Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Cool season”

Almond blossom special

My family and I drove out to the Capay Valley Almond Festival this past weekend to catch the almond blossoms at their peak.

Almond orchard in bloom

The festival, which dates back to 1915, encompasses a 21-mile stretch of Highway16 and is hosted by the towns of Rumsey, Guinda, Brooks, Capay and Esparto. It originally began after the fall almond harvest but later switched dates to take advantage of the spring blossoms.

According to festival organizers, almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop. They’re a $2 billion industry in California, with more than 6,000 growers devoting 530,000 acres in the Central Valley to almonds. Festival-goers are encouraged to admire the blooms of these trees in the Capay Valley using the Blossom Trail Map.

Bee with almond blossom

When we passed by Esparto Park around 10:30 a.m.,  a busy little festival was underway, complete with a classic car show, pancake breakfast and novelties like almond churro shortcakes. By noon, traffic was backed up to the I-505 and an influx of weekend motorcyclists had arrived, understandably drawn to the idea of a beautiful drive in the country followed by live music and barbecued ribs.

But for us, the main attraction was a few more miles down the highway, and off to the side of the road — almond orchards in full bloom.

Shoulder-ride in the almond blossoms

Lily in the almond tree

Some of the trees were at their peak, while others looked like they’d prefer to bloom this weekend. After all, the festival may be over, but the days of almond blossoms are not.

Capay Valley almond blossoms

Farm to fork: Almost-spring lamb

I’m a list-maker. Most of what ends up in my refrigerator and cupboards begins as a carefully constructed grocery list, often only slightly modified from the weeks before.

Perhaps because of that, I find it freeing, even luxurious, to go to the farmer’s market with no other plan than to find what looks most delicious and build a meal around it. Especially a Sunday meal that can be slowly, lovingly concocted and savored, with none of the get-er-done mentality of a weeknight dinner.

It didn’t take long for me to find a starting point at the Davis Farmers Market this past weekend. Esparto-based Chowdown Farms, from whom I regularly buy some great-tasting chicken, had just processed their lamb and were offering chops, ribs, shoulders and other cuts. I tend to think of lamb as a spring meal, but when it’s ready in February, I’ll take it. Although a slow-roasted shoulder would have been cheaper and likely still tasty, I was curious about the ribs, so I got a small package of them to give us a little taste.

A side accompaniment beckoned nearby, creating a rubbernecking situation at the Capay Organic booth: Broccoli Romanesco. The words “horny cauliflower” popped into my mind upon seeing them, lined up like armored broccoli. They look like they’d be more at home in a coral reef than in a field of soil. They are a striking-looking vegetable, and I’m a sucker for a pretty face.

Broccoli Romanesco

Romanesco in hand, I decided to make my go-to side of roasted vegetables, so I found some baby potatoes from Stockton-based Zuckerman’s Farm and some fresh Brussels sprouts (sorry to say, I didn’t catch the sprouts’ farm name, but at least I remembered to take a photo.)

Brussels sprouts

The classic accompaniment to lamb is mint jelly, which my husband and I don’t like, so we pulled out the ol’ iPhone and looked up “apple-pear chutney,” then bought a couple of Asian pears from grower Riffat Ahmad. Sadly, the pears are among the season’s last, but we’ll hold on until the end!

Our meal set, we took one last look to see what’s in season: purple cabbage, kale, leeks (note to self: make vichyssoise soon), citrus, fennel (note to self: figure out what the heck to do with fennel), chard, all manner of winter greens.

Red cabbageSprung a leekSwiss Chard

On Sunday, I set about making our fairly simple meal. When you start with really good ingredients, I think mussing them up with a lot of sauces, cheeses, spices and whatnots just covers up the good stuff.

Spring vegetables

So here’s how to do what  I did:

Season lamb with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary. Let it rest while chopping veggies.

Lamb ribs

Chop Brussels sprouts in half and Romanesco into florets.

