pescadero’s own Harley Goat Farms cheeses.
Another excellent cider pairing? Tomales Bay oysters! In fact, it’s my new go-to choice of beverage to enjoy with our regional oysters, emphasizing the creaminess and balancing the briny notes.
Unfortunately AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider is not yet available in the 650. If you want to try this handmade, sustainable cider for yourself, you’ll have to head to points north and get some from these restaurants and specialty stores:
- San Francisco: Upcider
- Larkspur: Left Bank Brasserie
- Fairfax: Taste Kitchen
- Olema: Sir & Star Restaurant
- Petaluma: Marin French Cheese Company
- Point Reyes Station: Osteria Stellina, Tomales Bay Foods/Cowgirl Creamery
- Inverness Park: Perry’s Deli
- Inverness: Saltwater Oyster Depot
- Marshall: Marshall Store and Oyster Bar, Nick’s Cove
- Valley Ford: Rocker Oysterfeller’s
Better yet, plan a trip to West Marin when the farm is open and purchase some directly from Jan. Check the farm’s Facebook page for open days and times.
October 14, 2015 § 2 Comments
The issue of food waste has gone mainstream. Back in July, John Oliver covered the topic during an episode of “Last Week Tonight.” And last month, the USDA and EPA got in on the act, issuing a national Food Waste Challenge. The goal? To reduce food waste in the US by 50% by 2030. Already the challenge has received buy-in from major food retailers, as well as food industry and charitable organizations (although no formal program is in place yet).
Much of what’s reported and discussed in the media targets food waste at the consumer level: the food we buy and never eat, the science-experiment leftovers in our refrigerators, and the edible bits we toss out, like carrot greens and cauliflower leaves. But the consumer end is just one aspect of the food system in which food waste occurs. Food waste happens at all points in the system, literally from farm to table. According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report, “Wasted,” the total loss for fruits and vegetables at the production level is about 20%, (“production losses are greatest for fresh produce”) and from post-harvest to retail amounts to about 14%.
The type of waste that occurs on large, commercial farms often involves leaving behind fields of edible product to serve supermarket requirements for size and beauty. The amount of fresh food wasted in this way is staggering.
But what about local farms in the 650, many of which are family owned and already focused on sustainability? How can a small farm — reliant on farmers’ markets, restaurants, and CSA subscribers for sales — manage and reduce food waste, while growing a business? I had a chance to ask John Vars, who is a partner-farmer of Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero (along with co-partners Mike Irving and Teresa Kurtak) during FCF’s CSA Open House farm tour in August.
You don’t see the kind of prettying-up waste that has happened on large, commercial farms. In terms of what Fifth Crow takes to market or provides to CSA subscribers, it’s the whole product harvested from the tree or bush or out of the ground. You’ll see the occasionally blemished or odd-sized fruit, extra-large heads of cauliflower, root vegetables with their greens still attached, and even roots-on basil.
Farmers’ markets are one of the less-predictable retail outlets for local farms. Market sales can be affected by weather, time of year, and customer tastes, just to name a few of the variables. Estimating market demand and producing “the right amount” is an on-going challenge for any growing food business. You don’t want to disappoint customers by running out too quickly, but you also don’t want to end up with too much unsold product that you might have to take home with you.
One step in reducing food waste from farm to market then, is getting good at estimating your customers’ demands. Fifth Crow Farm currently participates in six Bay Area markets weekly, in addition to providing farm products to restaurants and CSA subscribers. With six years (now closing in on seven) of growing seasons behind them, the Fifth Crow folks have enough data and experience to better predict and plan what they take to farmers’ markets.
While they’ve gotten better at estimating what to take to market, inevitably there are items that don’t sell. In line with their sustainable, community-based approach to business, Fifth Crow handles leftover market products by:
- Donating to community organizations that are able to pick up product directly from the market
- Returning unsold produce to the farm and offering it to the employees, at no charge
- Using it as food for the farm’s pasture-raised chickens (which produce some of the best eggs I’ve had recently)
John mentioned that the partners especially like being able to offer the unsold products to their employees. In addition to paying a fair wage, it’s another way they support the employees’ hard work throughout the season.
So that’s how one local farm is doing it right: taking a multi-pronged approach that benefits the land, the community, and the farm as a business. Have you asked your local food producers and retailers how they’re reducing food waste? What did you learn? Share your experience in the comments below.
October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Salmon. It’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And well, even breakfast. From Safeway to Whole Foods to the local farmer’s market, you can find beautiful, fresh fillets or thick steaks of this healthful, tasty fish in hues ranging from bright orange to almost-red. While salmon is versatile — it holds up well to most cooking methods and pairs with a variety of flavors — the much-publicized health benefits of wild salmon have helped in making it a popular addition to the dining table. (Wild salmon is high in Omega-3’s, making it heart-healthy and an important source of brain-building nutrition.) Oh, and it’s delicious.
Our Northern California salmon fishing season varies throughout the year, but you’re likely to find a regular supply of fresh, local, wild salmon if you know where to look. Need some ideas? Try Whole Foods, weekend farmer’s markets, or Cooks Seafood in Menlo Park. Not only do we have access to delicious wild salmon caught right off the Northern California coast, but from time to time Alaskan salmon from Copper River and Bristol Bay makes its way down the Pacific coast to our local suppliers.
