Friday, August 27, 2010

Mendocino Lives Local

I am away for a little while, and I wasn't sure what I would find to write about during this trip to the West coast. What I found on the first leg was quite a treat, though, so I figured I'd pass on some of those notes. We were in Mendocino County, California, a few hours north of San Francisco, south of the Redwoods National Park, and along the coast. Having flown into Sacramento and driven nearly four hours to get to the hotel, we had already seen an incredible variety in landscapes.

North of Sacramento everything was agriculture. No surprise there, of course. But, a surprise to me was how big the fields were and how few inhabitants. Where in Central Maryland, the countryside is dotted with small farms and farm buildings, while not close together, aren't that far apart either. Guessing measurements is certainly not my strong suit, but I figure in Carroll County, even in heavily farmed area, you have farms that are 5-100 acres and houses along them. Not the case in this part of northern California. The sunflower, corn, and grape fields stretched out as far as the eye could see and along Interstate 5 going north, we were surprised by the occasional farmhouse or other building. This is BigAg.

The other thing that was interesting was that it was farm land at all. What wasn't part of the crop fields was bone dry brown in color. And the hills to our West were clearly high desert. Brown and full of low lying scrubby bushes, or simply bare ground. I didn't see large overhead irrigation systems, but there must be massive irrigation to make those crops work. The sunflowers had all gone to seed and were dying down, but there were large orchards, corn fields, grapes, beet fields, and other things we didn't recognize at 65mph.

We turned West and headed over the mountains that separate that flatland from the coast. Another hour or two of windy roads, and we suddenly found ourselves on the edge of green and Redwood trees. Logging trucks started passing by. Making our way through the shaded forest, we finally came out into the sunlight again and directly into Pacific Highway 1, running North-South along the coast. We had made it to Fort Bragg and Mendocino County.

A quick stop into the visitor's center. We were met by signs that said "Buy Local. Think Local. Be Local. Mendocino County." And brochures for "America's Greenest Wine Region". Lots of organic restaurants. and advertisements for the coast's farmer's markets. In a few days, we were able to check out a little of the wine region, the farmer's market, and discover local candy cap mushroom ice cream.

According to the advertising, the Mendocino wine growers are proud to grow sustainably and organically. Their figures state that in 2008, 22 wineries use sustainable practices, 28 grow organically, and 20 are certified organic, six are certified biodynamic, ten are fish-friendly certified (nope, no idea what that means), and one uses 100% solar energy. We drove to one of the county's wine appelations, the Anderson Valley, to check it out. Not wanting to subject the family to too much wine tasting, we just headed out in the car and checked out three wineries based on their name or the look of the tasting room as we went past.  I wasn't sure what to expect of this region, and given all the Big Ag was saw near Sacramento, I figured there would be a lot of Big Wine. Wrong.

Our first stop was Toulouse Winery, pronounced "Too Loose". We chose it because it had a cool duck motif on the sign, which later we discovered was meant to be a goose. It was still cool. This is a very small winery in great environs. They make about six wines, using their own or other Anderson Valley farmer's grapes. The area terroir is similar to the Alsatian area of France, so the primary grape is Pinot Noir, and there is a lot of Muscat and Gewurztraminer. We also saw Riesling and Zinfandel at each place, with some Pinot Gris. Toulouse Winery doesn't take itself too seriously. It has adorable t-shirts with the duck/goose in a frenzied pose that say "Too Tense? Toulouse Pinot Noir", and another with a drunken goose holding a wine glass, "Got Too Loose." But their wines were good too. I'm not a huge Pinot fan, but I did like all the ones I tried that day reasonably well. They all seem to make dry muscats, which were indeed dry, but still tasted like muscat; not my favourite. I found a few good Zins and Sauvignon Blancs along the way.

Our second stop was the larger Navarro Winery, or at least it feels larger. It feels more commercial, and I think indeed, it is larger. But they too only sell direct. And they don't ship to Maryland, unfortunately. They have a slightly larger selection of wine, and they sell gewurztraminer and pinot noir grape juice, which are fabulous. All of these wineries were kid friendly, offering them their own drink of some kind or another. The estate grown Pinot Noir at Navarro was absolutely fabulous. They were selling futures on the current vintage, which would be available in 2012 for pick up. Something I hadn't seen before. Large gardens outside gave kids something to do after they downed the grape juice.