Blanch baby potatoes in boiling water about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Cut potatoes in half and mix with the Brussels sprouts and Romanesco. Drizzle olive oil, herbs (I used herbs de provence), salt and pepper to season. Roast at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Veggies for roasting

While vegetables cook, make the chutney. (Or don’t, it really didn’t turn out that well.)

Remove veggies from oven, and tent with foil while broiling lamb.

Place lamb about 4 inches below broiler. Broil for 3 minutes each side, turning once.

Then, by all means, eat!

Roasted lamb and spring vegetables with spicy apple chutney

Navel-gazing among the orange trees

Someone recently told me that the winter is hard for them because they miss fruit. I looked at them somewhat incredulously. “You don’t like mandarins? Oranges? Pomegranates? Kiwi? Persimmons?”

I know it’s not quite the same as the summer months, but to me, winter offers just another sort of abundance. Case in point: this weekend.

My family had so much fun picking persimmons with Village Harvest-Davis a couple of weeks ago (read “Pantry-bound persimmons, Jan.1, 2013), that when we heard the group was having one of its biggest harvests of the year — picking navel oranges at a Winters orchard — we bundled up in our coats and hats today and joined them.

Navel orange crop view

Despite temps in the low 40s, about 75-100 volunteers came out to pick fruit for the Food Bank of Yolo County. The property was a private one, belonging to a couple who had about 100 more orange trees than they could harvest for their own needs, so they donated all but two rows of oranges to Village Harvest.

Village Harvest volunteers go forth

I think, perhaps aside from California, most of the world thinks of oranges as a warm-weather fruit. Indeed, Valencia’s, which are often used to make orange juice, peak in places like Florida and Southern California in May, June and July. But Navel oranges, which are weighing down tree branches all over Northern California right now and are a great orange to snack on, peak in these parts in January, February and March. That means now.

Navel oranges

Lily was pretty miserable in the cold weather, so she wanted to be held the whole time. But I’ve learned to do a lot of things with one hand since having her– now I can add picking oranges to the list.

Kat & Lily in the orange tree

Grant & Lily in the orange orchard

With so many volunteers, we made fast work of the 100 trees and soon were putting the last of the oranges into crates — roughly 6,000 pounds in the end.

Carrying oranges

Volunteers sort oranges

I’ve always marveled at nature’s way of giving us what we need when we need it — like vitamin C in the coldest part of winter through orange crops like this one. By the looks of our chapped cheeks and hands at the end of this day, we just may need it!

Navel orange harvest


For more information about Village Harvest-Davis, visit, contact Joe Schwartz at, or call 888-FRUIT-411 (888-378-4841).

A day of picking tangelos is being planned by Village Harvest-Davis for February, and smaller harvests are often held throughout the month. Sign up here.

Nut job

“I’m going to show you the real way to crack a walnut,” said Susan Hassett.

She should know, she’s been growing certified organic walnuts on her farm, Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, for about 20 years in Winters, Calif.

“You don’t use a nutcracker,” she said, as rule number one. Nutcrackers make fishing out the meat from the shell a pain in the neck.

She took out a small, lightweight ball pein hammer, held a walnut against a hard surface, and struck it. In one quick motion, she removed the shell as if she were opening a tiny book and popped the entire nut out, whole, like a brown little brain.

We were at Hassett’s farm to pick walnuts from two of her Franquette walnut trees—each one more than 140 years old.

The last English walnut to leaf out, the Franquette is a French variety that’s been grafted to a California black walnut tree, explained Hassett over the sound of her Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dawn, happily cracking walnuts between her teeth.

The Franquette is also less vulnerable to frost and one of the few varieties you can harvest at this time of year.

In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that I’d like to pick walnuts on my birthday, I had no idea the task I’d set before him.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial walnuts, and California is the world’s largest exporter (though China produces more.) So I assumed that finding a farm where we could pick them wouldn’t be difficult here.

