farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “apricots”

Fruit to chef: K&J Orchards

Farmer Tim Deasy met me and my family at the gate of K&J Orchards in Winters, his face dripping with sweat. It was 105 degrees F, and he’d just returned from Napa, where he’d delivered 40 pounds of white peaches to The French Laundry, often regarded as the best restaurant in the United States. He travels about 750 miles a week delivering fresh peaches, plums, pluots, nectarines, cherries and more to restaurants and farmers markets in the Napa-Sonoma region and Bay Area.

There are perks to the job. Sometimes, the chefs he delivers to feed him. “I figured out if you stare at something long enough, they’ll eventually ask, ‘Are you hungry?” said Tim.

In the past 10 years, K&J Orchards has grown from delivering fruit and nuts to three farm-to-table restaurants in San Francisco to upwards of 110 restaurants today. Chefs like Annie Somerville of Greens and other foodies also track K&J down at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and other markets in the Bay Area and Northern Nevada.

“We provide access to heirloom varieties or unique things,” said farmer Aomboon (“Booney”) Deasy, Tim’s wife. “Like when chefs ask me for green almonds or green plums to use in salads, or peach leaves to infuse syrups and sauces.”

K&Jfruit

Booney’s parents, Kalayada Ammatya and James Beutel, are the “K” and “J” of the operation. The couple started the farm in the early 1980s on about 40 acres in Yuba City, which continues to be their main site for growing apples and pears. They bought the 20-acre property in Winters in 1995 and set about converting about half of the then-walnut farm to stone fruit production.

While James, a former pomology professor, has retired from the farm, Kalayada continues to graft rootstock, plant seeds, and do farmers markets. Meanwhile, Booney and Tim have now taken on the primary responsibilities for the orchard.

Aomboon and Tim Deasy of K&J Orchards

Defying the heat, or perhaps common sense, my husband, 3-year-old daughter and I walked out to the orchard for a tour.

Strolling among rows of apricot trees, Tim described when he first learned Booney was from a farming family.

“When I first met her in college, I asked her what she did — I thought maybe a coffee shop or something. She said, ‘I sell cherries …'”

“He thought I had a lemonade stand, like selling cherries by the side of the road,” added Booney.

“Yeah, but she left out about 180 other varieties of fruit we now grow,” finished Tim. “But it’s fun.”

As we walked, apricots blushed in the late afternoon sun. Booney plucked one from the tree — a Flaming Gold variety–and handed it to me. Sweet, sun-infused, juicy burst. Later, when we got home, my husband bit into one of those apricots, and the juice squirted all over the counter. “Haven’t seen an apricot do that before,” he said.

Apricots, K&J Orchard

In the orchard, cherry trees, now picked clean, were ready to retire for the year. Booney said that while Washington cherries are just beginning, the season for cherries in California will be over by the end of June because yields state-wide are low this year — and prices higher —  due to a mild winter. On the upside, the surviving cherries are huge and delicious, not having had to share resources with many other cherries on the tree.

Plenty of other fruit is on its way for the year. Along our tour we saw small green balls of what will become golden meyer lemons hanging from branches, nectarines and peaches preparing for their imminent debut, spiky balls of early chestnuts, and generously spaced plums, their skins a deep purple.

Plum tree, K&J Orchard

This generous spacing of fruit on the tree is one reason the region’s best chefs seek out K&J Orchard’s fruit. Call it a flavor trick that is mind-blowingly logical: Rather than allow the trees to heave with fruit and compete for water and nutrients, they thin the fruit so the best resources go to those that remain. This, said Booney, results in a bigger, sweeter, better stone fruit.

For every thinned nectarine that never sees a chef’s table or canvas shopping bag, K&J still has plenty to go around. From the scorching 105 degree heat, we stepped into the orchard’s 45 degree refrigerated walk-in. After welcoming the blast of cold air, our eyes set on thousands of pounds of peaches, plums, apriums (a cross between an apricot and a nectarine) and pluots (a cross between a plum and an apricot), all stacked in white trays, ready for distribution.