Finally, we ended up a Handley Cellars, a woman-founded and owned winery over 30 years in business.  The vintner and co-owner, Milla, is featured in the book Women of Wine. They have some certified organic fields, and they have been practicing organic since the beginning. I asked about how they handle fungus issues, which seem like they would be huge in an area that gets so much fog. She said they use sulfur, which is okay for organic gardening, and that this year, they have had to because it has been so cold. They get grapes from the Anderson Valley, but they also grow in Sonoma and incorporate those into their wines. Like the others in the Anderson Valley, they were heavy on the Pinot.  The woman helping us heard we were in Fort Bragg, and recommended we try the local candy cap mushroom ice cream there. So, off we went.

Cowlicks is a handmade ice cream on Main street in Fort Bragg. It has a huge array of flavours, but the most intriguing was definitely ice cream made from locally grown candy cap mushrooms. It tastes like maple. Exactly like maple. Except there are small pieces of mushrooms in the ice cream, so you are aware it's not maple. This place was like a few other places we ate in the area; full of good vibes.

On Wednesday, we visited the Fort Bragg farmer's market. Similar in size to ours in Westminster, it was clearly an attraction for locals and tourists alike. I wasn't sure what to expect, because the Mendocino coast sure doesn't look like a place you can grow food. I think several people had come from further inland, but within 30 miles range. They are behind us in the growing season, with farmer's offering the last of the strawberries and the first of the blueberries for the year. There was tons of garlic - I think I saw six varieties - and at great prices. I almost went home with a brade of fifteen large heads for twenty bucks.  One organic farm from Fort Bragg boasted potatoes grown without irrigation. Another woman, from Pacific Preserves, made a fabulous lemon ginger marmelade. She said she tries to get her fruit as local to "her" as possible; her parents, living in southern california and florida grow her lemons! Another interesting stall was that of the Noyo Forest Farm, a community farming group that teaches children and adults organic, sustainable farming practices in the town and runs demonstration gardens.

Also along the rugged coast there, we visited the picturesque town of Mendocino where I found these itsy frogs littering the leaves of some kind of salva flower (I think). They were so close in color to the leaves, you hardly saw them.

We headed north to the Redwood National Park yesterday. A stop in Garberville at Getti Up Coffee and Cattle company for a quick bite to eat: country music blaring on the outdoor speakers, the wind-driven water pump for the fish-in-a-barrel-pond, drive up espresso (of course), and a sign on the door "our beef is all local, grass-fed, and never frozen." Now that's a tall order.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Listening to the Lorax

One of the large beds being prepared for Fall
In one of his most powerful and popular books, Dr. Seuss tells the tale of the destruction of the Truffula tree forest, that ultimately led to the downfall of the entire region. By selfishly exploiting the environment, the short-sighted society had suffered a boom and bust. The once-greedy Onceler retells the history to a young boy amidst a torn landscape. He closes by handing over the last remaining Truffula seed, with the bidding to regrow the forest and do right by the land. Shawn and Josie of Truffula Seed Produce are trying to do exactly that.

Josie and Shawn from Truffula Seed

The young couple are in their first year at the market, selling produce and plants from the farm in New Windsor, Maryland. But prior to this, they had apprenticed at other local organic farms in order to learn the trade and the business. The farm itself is not theirs; they essentially rent land from Josie's parents and on a neighboring lot. It fascinates me that when most people their age are toiling in the downtown office looking for the next promotion, they are embarking on a path that will certainly not bring fortune. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several hours with them touring the garden, learning a bit about them, their family, and the drivers behind this venture into sustainable agriculture. I imagine the wealth of that conversation will cover several entries. I thought I'd dig in.

Truffula Seed Produce is grown largely on Garden Gate Farm, the remnants of an old dairy farm purchased by Josie's parents about five years ago. It's not one of those giant tracks of open land with a farmhouse and outbuildings standing starkly against the landscape. There are a wealth of trees and a variety of plants. A few small cabins and the old farmhouse are home to three generations of Josie's family. Josie and Shawn take care of the fruit and vegetable garden, providing food for the extended family in a barter arrangement for rent. Her parents raise chickens and grow various other plants and trees for the family's use. The arrangement helps  the couple to provide organically, sustainably, grown produce to the community. They sell at three local farmer's markets in Westminster and Takoma Park, but do not have a CSA or farm stand.

