Yesterday was an especially good day: after talking to my friend, Scrivner, for over a year, I managed to get myself out to the small, organic farm which he and his dad, Gregg, plan to transform into a spectacular source for local produce and meats. It’s situated about 30 minutes north of Sacramento, not far off Highway 99, in the little hamlet of Pleasant Grove. Where I turned off the main road, a sign stated, with a tone of warning, “Pleasant Grove 3 mi -- No Services.” And indeed, there were none – not a petrol station, mini-mart, fast food establishment, or feed store -- just a small school with several white county-owned vehicles parked outside; a fire station where a member of the fire brigade was polishing a beautiful, spotless red pumper truck; and a couple of private hunt clubs plastered with lots of prohibitive signs saying “No Trespassing, Private Property.” The hunting grounds were empty, as it was mid-week, and a short mile or two before reaching my destination, I stopped to use one club’s portable roadside loo; it was perhaps not so much a practicality as it was my desire to walk onto forbidden land. It felt like childhood in the Midwest.
This was the upper Sacramento delta, where miles upon miles of berms contain sloughs and drainage ditches whose volatile, unpredictable waters perpetually threaten to flood the low-lying farmland. The land is mostly planted to rice. The water in the sloughs is murky and barely-moving, with lots of algae and cattails, and though I didn’t manage to ask, I more than once imagined there might be some large catfish lurking near the bottom. Childhood again.
I arrived mid-morning, and Gregg and I spent an hour or so getting acquainted, talking about this and that, mostly food and farming. He and I are roughly the same age, and each of us lived through Berkeley in its more politically active days, so our stories were dreamy, sometimes cynical, reminiscences about “the old days,” politics, Republicans, the Tea Party, and modern day food fascism. (I hesitated to call it “food Nazism” only because some people may find that a scary usage, or just plain hyperbole.)
It quickly became clear that Gregg had long and thoughtfully lived outside the main stream. In 1960’s Berkeley, he’d bought along with several comrades a group of contiguous homes along 5th Street near Allston. They tore down the fences that divided the properties from one other, and established a very large communal urban garden, or more properly speaking, an urban farm. They raised pigs, goats, chickens and lots of vegetables. The group were essentially self-sufficient. This was one of the ways people thought, fought, and broke free in those days. It was more sharing of land and resources than it was a commune; there was no centralized family life beyond the garden. It was back to the land, but within city limits.
Several years after they purchased the houses, Gregg set off for Europe, to travel and study (I suddenly recognized the source of Srivner’s endless wanderlust) and spent several years following the vendange up the backbone of France, starting in Provence, moving through the Rhône, to Beaujolais, Burgundy, and ending, in the bitter northern European winter of Alsace. The journey took many weeks, and by the time he arrived in Alsace-Lorraine, it was so cold you couldn’t feel your fingers when you cut them with your grape shears, which, inevitably, you do. Anyone who has picked grapes knows this.
We talked about Paris in those days and now, and recalled the good qualities of the arrondissements we were both familiar with. He told me a fascinating if dark story of a secret, illegal dressmaker – illegal because of the working conditions, which employed undocumented Eastern European seamstresses who slaved at endlessly whirring machines positioned next to cots where they would sleep for a few hours before being sent back to work, round the clock -- that he had to visit in one of many jobs.
After our pleasantries in solidarity, we got around to the topic at hand: his smokehouse. This was what I’d gone there to see.
At about 15 feet in height, the smokehouse is quite tall, stately, no longer in disrepair, and entirely amazing. The main house and other structures were originally built between 1855-60. When Greg bought the property in 1989 the smoker was derelict and near collapse. Gregg ignored the county's condemnation and order to pull the building down; rather, he simply began to put it back together, quietly and under the radar. A failing sidewall was re-masoned, and a local blacksmith fitted new smoke box doors with the original iron fastenings and hinges. The rotted stairs were replaced with new wood. Gregg dug from the fire pit three feet of ash that had accumulated from the previous owners’ burnt garbage. Eventually, he fired it up, and it was back in action.