But Grant soon discovered that most local walnut farms are larger commercial productions, which do mechanical harvesting and don’t offer u-pick to the public. Of those who do welcome the public to pick their own walnuts—mostly Hartley and Chandler varieties— they had just wrapped up their harvest by the time Grant called to set up a visit in early November.

So he was relieved to hear that Buzzard’s Roost Ranch was not only in the prime of their certified organic walnut harvest, but they’d appreciate our help—free labor for them, a great day on the farm for us.

Before the Hartley walnut—a cross between a Franquette and Mayette walnut—came on the scene in 1925, Franquettes were the darling of the commercial walnut world. But now, Hartleys, and the locally developed Chandler varieties, are most likely what you see at the grocery store.

The Franquette is a darker, more savory walnut than the slightly sweeter Chandler and Hartley varieties. Hassett says it’s also an ideal walnut to grow organically because the hard, tightly sealed shell makes it impervious to most pests. But, like white flour, white bread, and white meat, Americans tend to like lighter walnuts in the marketplace. The Franquette’s yields can also be smaller than those desired by high production farms.

Walnuts in general have been touted for an array of nutritional benefits, from limiting the ability of “bad” fats to harm the arteries  to increased sperm production.

“Walnuts are a completely underrated nut,” said Hassett.

According to the California Walnut Commission, walnuts have the highest total level of antioxidants, more so than almonds, peanuts or hazelnuts, and are one of the few plant-based foods rich in healthy, omega-3 fatty acids .

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking much about my health the day we went. I just wanted to spend a beautiful fall day in the country, reliving some good walnut-picking memories and hopefully creating some more for me and the family—Grant, Lily, my mom, brother-in-law Eric and his friend, Anya.

Before Hassett showed us how to crack walnuts, she demonstrated how to get them off the tree: With a hefty “walnut rake”—any large, hardy stick will do – you “knock” a branch, take cover, and wait for the wholly satisfying sound of walnuts raining onto the ground.

Then rake them into a pile, pick them up and toss them in a bucket. Simple enough.

I tend to think nearly any u-pick experience is good for kids, but there are some that have not always been ideal—fruit too high for Lily to reach, berries too deep in prickly brambles to pluck. But picking freshly fallen walnuts is one task perfectly suited to a 2-year-old. She even got in on the knocking action.

On the kid-friendly front, I should mention that Hassett fertilizes around the walnut trees with horse manure. So don’t be surprised if you reach for a walnut on the ground and find it sitting right next to some horse poop. The way I figure it, that’s why we wash our hands (and our walnuts), and it sure beats chemical fertilizers. But some may find it off-putting.

A couple of hours later, we hauled about 40 pounds of certified organic walnuts to Hassett’s back porch to be weighed and split among us. Hassett only charges $2/pound—several dollars cheaper than what I find at the store—but still… 40 pounds!

What on Earth will we do with 40 pounds of walnuts? Well, we have a big Thanksgiving family reunion coming up, and many of them will be transported there—along with a small hammer—for candied walnuts, pumpkin bread, oatmeal, baked sweet potatoes, salads and general mindless nut-cracking while talking turkey. Then, of course, there are freezer bags, and Hassett said walnuts freeze very well, which I’m counting on. At least we’ll know how to crack them.


Farm: Buzzards Roost Ranch, 8290A Pleasants Valley Road, Winters, Calif.

U-Pick: walnuts and olives, by appointment only

Other offerings: horse and carriage rides; venue for weddings, special occasions; equine programs, horse boarding

Side trip: You’ll pass Lake Solano Park on your way in; consider stopping for a picnic.

Contact: (530) 795-4084,,  website

Pick a patch of pumpkins

The other day, I was in the grocery store, and I watched a woman wander over to a big bin piled high with bright orange pumpkins. She looked at them for a minute, reached in, unceremoniously put one in her cart, and wheeled along her merry way.

I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “That’s no way to pick a pumpkin.”

Judgmental? Perhaps. After all, I’ve had my share of grocery store pumpkins, too, and likely will again.