Garden Gate Farm was purchased only a handful of years ago, so Shawn and Josie were not raised on farms and with a heritage of living off the land. Indeed, they grew up in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. So, how did they get from there to here? Like others involved in local living, the answer is complex and not entirely clear. They cite influences that led them to the point of pursuing a simpler lifestyle. Both attended a Quaker school as children and Shawn went on to a Quaker college. Josie's parents had dreams themselves that led to the eventual purchase of Garden Gate Farm, probably forty miles and a world apart from the communities that line the DC Beltway. Shawn served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, gaining an appreciation of the people, culture, and simple means. They have clearly read a lot, and thought a lot, about the environment and community living. They worked at local farms and found support to pursue sustainable agriculture.

Those are some seriously long beans!
Arriving at the farm, I pass a large summer garden on either side of me. Here they grow food for the market and some items just for the family. If I recall correctly, there are fourteen varieties of tomatoes, accompanied by various squash, beans, chard, potatoes, onions, herbs, melons, and a wide selection of other plants. There are some really interesting super long purple beans. Shawn explains that they don't lose their color when cooked and don't have a hard bit on each end, making them easy to prepare. They look like eggplant-colored spaghetti!

Behind the original farmhouse is a high tunnel they constructed this spring. Constructed of a series of giant metal arches, draped in heavy plastic, the high tunnel is essentially a green house. The extra warmth the tunnel brings allows them to move plants outdoors earlier and harvest hot weather items like tomatoes sooner. Having dealt with the wildness that defines tomato plants later in the season, I am intrigued by their clip system. Where I constantly prune, stake, and tie the plants that defy taming, theirs are clipped to strings that hang from the tunnel rafters. The specially designed clips and string allow them to save a lot of time and get a better harvest. But the tunnel also demonstrates the risks of their approach to farming:  dust beetles have destroyed all their eggplants.

The couple have chosen to farm not only organically, but without the use of approved organic products they feel are still bad for the environment or consumers. For fertilizer, they begin with 6 inches of leaf litter compost and do not amend during during the season. They also apply no pesticides or fungicides. As we hand pick squash bugs from the undersides of their Fall squash leaves, Shawn says, "this is how we control pests." Looking across the field, the amount of labor required is daunting to me.

We sat for awhile in their work room shelling dry beans. I had never seen dried beans in their shells, nor had I ever seen beans as beautiful as these. Each dry pod contained a handful of gorgeous multicolored beans. Shelling them in a circle while engaged in conversation made for easy work and shared experience. Josie has written a blog entry with loads of photos and wonderful details about their bean growing. You should read it!
Tiger's Eye, Jacob's cattle, and a bit of Calypso beans

While we sat on the floor emptying the beans from their pods, we talked a lot about their background, family, future, hopes, and economics. This is not a highly profitable venture, and it's fair to say that right now its not at all profitable. Like most small, particularly organic, farmers, they spend their lives largely working. They sell or consume all that they produce and cannot fully meet demand. But their hourly wage would not rise to that of the federal minimum. Like many other young farmers, they tell me, they are blessed by unique circumstances that allow them to run this business and live a simple lifestyle. They are grateful to consumers who are willing to pay a premium price at the market for the food they grow, and they appreciate that customers are deciding to spend more on food for a wide range of reasons. I'm sure that many customers, on the other hand, are just as grateful that someone else is willing to work, bent over in the hot Maryland sun, removing squash bugs by hand, and helping heed the message of the Lorax.
The modified washer drum allows for efficient spinning of lettuce
Well that's a sampling of what I was able to see and learn during my visit; more to come. In the meantime, this is where you can find them...

Farmers Market at the Westminster Antique Mall
Tuesday 4:00pm - 7:00pm
The Antique Mall on the corner of Rt. 27 and Hahn Rd.
Westminster, MD
Crossroads Farmers Market
Wednesday 3:00pm - 7:00pm
Holton Lane, just off of New Hampshire Ave., one block south of University Blvd.
Takoma Park, MD
Downtown Westminster Farmers Market
Saturday 8:00am - 12:00pm
Conway Parking Lot at the corner of MD 27 and Emerald Hill Lane
Westminster, MD

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's Raining Peaches

Can you ever have too many fresh local peaches? It turns out, maybe you can. Last weekend my son and I headed out to the local pick-your-own farm to stock up on peaches. They had a few varieties of white and yellow peaches in season, and they listed the picking as being excellent.  The perfect time to grab a bunch to preserve for the winter season. This is our first summer picking and preserving fruit on any scale. Last year we made a wide range of pickles, and our cans of pickles lasted us exactly through the year. We are on the last one now. And, in years past, I have made various jams or jellies on a small scale.