It's a stunningly handsome building, in the same red brick American Gothic style as the main house, a style the original owners sought to reproduce from their origins in the northeastern U.S. Their aesthetic was brought to the farm’s west coast builders in drawings, sketches, and one large oil painting. It has two large iron doors (the refitted ones) that open onto its under-story fire pit; you have to crawl in through one of these small iron access doors to build and stoke the fire. Inside, you can just about stand up in the dark of the fire pit, if you’re not too tall. Gregg smokes his meats with several woods from trees on the property: fig, apple, almond, and black acacia wood. Black acacia was familiar to me, as we had our wooden tables at Eccolo fashioned from that variety by Chris Weiss, the elegant, charming designer and wood worker we know so well. For many years, we had cooked over same fruitwoods both Chez Panisse and Eccolo.
Inside the main smoking chamber, above the fire pit, there was the pleasant, soft smell of fruit wood and cooked, cured meats, at once sweet and sharp, almost tangy – and quite smoky, but not overwhelmingly so. Into its rafters were set somewhere around 40 hand-wrought iron hooks from which the meats are hung, where they absorb the thick, flavorful smoke. Its walls and ceiling are darkly colored from many years’ use. The old rotted floor has been replaced with a reassuring, heavy expanded steel grate that allows the smoke to waft up from below. There are very few of these smokehouses still functioning in the U.S. –- to Gregg’s knowledge, there are only four left: they were eventually replaced by modern stainless steel, gas-fired or electric units. No more hauling wood! No more skill needed to maintain a wood fire! No more old-fashioned work to smoke your meats! But, no more of the smokehouse's deep flavor…
After inspecting the smoker, we walked around the immediate property. Gregg and Scriv have a far-reaching vision for this small, personal farm. At present, they raise beautiful ring neck doves, robust white pigeons, colorful, noisy araucana chickens, and a pack of brazen Toulouse geese that act as guards, honking loudly at anyone coming onto the property or anything else the perceive as suspicious. The doves and pigeons are in tall pens onto which they plan to attach flights runs, which will run out perpendicularly from the present pens. Laying boxes have been cleverly fashioned from what appear to be gas meter housings and recycled Charles Shaw (two-buck Chuck!) wine boxes. They plan to raise pigs and goats to sell to restaurants. Gregg now scavenges -- or should I say more politely, forages -- greens and trimmings from local produce shops, the leavings from an Sacrmento organic shop’s vegetable juicer, and they’ve lined up whey from an organic creamery to feed the pigs, when they are acquired. They plan to build an outbuilding that will house a wood-burning oven, with working kitchen and dining area for small groups to visit. Several pea cocks and hens roamed the garden, spotted with quince trees, Meyer lemon, Eureka lemon, Valencia orange, grapefruit, Fuyu persimmon, and a very old pomegranate tree that delivers 300-400 pounds of fruit every year. Beautiful, long-haired cardoon plants sit inside a fenced off area, protected, more or less, from the relentlessly omnivourous geese. Real food. Yet more childhood.
What most likely was once a root cellar lies below the main house, where Srivner has set up two large, let’s call them, “terrariums,” where his squiggly, squirmy worms devour plant material, turning it into a green compost tea for spreading on the vegetables. On a supporting pillar hung several varieties of drying hardneck garlic, crying to be planted. The cellar is mostly below grade, so its temperature steadily hovers in the high 40’s to low 50’s year round. It smelled dusty but earthy, and mildly garlicky. Two windows either end of the room supply a cross current of air. I think it will be a fine place to cure meats, at least for a while. Bacon, salami, coppa, perhaps prosciutto should all do well there.
By this time, it was about 1:00 pm, and I’d planned to take my leave soon, to get back to the East Bay, and back to work. Gregg asked if I’d like a little something to eat. I glanced at the time – it was 12:45 – said ok, thinking I’d stay for at most another 30 or 45 minutes, for a quick bite.