But I rate picking a pumpkin a bit lower than choosing a Christmas tree, but a good deal higher than buying a box of cereal. It’s just not supermarket fare, in my mind–especially when we live in a place besieged by pumpkin patches.

One of the area’s biggest patches is in Dixon: Cool Patch Pumpkins. The place boasts a giant corn maze that landed itself in that bible of superlatives, the Guinness World Record,  in 2007, when it was 40 acres. Now 53 acres, it’s only grown since.

But we weren’t there to run ramshackle through the corn, or to shoot the pumpkin launcher, or even to have Lily ride tricycles through the Kid Zone, though all of that sounds fun. We came for the pumpkins.

     Lily and Uncle Eric find a pumpkin.

Cool Patch provides wagons for visitors to carry their finds–and their children– on. We brought our own wagon, and while it wasn’t necessary, some of the Cool Patch wagons didn’t have side on them, so we were glad to keep Lily secure in ours.


See? “Secure.”

Row after tangled-vine row, Cool Patch offers dozens of pumpkin varieties–from “Cannonball” to “Flying saucer.”

The trusty old Jack O’Lantern variety has been a loyal staple of most of my Halloweens. With a face eager to be carved and insides that offer up seeds perfect for toasting, I’m not ready to leave Jack in the dust just yet. That said, these varieties that perhaps were served at the first Thanksgiving but are new to me, are pretty appealing. White pumpkins, blue pumpkins, green and orange striped ones–it’s a wide world out there, kids.

Rather than give lengthy descriptions, I’ll just tell you the names I’ve given ours and you can use your imagination. Tiger stripe, Cinderella, Ghost, Blue, Popcorn, Warty, Warty Jr. They were all fairly big, and, after wheeling them into a fast-moving line, we paid $30 for the lot of them.

The pumpkins now have a new home on our front porch, and there they will remain until it’s time for us to shovel their rotting remains away. Happy Halloween, everyone.


Some extra tidbits that may help your travel plans: Cool Patch has plenty to eat and drink: a coffee shop, tri-tip sandwiches, soft serve ice cream, sodas and water. An ATM and restrooms are on site.  And the farm’s owners are  well aware that pumpkin patches are a major photo op for families. They’ve set up several haystacks with pumpkin displays ideal for this purpose. 

Location: Milk Farm Road  Dixon, Calif. (~10 minutes drive west from Davis)

For more information, call (530) 304-0163 or visit

Core strength: Apple Hill

My father was born 68 years ago on what’s often one of the most beautiful days of the year: October 1.  It’s typically a day of browns and golds, chili in the crockpot, cornbread in the oven, soft shadows and autumnal glows. It marks a season that seems to encompass my Dad – warm, thoughtful, comforting.
Dad died of lung cancer five years ago on a colder, darker fall day. But October is when I most like to celebrate him. My family and I do that each year for his birthday, and it usually involves an apple pie—his favorite. It’s a day when his girls—me, Mom and my sister—and now his granddaughter and son-in-law commit to being together.

With the mecca of all apple picking just over an hour away, this year we decided to celebrate Dad’s birthday weekend with a trip to Apple Hill.

Apple Hill, it should be clear, is a region, not one particular orchard, as some mistakenly think. It’s a loop of you-pick farms, pumpkin patches, bakeries, and wineries along a two-lane highway in the Sierra foothills of Placerville and Camino, Calif.

Think Napa – but substitute apples for wine; corn dogs for bacon-wrapped rabbit roulade. OK, so maybe it’s less Napa and more country fair.

But it is a place where something grows extremely well and visitors are encouraged to see it, pick it, and enjoy it in all forms—be it fried and frittered, coated in caramel and stuck on a stick, or tossed in sugar and enveloped in a pie crust.

Fried  apples
Despite my idealistic notions of autumn — crisp fall days and whatnot — it was really friggin’ hot last weekend. About 95 degrees — weather for picking peaches, maybe, not apples. By 1 pm, we were sweltering.