But this year, as I've tried to stretch myself further in living locally, I decided to pursue fruit. In late June, we picked and froze forty pounds each of sour cherries and blueberries. The picking was abundant, but still  very time consuming. I think we spent two sessions in excess of three hours picking all those berries. And then, thank goodness for young children, my son spent several hours pitting each and every cherry. But, overall the cherries and blueberries weren't too much of a challenge. We canned a few batches, and froze most of them. It was clearly time to try peaches.

So, the thing about picking abundant peaches is that they are abundant. And quick to pick. So your bag fills fast. We picked on the order of 70-80 lbs of fruit in one and a half hours. That's good in saving your time, but it means you have a lot of fruit to deal with quickly. Still, this is what we were looking for. Peach hoarding. Our other challenge was getting the right fruit. At Larriland farms, they have staff at each field eager to help you identify the right things to pick. We stared at examples of good fruit and bad fruit. But in the heat of the sun, bent under the dense branches of the tree, those images seem to vanish. I kept asking myself, is this yellow (good) or pale yellow (bad) ? It's not got green undertones, has it?  I was lulled into a false sense of security by deep red tones covering many of the peaches. So, in the end, maybe three-quarters of our pickings were mature peaches, and the rest were not. And though the immature peaches will  soften (read: bruise) off the vine, but not sweeten, this didn't bother me too much. I figured, they have more natural pectin and are great for preserves in that fashion. and you can always add sugar.

In any case, we arrived a few hours later back at the house with maybe two bushels of peaches. We promptly moved on to other activities. The next day I decided I better get cracking and start saving the peaches for the season. I figured I would mostly freeze them, but also do some canned preserves for quick desserts and breakfast foods. Then I looked at the peaches. I'd left them in their bags and neglected to think through the consequences of that (in-)action. By the end of two days, they were already showing signs of distress with squishy parts on many and a few being reshaped into cubes. Ack! My hard work and money vanishing, we decided to spread them out onto a surface until I could start working on them after work. They took up our large dining table and the kitchen island entirely. That's a lot of peaches.

Before dawn that morning, I had also begun blanching, peeling, and pitting the peaches for the freezer. This really wasn't that bad. I could blanch about eight at a time in my large stock pot, and without too much difficulty then, peel them, roll them in ascorbic acid to keep them from browning, and drop them in a bowl. Still, eight peaches took probably ten minutes to process from peach to bowl. I began working again in the evening, and after what seemed like hours, I looked up and saw peaches still covering the table. And I thought to myself: you've really gotten yourself in over your head this time. I kept at it: boil, chill, slice, peel, crack open, remove pit, roll in fruit saving goo, toss in bowl, repeat. Fill bowl, grab freezer bag, fill bag with single layer, remove as much air as possible, toss in freezer. repeat. And I thought again: You've really gotten yourself in over your head this time.
A few of the frozen peaches - Yellow, white, and whole

At some point, I came to realize, there simply was no way I was going to peel and freeze all of these peaches fresh. Something had to give. I ended up trying a bunch of things. First, with the white peaches being so mild in flavour, I had already decided they would best be used for fruit sorbet. I don't think they'd cook out that well in a pie or anything. (tell me if I'm wrong). So, with several pounds of them, I blanched them for a minute, chilled, and tossed them unpeeled, whole, into freezer bags. We'll see how that goes. I expect the pit to start imparting an almond flavour soon, but I'll also use them soon.

Next, I moved to compote. Halve and pit the peaches, add a bit of lemon juice, cranberry juice, and cook  until soft. Most of the skins just fell off themselves then into the sauce. I could separate them, cover the cooked peach halves with the red sauce, and freeze the beautiful looking peaches for fancy desserts. That was actually quite easy. But I only had so much cranberry juice around. I looked at the table: peaches. I looked at the clock: coming to ten pm.
Peach compote in cranberry juice

Plan C. Peach mash.
Plan C. Slice the peaches, don't peel, don't pit, don't really halve them even. Shove them into a giant stock pot, add a little lemon juice, and go upstairs. Come down later, remove the fallen skins and pits. Smash the peaches. I now had a chunky mass of yellow and white peaches. A large mass. While the freezer is huge, I decided I really should can these. So I shoved them in the fridge and finished the canning last night. The mash yielded six pints of peaches for snacks and desserts.

But, naturally, that's not all ! I had grilled twelve yellow peaches with the plan of making peach salsa and  either freezing or canning it. So last night I scrambled to finish that up, combining the peaches with tomatoes and hot peppers. Freezing had worked well a few weeks ago, but I decided with this much acidity to try canning. The canning part worked fine; they are all sealed and cooked a long time. Whether canning them as a fresh salsa was the right thing to do, I'm not sure. We're going to have to wait and try it.
Grilled peaches for salsa

But now I am done. We have plenty of peaches to last us through the winter. They are local. We picked them ourselves. All cool things in my book. Next year, I'll try and do it in stages.

