It’s 6pm on a Saturday night in July, and I am in the middle of nowhere. “How can nowhere exist so close to San Francisco?” I wonder. Just 30 minute’s ride and here I am, rounding a curve on a dusty two-lane road, fields stretching out to the horizon. I speed past the small sign I’ve been looking for: “Frog Hollow Farm.” As I prepare to complete a U-turn at the traffic light ahead, I think, “That’s a small sign for such an influential farm.”
Frog Hollow Farm, and its owner, Farmer Al Courchesne have been at the forefront of the organic movement for 25 years, supplying the likes of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse and even Whole Foods Markets, with sustainably and organically farmed stone fruit and other crops. And yet, this small sign is all that denotes this significant landmark.
My reason for visiting Frog Hollow Farm at 6pm on a Saturday night is to attend a benefit for Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project. The chef on hand to create the meal is none other than Top Chef All Star’s winner, Richard Blais, out here from Atlanta, GA just for the event.
The evening begins with a tour of the farm led by Farmer Al. A small group of us have registered for the privilege. Farmer Al drives a golf cart while we trail after him, hanging on every word. He describes the techniques they use to avoid conventional farming practices like spraying chemicals. The technique he says revolutionized organic orchards fifteen years ago, is an approach that completely short-circuits the fruit fly breeding cycle. On every other tree in the orchard is a little white, plastic packet, which is exhaling female pheromones. When the males show up looking for mates, they are confused. There are so many decoys they can’t find the real thing. Since the female eggs never get fertilized, the cycle gets cut off at the start.
He reveals his failures as well as successes. A few years ago, he bought a batch of seedlings with a newly developed rootstock. They remain stunted and weak today. In fact, he pulls one tree right out of the ground in front of us. It turns out that the new rootstock is particularly appealing to the resident moles and these trees never had a chance.
But he assures us that this is all part of the process. He continues to experiment and sometimes those risks pay off.
Our group is now ready to join the rest of the partygoers who have assembled around the makeshift kitchen Richard Blais has created for the event right at the edge of the orchard. Next to this kitchen is a stage where the Band, Trio Garufa will play. Long tables with white tablecloths and rows and rows of sparkling wine glasses (reminiscent of the rows and rows of peach trees) surround the stage. I am attending this event alone, so I flip into strategy mode as I contemplate navigating the rest of this evening solo. The one drawback of being on the VIP tour is that I have missed all of the hors-d’oeuvres. This seems like a bit of an oversight to me, but I try to let it go. I approach the bar and order a glass of wine, then spot a familiar face. Ryan from Foodbuzz.com (now she’s at GlamMedia), is here. I reintroduce myself and we reminisce about the good ol’ days at Foodbuzz when things were just getting started in 2008. It is a lifetime ago in www years.
Most seats at the long table are already tipped forward with handbags poised neatly on top the place setting, including the seats that surround Ryan. I wander farther down the table looking for an empty seat. Then I am relieved to notice there is a VIP section. There will be a seat for me there.
I sit down in between two groups of strangers. The faces in both groups are familiar because we were all on the tour together. The group to my right are parents and their grown children, spouses and partners, celebrating the Mom’s birthday. The people on my left comprise a team from Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard Foundation. Also nearby is tonight’s MC for the event, food writer and blogger Carolyn Jung. Introductions ensue as we all settle in for tonight’s main event: the meal.
I enjoy a glass of Bloomfield Vineyards 2010 Viogner, which makes me think, “Yes. I have finally found “my wine.” I like sweeter white wines generally, and particularly on a warm summer evening when peaches lurk nearby, but I always thought that Sauvignon Blanc was my favorite. Now I know. Viogner’s the thing. And this one is to-die-for.
Carolyn introduces Farmer Al to crowd, who thanks everyone for coming to this event and supporting such a great organization as Edible Schoolyard. Then Carolyn introduces Chef Blais, who comes bounding on stage, excited to be here. He even admits that he’s a little nervous cooking for such a discerning group as Bay Area folks passionate about food.