This put a damper on the day — especially because the Kerlin girls do not do well in the heat. “It’s like a bunch of Rain Men in here,’ my husband said at the end of the day, driving us home when we were all on the brink of dehydration and at a high level of inane chatter and bickering and repeating ourselves.

“I think Apple Hill is a  really lovely place – if it was about 20 degrees cooler,” said my sister from the back of the car. (I envy visitors for this weekend, when it is supposed to be about 20 degrees cooler.)

Despite the weather, it really was a beautiful place. As we arrived, pulling off Highway 50 and onto the Apple Hill loop,  we drove past Christmas tree farms, patches of orange pumpkins peeking beneath their leaves, donkeys in a forest clearing, signs pointing to various wineries, and, of course, apple trees.

It’s easy to get sucked into the commercialized aspects of Apple Hill. The Apple Hill Growers Association and several visitors before us have sung its praises on websites, news articles, Yelp, Chowhound and the like as a place where apple cider donuts and apple milkshakes are worth the battle of traffic, crowds and serpentine lines.

The traffic and crowds weren’t actually too bad. Arriving around noon, we started our visit at Rainbow Orchards. We walked past families beginning their picnics on benches under some apple trees. Others sat on hay bales beneath a shaded area. But we headed straight past the wagon full of pumpkins and gourds, around bins of apples, and lined up for the fabled cider donuts ($1 each). They came out hot and sweet, with a slight crunch on the outside. I’d like to say I noticed a cidery tang in them, but I didn’t. They were a good little donut, all the same.

We grabbed a map of the Apple Hill area (available in brochure form at nearly every stop in town  and also here) and sat down on a hay bale to figure out where to go next. We were all hungry. While apples are in no short supply, it’s slightly harder for new visitors to discern the best places to eat “real” food. (One cannot live on apple crisp alone.) I had heard Boa Vista orchards served lunch, so we headed there next.

Boa Vista is a popular tourist stop. Too large to be called a farm stand, it offered bins of apples, but also plums, winter squash and other seasonal produce. There were tastings for apple butter, jams and wine at the back of the building. Preserves, salsas, apple juice and cider lined the shelves. An adjoining grill served some basic American food: Among our group, we had a chili dog, veggie burger, grilled cheese, fries and an apple fritter, which we ate at a picnic table in the shade. Boa Vista also has a bakery full of pies and other pastries. Craft vendors sold their soaps and jewelry outside. After lunch, I bought a caramel apple covered in nuts, some apple cider and we were on our way.

Down to the core
We’d saved the best for last: apple picking.

There are several you-picks at Apple Hill, though I’ve heard that there are fewer than in years’ past. I was looking for a laid-back, organic farm, and Willow Pond Organic Farm appeared to fit the bill. (UPDATE: On a return visit in 2014, I was sad to see this farm is no longer active.)

After pulling in to this farm, where children ate apples in the shade next to a pond, I wished we’d come here first. Just brought a picnic lunch and headed straight here.

A small farm stand welcomed us at the Willow Pond entrance, featuring raw honey, peppers, yellow watermelon, and other produce grown on the property. Dried sunflowers in the fields stood behind late-summer crops, and zinnias lined vegetable plots. After grabbing some green baskets, a sign pointed our way to the you-pick apples.

These farm trips always come with a lesson in preconceived notions: My sister had her heart set on picking red apples. But most of the reds were covered with black spots and blemishes — a visual assurance of the organic methods used on this farm; no pesticides here. Despite their appearance, the reds still tasted pretty good, but the yellow apples fared far better.  And at $1 per pound for organic apples, we couldn’t complain about either variety.

Lily, who’s 2,  was a bit disappointed she couldn’t reach the apples herself. I put her on my shoulders and she stretched her arms up to grab them. This was fun and cute for about 10 minutes until the heat got to me, and her dad took a turn.

I walked between the rows of trees. A tension I hadn’t realized was there all day was released as I single-mindedly searched for some good apples. The sun glinted gold across the leaves. I tossed an apple high up into a tree, a failed attempt to knock loose the bigger apples clustered at the top. I tossed my hair back, opened my chest and let in the day. This was what I’d come for.