K&J stone fruit, packed

Booney said it was Tim’s idea to target directly selling to restaurants. With images of chefs with Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen-like personalities, it was a somewhat intimidating prospect at first, she said.

“But all the chefs we work with are so down-to-earth,” said Booney. “They really appreciate the fruit, respect it and where it’s from, and they’re really intrigued to learn how it’s grown.”

At the end of our tour, we passed a row of white pomegranates, which should be ready by late August.

White pomegranate on tree

The white pomegranate has pale pinkish seeds inside rather than the deep red of its more famous sibling, is reportedly sweeter and less tart, and won’t stain your fingers.

It’s a tasty twist on a beloved classic and is one example of why Tim shouldn’t expect to reduce his work mileage any time soon.

Back at home, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them "yum."

Back in Davis, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them “yum.”

You don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to have a taste of K&J Orchard’s fruit. Catch them at farmers markets in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Alemany, Los Gatos, Menlo Park; and at Nevada farmers markets in Reno, Gardnerville and Minden.

Mission Impossible Acres

Past fields of bursting sunflowers …

… and down a county road, Impossible Acres sits in West Davis, just 4 scant miles from Davis’ downtown core.

My family and our friend Max had come there because I’d heard (see “Summer’s sweet spot”) that we could pick peaches at Impossible Acres. And a good peach is what I’ve been craving ever since the calendar flipped to July.

I have one of those golden childhood memories of picking peaches with my mom at a pick-your-own farm in Missouri, where the yellow fruits were the size of my fist, and their fuzzy skins were almost bursting. I don’t remember what Mom made with them, but I do remember eating them at that farm, standing in the shade of peach tree branches, juice dripping down my chin and neck, so good I licked the palms of my hands to get every bit of stickiness into my mouth.

But California isn’t Missouri. I’m still learning what grows here, and when. I heard the peach season in Yolo County is late June through early August, so I thought the first week of July might satisfy my craving.

Impossible Acres is a popular little farm. When we arrived this past weekend, about 15 couples and families were also there, slathering kids up with sunscreen in the parking lot and affixing sun hats.

The young woman at the entrance gave us the lay of the land, most helpfully with a hand-drawn photocopied map of the place that we could take with us. She pointed out where the berries were (marrionberry, raspberries, boysenberries and ollalieberries)—also mentioning the berries had a rough year due to fickle weather. She indicated our path to the peaches—past the cherry trees, past the rows of apricots and plums, and on to the peaches and nectarines. We got a couple of flat boxes to fill and were off.

We shot past the berries—as the young lady had noted, there were very few worth picking. The apricot trees were loaded with fruit begging to be picked, and we did grab a few.

But we moved quickly onward. (Note to parents and those who care for their feet: Don’t wear sandals, like I did, because some weeds along the path are prickly.)

Then we got to the peaches. They were nice.

Medium-sized, sweet, with several ripe and ready. The nearby nectarines were just as good, though there were fewer of them. We filled our boxes, satisfied that we had enough to make the tasty peach shortcake and peach-glazed pork chops I’d been fantasizing about, as well as plenty left to pop into our mouths.

But I admit, I was a little disappointed. I began to think that the peaches inflating my dreams may not be suited to the North Central Valley. But after talking with Fred Manas, owner of peach orchard Manas Ranch in Yolo County, it turns out I am just being impatient.  (I was unable to get ahold of the Impossible Acres owners in the days that followed our visit to ask them.)

“We have friends from Georgia that moved here and they say they are nothing like my peaches here,” said Manas.

The peach season, he said, runs from about mid-June through mid-October. Each variety has its own season. And there is a tendency for  bigger varieties to peak later in the summer, around August.

But, Manas wondered, what’s all the fuss about “big?”

“Big does not make it better,” he said with the kindly insistence of a man who has spent more years than I’ve been alive growing and eating peaches.

Manas Ranch grows seven different varieties, ranging from the smallish Cassie peach to the more robust O’Henry in August.  So if I want to stubbornly hold on to my vision of a giant peach, I need to wait a little longer.

And by the way, that childhood memory of mine on the peach farm with Mom? She told me later that we picked those peaches right before school started, which would have made it … late August.