In his kitchen that some would call funky but I call terrific, Gregg graciously served me a delicious soup he’d made of beautiful, correctly soft white beans and shredded chicken, with lots and lots of sweet, freshly cut parsley tossed in; sautéed wild-foraged greens – dandelion, sorrel, and dock -- with crisp lardons made from his home-smoked bacon; and for dessert, vanilla ice cream with wonderful stewed quince the color of Sockeye salmon, from the tree I’d passed on my way in, sprinkled liberally with his homemade limoncello… Wow! We cooked loosely together, discussed what to do with the greens (add red wine vinegar and raw garlic, off the heat), how to adjust the seasoning of the soup? (more salt - there were three pots of it around the kitchen, a very encouraging sign!) and please hold back on the amount of ice cream for me, but not the limoncello. We talked and talked about many subjects, he told stories, I told mine. The time had crept to nearly 4:00 PM.
When Gregg was recounting his harvest exploits, I was reminded of time spent in Italy with my dear friend, the butcher Dario Cecchini, a particular, wonderful phenomenon I'd witnessed and came to understand at his shop.
One sometimes sees in small European communities the warm, caring protective employment of the mentally disadvantaged. In his story of the harvest, Gregg pointed out that inevitably, one or two of the nomadic grape pickers were of this description. The itinerant workers came to Western Europe from Hungary, Poland, Romania, other parts of Eastern Europe in search of work, where it had become scare, especially for the unskilled or impaired. Here, they would get well fed for a few weeks or months by the chateaux and domaines, and drink lots of “free” wine, and go home -- or not -- with a little money in their pocket. It’s a remarkable situation: the vineyard owners and their kitchen crew typically make wonderful, filling, delicious peasant meals, real food, for the hard working field hands. The workers start in the vineyards early in the morning. The first meal one takes, a simple, small one, is offered around 10:00 am, typically from the loading bed of a work truck; a proper lunch is served at the winery, around 1:00 pm; and a grand dinner after retiring from the vines as evening arrives and darkness set in. There’s lots of gaiety and high spirits, in direct proportion to the amount wine consumed. This is not to mention the eau-de-vie, sometimes served later. Essentially, picking from midday on is done under the influence of alcohol (but also under the influence of delicious food, and cooperative work), so cut fingers happen, sometimes. Generosity and camaraderie abound, this among people who have never met before and will never see each other again. Such beauty can happen. People are taken care of.
I saw this same phenomenon first hand at Dario’s shop, in Panzano in Chianti, where his family’s butchery has been operating for several centuries – that's, several centuries. A not so very young gentleman named Mario, also known as “the Mayor, helps around the shop with this and that, quietly keeping things clean and ordered, running small errands (nothing’s very far in Panzano), trimming and cutting sweet red peppers and fiery Scotch Bonnets for Dario’s mostarda di mediterraneo, measuring sugar and salt, and talking talking talking, as everyone does in that jolliest of kitchens. Mario is a bit slow, but not seriously so, just slightly, and everyone takes care of him. Dario has given him work. It sustains Mario, and gives him community. The work is not done without friendly teasing, a bit of flirtation from the women, occasional impatience, and reprimand from Daniella, when she needs to deliver it. One doesn’t have to be a wizard to see that Mario is part of the fabric of this little, insular, hilltop Tuscan village, that nothing’s ever perfect, that everyone needs to be cared for. That’s what communities do; take care of their own. As in the saying, “It takes a village to raise and child,” it also takes a village to sustain that child, come what may.
I will soon return to fire up this smoker, to see what it can do. My first project will be bacon and saucisse de Morteau, a particular sausage from the village of the same name in Franche-Comté, in eastern France, along the border with Switzerland. It's an enticingly fatty sausage slow-smoked for about 48 hours at 77ºF over pinewood, its indigenous Alpine wood. Can’t wait.