All of the little markets and bakeries with their value-added products, pony rides and fresh-pressed cider help support a rather charming local industry here. But I hope Apple Hill will always be a place where we can walk into an orchard, reach up into an apple tree and fill our baskets.

I looked up and saw my mom and sister walking toward me with Lily, refreshed after a diaper change.

I took a small apple, held it above my head, and let it drop. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Let’s run and tell the king!”

My daughter thought this was absolutely hilarious and insisted I do it about 6 more times. Then she found an apple and continued to play “Chicken Little” with her daddy and then her auntie, plopping apples on their good-natured heads.


We all sat down in the shade of the trees, Lily laughing and tumbling over us. My mom started fantasizing wildly about buying a farm. We let the late afternoon breeze cool us as the leaves shook and we looked through the green and gold of the branches.

When I was growing up, Dad was always a good sport on family outings — patiently waiting while his girls insisted on going into this or that shop, this or that restaurant. But in the end, the simple stuff always won out with him – just sitting in an orchard, feeling the breeze, eating an apple, being together.

Just kidding

I used to think that goats, while cute, were intimidating, head-butting, unruly little animals. All that changed with a trip to Castle Rock Farm, just north of Vacaville.

Sarah Hawkins and Andy Pestana of Castle Rock Farm breed Nigerian Dwarf goats. They are–not surprisingly—small, less than 2 feet tall. They come in all manner of colors common of livestock: brown, black, white, speckled and spotted. Most impressive to me, they were just so friendly.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I could let my 2-year-old daughter, Lily, pet them.

“Oh sure,” encouraged Sarah.

Within 1 minute, Lily was surrounded with about 5 or 6 yearlings, who gently nudged her as she stroked their fur, giggling. Being goats, they did nip the zippers on our jackets and tug on my hair, but all very gently.

“Tickle your jacket!” said Lily.

“They’re like babies,” said Sarah. “Everything goes in their mouths.”

Nigerian Dwarf goats have a reputation for friendliness—though the bottle-feeding they get twice a day also helps warm them up to human handlers. Sarah said the bottle-feeding is not because the kids’ mothers don’t want to feed them, but to reduce risk of disease in the kids and mastitis in the mothers.

Sarah and Andy have been doing quite a bit of bottle-feeding lately. They’re right in the middle of kidding season. Since January, 25 kids have been born, and the season isn’t expected to stop until May.

Castle Rock Farm has been breeding goats for about 8 and-a-half-years on this 5-acre property. While the Nigerian Dwarf goat’s personality goes a long way, it has other favorable attributes.

Sarah was originally drawn to Nigerian Dwarf goats because their small size made them easy to handle and transport. The average doe weighs about 75 pounds.

“I don’t need help to wrestle these guys,” she said. “I always win a contest of will with them.”

And while, like most living things, you could eat them if you really wanted to, they’re most appreciated as dairy goats. Their butterfat is higher (4.5 percent – 9 percent) than most dairy goats (3 percent). Sarah said their sweet milk is particularly good for goat cheese, as well as goat milk ice cream, and goat yogurt, and of course, milk.

“This stuff, if you did a blind taste test, you’d think you were drinking half and half,” said Sarah.

Their size, and the large  amount of milk they produce relative to their size—up to a half gallon per day—make them a nice option for urban farmers, too.

“They’re a great size for a backyard,” said Sarah. “They don’t bark, and you can use their poop for fertilizer.”

Sarah started a side business making goat-milk-based skincare products. Soaps, scrubs, and lotions in a variety of scents are available as part of English Hills Soap Company, which she sells at the Davis Farmers Market.

And while goats take center stage at Castle Rock, the farm also plays host to a flock of chickens, a llama, a border collie named Stella and a very sweet Armenian Gampr dog named Minnie (Minion).

There are also boxes of bees in a bee garden, which is planted with California native plants propagated in the couple’s greenhouse.