I am an admitted salmon convert. When I was a kid, the only salmon I knew came in cans. In my limited, kidhood experience, the only difference between salmon and tuna was the color — pink, not grey — and sometimes the texture. Salmon was crunchier because there were usually some small bones ground in. This salmon is what my mother and my aunties used to make an Australian dinner-table staple: fish cakes. (Canned tuna was an option as well, but somehow the salmon version holds a larger place in my memory). Salmon cakes would be the core of a “lighter” cooked dinner — lighter than, say, steak or roast or lamb chops, which, most nights, were de rigueur for dinner. (British influence, much?) The recipe was simple: combine canned fish, egg, breadcrumbs, and a few herbs into patties. Then, coat them in more breadcrumbs and fry those babies in drippings (aka, lard) until the outsides are crispy and dark brown, occasionally brown-black. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables, usually the boiled kind.
Fresh fish was not something my mother cooked. She came from a meat-potato-veg-for-dinner generation of Australian women who knew how to economize while still putting out a well-rounded, nightly dinner. Fish sticks, fish cakes, and Red Lobster shrimp cocktail were the limit of my seafood experience until high school, when I tried lox for the first time. I was well into adulthood when I first tried fresh salmon. I was amazed at what I’d been missing for so many years — a flavorful, healthy source of protein that was pulled right out of our West Coast waters!
If you’ve read this blog for a bit, then you know that I’m an advocate for knowing the source of your food — and better yet, for connecting with the producer of that food. What does that mean? It means starting a conversation — talking with farmers at your weekend market, or the manager at a family-run grocery store, or the person in charge of making food at your favorite local restaurant. But what about something like fish? How do you make that connection? When are you likely to run into a fisherman? I mean, most people buy fish, in a package, at the local grocery store (ok, stop that, by the way). But how do you find out the source of your fish: whether it’s farmed or wild, Pacific or Atlantic, sustainably fished or not, and so on? And do fish have seasons? And what does “local fish” mean? All good questions to ponder.
A new book by Paul Greenburg, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, examines some of these questions. Greenburg knows his subject matter; he’s a passionate, lifelong fisherman (not just a consumer) and award-winning author who writes about the state of the American fish industry. The book is an important read for anyone who eats seafood, values sustainable seafood sources, or just wants a better understanding of the seafood we’re eating (or not eating) in this country. The third section of the book focuses on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, currently a rich and pristine source of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon. Within the past decade, Bristol Bay has been threatened by mining interests, potentially sending it the way of so many other natural, American wild-fish sources that have been ravaged by industrial interests.
I finished the book shortly before attending the IFBC conference in Seattle last month, so much of the content — and specifically Bristol Bay’s current issues — were still in my mind. Not to mention the fact that Greenburg made Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon sound so utterly delicious that I was wondering when, if ever, I might have a chance to try it. (You see where this is going, right?) Yep, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up experience, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon was featured at the IFBC 2014 opening reception. Seriously.
Three Seattle chefs created dishes that highlighted the versatility and flavor of the fish for attendees to try. Bristol Bay folks were on hand to talk about their salmon, as well as the potential risks to their fishing industry. It was an opportunity to taste this product I’d only read about, meet the people supporting it, and even participate in a little food activism. The dishes created by the chefs were tasty and approachable — not “fancy restaurant food,” but something you could cook and enjoy at home. Unfortunately, no recipes were provided, but you creative/adventurous cooks could probably reverse engineer them on your own.
Chef Kevin Davis’ grilled sockeye with tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies was a hearty, flavorful late-fall dish, that I could imagine enjoying with rice and a side salad.
Craig Heatherington’s peppered sockeye on brioche with a little sour cream is satisfying and elegant appetizer.
Chef Sean Ellis’ gravlax was probably my favorite of the three. Ok, let’s be honest, I’m not likely to make this one any time soon, but I do love me some gravlax!
Sourcing was included in the presentation; a sign was placed near each dish, crediting the chef, as well as the provider of the salmon itself. Seattle seafood processor, Icicle Seafood, provided the salmon for the the tomatoes and chilies dish, as well as the gravlax. However, the sockeye for the peppered salmon on brioche was provided by a single fisherman and vessel: Matthew Luck, MegJ LLC dba Pride of Bristol Bay. That’s something I’d like to see more often!
So how do you find out more about the source of the salmon you’re about to buy? Simple: ask. “Is this local?” If not, where is it from? If the guy (or gal) working the fish counter doesn’t know, ask if there’s someone else in the department who does know. I’ve ended up having some really good conversations with the folks working the fish department where I shop. You’d be surprised how knowledgeable your local fish supplier (or butcher, for that matter) can be!
Recently my local grocery store had two kinds of wild salmon in the fish case: king (aka, Chinook) and sockeye. I asked about the source of both, and the fish guy was on top of it: king from the California Coast and sockeye from Alaska. That rich, red-orange color of the sockeye, not to mention the “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, won me over. The fillets were perfect for baking and enjoying over a simple green salad. Next time I’ll have to buy extra and try my hand at those salmon cakes.