Back at Impossible Acres, Mom wandered off into other fruit trees. I found her in the shade of an apricot tree, happily munching away.

“These are amazing!” she said.

I looked at her hand, and her apricot was something I didn’t think apricots could be: juicy. Apricots are a nice enough fruit. I like them in a good Middle Eastern couscous, in scones, I know I’d like them wrapped up in bacon, and  I love them dried. But most of the time I’ve eaten them, well, I can understand why they’re usually sold dried. But here was this one, dripping all over Mom’s hand and plastering a smile on her face.

It made me take a second look at those apricot trees—and at the whole farm, really. I realized that when looking for what’s in season, it’s best to look down. The fruit newly dropped and beginning to rot on the ground is a telltale sign of fruit ripe and ready up above.

With that in mind, I went a couple of rows over to visit the plums—dark, black beauties that were also covering the ground around the tree trunks.

This was what I was looking for, though I hadn’t known it. This was that “jackpot” moment I love to feel when hitting a harvest at just the right time. I plucked one after the other and took them back to my husband and Max, who were, ahem, fruitlessly still looking for magic peaches.

“Come get these plums, guys. They’re awesome.”

Somewhere between picking a plum and sucking the juice off my fingers,  I was reminded of something: Sometimes what you get isn’t quite what you set out for, but it can still be pretty sweet.

THE NUTSHELL

Impossible Acres
Location:26565 Road 97 D, Davis, CA
Hours: Wed.-Sun, 9a.m. -6 p.m.
U-pick:  During the summer, they offer apricots and peaches ($1.99/pound), and berries ($2.99/pound). Cherries in late May-early June. August brings apples. Pumpkin patch in October.

Growing method: Not organic, but they spray when the trees are dormant.
Farm stand and animals: To be located at nearby Grandpa’s Barn, 37945 County Road 31, Davis, CA

Summer’s sweet spot

In July, the answer to the question “What’s in season?” seems like a given: Everything. Right?

But I’ve gotten so spoiled here in this place with a year-long growing season. Yes, summer squash, green beans, sweet corn, berries and even tomatoes seem fresh and easy to find these days. But the closer I look, the more I eat, and the more I learn about the 100-mile-radius of land in which I’m now living, “in season” to me is more about what is, at this moment, dripping off vines or trees or plants, particularly in Yolo County. Not rotting, not budding, but ready. Food that has never been and will never be as good as it is right now. That perfect sweet spot can change within a week or two—I’m bummed to I think I’ve missed the cherry-picking boat–making summertime eating nothing to take for granted.

With that in mind, and an eye toward finding what food is having its perfect moment, my family and I visited the Saturday Davis Farmers Market. Here are some snapshots of what we found.

 

Long, fat green beans.

Heirloom and other tomatoes beginning to come on.

You can’t have 4th of July without berries, right?

But what really seems to be in season—and I have to say, I knew this from just riding my bike around the neighborhood and watching my neighbors picking them like it was their job—is stone fruit in general, and apricots in particular.

Apricots are everywhere right now. Some great local ones can be found at Good Humus Farm, which sells at the farmers’ market and provides apricots in their and partner CSAs.

I asked farm owner Annie Main if her farm does u-pick, which they don’t. Another farmers’ market customer overheard me and mentioned that Impossible Acres in West Davis has u-pick apricots, peaches, berries and other stuff.

 Wa, wa, wait. Did she say peaches? That is what I would REALLY love to pick. So with visions of peach shortcake, peach salsa, peach-glazed pork chops, and peach cobbler in our heads we decided right then to make Impossible Acres our next farm trip.  Stay tuned, as the search for the hyper-seasonal continues.

And this, I just have to add in: Ever since the temperatures have crept above 90 degrees, I can’t go to the Davis Farmers Market without ending the trip with a popsicle at the Fat Face booth.

These guys are very creative, turning a summer standby into a gourmet treat. Last time I tried their hibiscus mint. This time I went with the thai tea+sweet potato. It was like thai iced tea on a stick. Awesome. Next time, kaffir lime+avocado.

(What, you thought I’d go a whole post without throwing in a photo of my kid?)

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