“This is what we should look like, right here,” said Andy, referring to the region and motioning toward the bee garden planted with poppies, manzanita, sage, yarrow, sage, coffeeberry and other plants.

Sarah and Andy are trying to revegetate much of their property with native plants, particularly along a seasonal streambed that flows along the perimeter. These plants do more than prevent erosion on the streambed—they’ve also noticed a significant increase in beneficial insects since planting them. It’s a nice sign as they continue the slow work of improving their soil, which is recovering from years of herbicide use by previous owners.

Our last stop on the farm was the kidding pen, which has taken over Sarah and Andy’s garage. This is where the newest kids spend their first weeks. Warm under a lamp, amid scattered hay. They were given a bottle—the subsequent sugar high going straight to their feet. They’d hop, all four legs in the air—seemingly surprising themselves with their ability. They approached us by their gate, small pink noses poking through the holes to say hello. No nipping, no biting. Just a friendly, “hey ya.” Apparently these kids are born nice.

We say our goodbyes and return home. I walk into our backyard, grass growing too high for its own good, and consider, at least for a moment, trading in the lawn mower for something far cuter.



Castle Rock Farm breeds Nigerian Dwarf goats on its 5-acre farm in northern Vacaville, CA. It also sells eggs, herbs, seasonal vegetables, and runs English Hills Soap Company. For more information, visit

Farmer’s market to mouth, #1: Winter comfort

With my husband laid up after minor surgery last weekend, a farm visit was out of the question. It seemed like a fine time to let the farmers come to us. Luckily, the Saturday morning Davis Farmers Market is open year-round, and true to reputation, it happens to be one of the best around. I went in search of winter comfort food.

I used to go to the farmer’s market because it made me feel good–to be outside, to “do the right thing” and support small farmers, to buy stuff in season. I still go for those reasons, but my driving force these days is becoming far more selfish: I come for the food. Maybe it’s my age; perhaps my palate is finally growing up. But every time I go to the farmer’s market lately, I have some surprising food moment. I bite into elevated versions of what I’ve had all my life: The pears are crisper, the carrots sweeter, the apple cider more substantial. It’s food, only better.

This weekend I wanted to cook an all-local meal that was easy to prepare, used just a few ingredients and featured some of my favorite standouts so far at the Davis Farmers Market.

Here’s what’s on the menu: Roasted chicken with carrots, golden beets and fingerling potatoes, all seasoned with salt, pepper and Yolo-pressed olive oil.

My first stop was Cache Creek Meat Co.’s vendor booth for a whole chicken. Cache Creek farmers Kristy Lyn Levings and Brian Douglass raise their happy, free-range birds on a small farm in Yolo County. I’d had their chicken before. I’m an average, by no means outstanding cook, so I could only attribute the juicy, tender, savory outcome I’d experienced before to the bird and its producers, not to my culinary abilities. Naturally, I came back for more. I lucked out and got the last one, a 4.5-pound lovely.

Next, I found some fingerling potatoes from Stockton-based Zuckerman’s Farm. I decided to roast them with some golden beets that caught my eye at the Rancho Cortez booth. I also chose some melon-colored carrots from local farm Fiddler’s Green. These guys grow tons of things, but they deserve a special mention for opening my eyes to the true potential of carrots. I first bought a bunch of their rainbow carrots–in purple, red, orange and yellow–a few weeks ago, and I was shocked they were so good. I felt like someone who has only ever eaten tomatoes from a grocery store in the winter must feel biting into a July brandywine.

So I took my little bundle home and laid them on the table to admire before chopping them to bits.

Lily “helped” with quality control.

I seasoned the chicken with melted butter, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary, stuck half a lemon from our backyard tree in its cavity, and roasted it for about 1.5 hours (20 minutes per pound).

Mid-way, I added to the oven a pan of chopped beets, carrots and potatoes, which were tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted that for about 45 minutes.

I made a little gravy with the pan drippings, some flour, chicken broth and sherry.