The first course arrives: Chilled Hiramasa with fried chicken, smoked aioli, and pickled radishes. It is paired with Bison Organic IPA from Bison brewery. We are told that the chicken has been cooked sous vide and that a thermal immersion circulator has been brought to the farm from San Francisco’s Spice Kit just for the occasion. Soul Food Farms have grown the chickens. They are well known for raising chickens humanely and with dignity. A big deal is made about the chicken.
I’ve read that sous vide cooking means that the texture of the food is not altered during the cooking process so I convince myself that the pink stuff in the middle of my plate is the chicken. With the family to my right, we talk and laugh about what goes into sous vide cooking and agree that the texture is interesting, the chicken seems almost raw, but has a delicate flavor. The fried bits on the plate are tasty too. They are like the coating on fried chicken, but without the chicken. It turns out that these pieces are in fact, the chicken. The bit we’ve all been puzzling over is actually, the Hiramasa – it’s raw fish, darn it, not sous vide cooked chicken. I blush with humiliation. I have to completely recalibrate my experience of this dish. I secretly hope the family doesn’t remember my gaffe. Marguerite, the mother whose birthday it is, says, “Oh my. I don’t eat raw fish.” She’s runs a clinical microbiology lab at UCSF. She should know.
I do wonder though, “What happened to the actual chicken?” There was all that humanely raised, organic chicken at some point during the cooking process, but on the plate, al that remains are fried panko crumbs. Weird. Oh well. On to the next course.
Cutlet of petrale with cherry tomato and anchovy raisin butter. This dish is paired with the Viognier I’ve been enjoying. I wonder if the tomato is raw fish too, but it’s just a tomato. It’s delicious, but I do wonder. “Where are the peaches?”
Much laughter and hilarity ensue while I continue to get to know the family next to me. We discover many intersections in our lives. Greg, one of the grown sons, worked at the same Bay Area company as my husband, though they didn’t overlap. Georgia, his sister is a landscape architect. Some of my best friends are landscape architects. All of the grown children went to boarding school on the East Coast. Me too. Me too. It was fun to hear their stories and learn the rough outlines of their lives. Greg and his husband Victor are expecting a baby in late summer. Everyone is excited, but there is some anxiety too. One never knows until it is final.
I feel myself hopeful for them. Wanting the best for Greg and Victor. Even wanting to hear the news when the baby comes. But, that’s ridiculous, of course. I only just met them. And yet.
Next comes the Grilled Pork Belly with cauliflower and peaches. It is paired with the Bloomfield Vinyards 2008 Pinot Noir. It is dark outside now and we can’t see our food. My knife has long since been removed by a server, but who needs a knife when the pork belly literally melts in your mouth? It’s delicious, but I still can’t taste the peaches.
Carolyn Jung stands to announce the winners of the silent auction. Marguerite, the Mom of the family next to me, has placed a bid on having Farmer Al come to your home to do a tree pruning consultation. Her daughter, Georgia has recently planted several fruit-bearing trees, and her mother hopes to win this prize for her. Greg has bid on a private dinner for 6 with Chef Andrea.
We wait with baited breath while Carolyn reads the descriptions of the items that are at stake. Then she announces the first winner. Marguerite has won the tree-pruning prize. Applause erupts from our end of the table. In the end, Greg wins the dinner for 6 and his husband sponsors a row of trees at the orchard. His name will appear on a plaque.
Winners, one and all, it’s time for dancing and dessert. Professional tango dancers take to the stage and Georgia and I wander over to get our ice cream cones. The ice cream is Santa Rosa Plum ice cream and somehow there is liquid nitrogen involved. This is chef Blais after all. The nice little surprise at the bottom of the cone? Dark chocolate. The cones were provided by Berkeley’s Ici Ice Cream.
In the end, it isn’t the fruit, or the liquid nitrogen, or the amazing wine pairings that make the night memorable. It isn’t the sustainably and humanely raised local chicken, or the plum ice cream, or the sun setting across the orchard. As is almost always the case with a great meal, what makes it truly special are the people I have met. Marguerite, Wes, Greg, Victor, Georgia, Nuria, and Glenn, may we enjoy another meal together someday.