Canned Peach Mash and Peach Salsa
If you are interested in getting organic peaches in Maryland, I think that is tough. I've done a little research and been unable to find anyone who grows peaches, or most any other fruit, chemical-free in or around the state. I think the humidity here causes serious problems with disease. Of course, you could grow your own and that would be much more manageable. But i don't have the right land for that. And personally, I prefer buying local than getting organic fruit that was carted half way across the world. I am as concerned, personally, about the carbon footprint of the transportation and the local economy as I am about chemicals. So, I do what I can. In small batches, I buy from farmer's who only spray trees before they fruit. But to preserve for the season you need scale, and that means pick-your-own to me. There are lots of places to do that. I've chosen Larriland Farms in Howard County because they use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a service that uses chemical control only as dictated by an expert who inspects the fields every 7-10 days for oncoming issues. You can find them at

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Serpent Ridge Winery

Two thoughts immediately come to mind as I turn into the driveway at Serpent Ridge Wintery: "Wow, this place is beautiful" and "there's a winery here?!". A cedar family home sits near the entrance and its design seems in complete harmony with the surrounding forest. The drive wraps up and behind, and soon it opens out to a small parking lot at the bottom of a slope lined with grape vines. Whooda-thunk??

Greg and Karen Lambrecht opened their winery a few years ago with the aim of producing small quantities of high quality, European style wine. Maryland has had wineries forever, but in the last fifteen years, there has been a surge both in the number of wineries and the quality of their product. There are even several wine trails in the state that lead consumers through scenic countryside to vintner's tasting rooms (visit for details). Serpent Ridge is one of a handful of wineries in Carroll County, and it is just south of Westminster.

I first ran into Karen last year, as we both were purchasing cheese from the farmer's market. She was wearing a Serpent Ridge t-shirt, and I just had to ask: is that a local winery? Shortly afterwards, I was pulling up the wooded drive.

The couple aim to grow most of their own grapes, or buy what they need from local growers. They aren't quite able to do that yet and, due to lack of availability nearby, do purchase some grapes from out-of-state. They have just added more vines, white Albarino grapes, to their vineyard this year. In three years, these will produce a full harvest, but for now they have to purchase them elsewhere. In the meantime, on their own property in Westminster, they grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  These are supplemented with grapes grown near Annapolis, though ideally, they would to use a Carroll County grower. And, for their Seyval Blanc, they purchase grapes from a producer in Damascus, Maryland.

Serpent Ridge is designed as a small wine producer. As you talk to the couple, it becomes clear that they aren't attempting to create a mass market product, but something that represents their passion for wine. They have found, by talking to experts, that the land and climate they live in best suits Bordeaux-style wines. Karen told me about the various classes and groups they are involved in, constantly learning and trying to find the right position for their business. Part of that means patronizing local businesses and thinking about how their decisions influence the community around them. This is not just about the grapes they buy. As an example, they now have their wine glasses made by Baltimore Glass. I imagine this is not the cheapest source for glass. This is a decision that reflects choices that people will make to support a larger community.

I asked Karen about their use of chemical sprays. They do spray for disease. With the high heat and humidity in Maryland, she told me that fungus is particularly problematic. But they don't spray on a schedule as the manufacturers suggest. They try to use the least amount of sprays possible. This makes good business sense too, of course. Many farmers who do spray have told me they no longer follow recommended schedules. Spraying is expensive, if nothing else. They don't have much of a problem with pests, and only use insecticides when they threaten the fruit, not just the leaves. So, they've made the choice to use limited chemicals because the environment and business considerations, they believe, don't support organic grape growing.

Given the dry spell we've had this summer, I also asked about watering. It turns out this isn't too much of a problem because the grape vines have deep tap roots. So they don't water the vines. Only in the major drought several years ago did they need to irrigate. They did so by bringing in tankers of pool water to the top of ridge and using gravity to feed water down the hillside.

Their harvest is done by volunteer crew, rather than day laborers. In return for some hard work picking grapes, volunteers receive a meal and wine. And, an experience to tell about.

I really like this winery: the owners, the setting, and the wine. As I have time to check out other area wineries, I'll write about them too. You can check out Serpent Ridge online at, find their wines at some area liquor stores, or buy and taste at the winery.