Dinner was served. We were happy. And there was plenty of chicken left over to make my man-on-the-mend some easy enchiladas the next day.

Forest for the tree: Jacob Mini Farm

When I first called Emily J. Amy of Jacob Mini Farm about coming out to cut a Christmas tree, she gave me a warning: These may not be my vision of Christmas trees. They’re not all perfectly conical. I wouldn’t find any noble firs or silver tips.

“They just don’t grow here; it’s too hot,” she said. “We grow what grows around here.”

That means Douglas fir, giant sequoia, incense cedar, and Scotch pine.

Sounded like just what I was looking for.

Jacob Mini Farm, open every day from Dec. 1-23, sits alongside Putah Creek between Davis and Winters, Calif. My husband, daughter, mom and I visited the farm recently to get Mom a Christmas tree.

We were warmly greeted at the entrance, told that every tree, big or small, is $35. Then we were handed a saw and told to set forth.

I’ve been to tree farms where single species are perfectly spaced in rows across a plot of land. I’ve also wandered through National Forest lands to hunt for my own “wild” Christmas tree—saw in one hand, permit and tag in the other. This was somewhat of a cross between the two—not quite forest, not quite typical tree farm.

The Christmas trees at Jacob Mini Farm stretch across roughly 5 acres, wrapped around the farmhouse, some sheds, and a small barn that houses a petting zoo of sorts—some docile donkeys named Barney and Elmer, a sheep, a goat and some chickens. And while my daughter, Lily, loved wandering through the “forest,” the animals were the highlight for her—she imitated them as only a 2-year-old can.

Sprinkled throughout the evergreens are pecan trees, which act as a shade canopy for the rather thirsty Christmas trees. Pecans tend to drop from the trees during the Christmas tree season, and u-pickers are welcome to collect them. Last year was a phenomenal year for pecans, said Emily. This year, not so much. But pecans tend to produce every other year, so the trees should be more generous next year.

Emily’s parents, Janet and Fred Jacob, first started selling trees from the farm in 1956, mostly to friends and co-workers. Over the years, more trees were added. Emily bought the farm from her mom about 15 years ago. In 1998, she added two areas that were previously fruit trees and pasture grass.

“It has just evolved,” she said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the relatively unique way the trees are cut. U-pickers are asked to leave a whorl of growth at the bottom of their selected tree, so that future trees can grow from it.

This does mean more pruning work for Emily, but she decided to follow what her parents started.

“They were of the mind that instead of killing the tree, just use a part of it,” said Emily. “My parents wouldn’t have considered themselves ‘progressive environmentalists.’ In the ’50s that wasn’t a term you’d hear. But they were pretty conscientious about things.”

As my mom perused the selection of trees, my husband picked up some walnuts that had fallen on the ground and cracked them open for me and Lily. They were some of the best-tasting walnuts I’d ever eaten. Lily ran through the trees, petted the animals, and we all enjoyed the fresh air at this laid-back country tree farm.

My mom left with a 7-foot tall incense cedar, cut, carried and strapped to the car by my husband. We left with the sense that we’ll be back next year.


Jacob Mini Farm is open every day, from Dec. 1-23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It’s located at 34905 Creeksedge Road, between Davis and Winters, Calif. The farm is only open during December; if you’d like to come during another time of year, or would like more information, call them at (530) 753-3037.

For sale: U-cut Christmas trees, u-pick pecans, evergreen boughs and mistletoe. A small farm stand also sells whatever the farm has produced at that time, which is typically apples, walnuts, persimmons, oranges and pecans.      

Special considerations for Christmas trees grown in the Davis area: Unlike in their native areas, evergreens here don’t experience a hard freeze—and neither does their sap.

“The sap in the tree is equivalent to the blood in your body,” says Emily. “It runs nutrients through the body.”

So for locally grown Christmas trees, expect a higher than usual sap-flow and a thirstier tree during the first week or so after it’s cut.  After that, their thirst slacks somewhat.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: