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Friday, July 28, 2006

Stand and Deliver

It's cold and grey in the downtown today and I'm drinking hot coffee to warm up a little. The outer edges of my ears are cold, as is the tip of my nose.

Welcome to Summer in San Francisco.

You wouldn't know it now, but last weekend it was hotter than 10 rednecks in a Volkswagen. Hot for San Francisco is anything above 85. However, for the rest of California, 85 would've been a welcomed cool-down.

I know, because last weekend, for some reason or another, Bruce and I decided to venture outside of our naturally cooler environment to check out the whole Harvest Time in Brentwood thing.

You should know that there are two towns in California called Brentwood. One Brentwood - the Southern California Brentwood - is the scene of a very famous murder. The other Brentwood – the Northern California Brentwood – is the scene of murderously good produce and Bing cherries.

Our Brentwood is a small town 55 miles east of San Francisco that historically was, and to a much lesser degree still is, a community of farmers and ranchers. Harvest Time in Brentwood is marketing strategy conceived over 30 years ago by the local farmers and town boosters to bring people to the farms to purchase produce directly from the farmers. Often this means that you can come and pick your own produce, and many farms/orchards advertise themselves as "U-Pick".

We learned of the Harvest Time in Brentwood thing last year, accidentally. After a visit up to Mount Diablo, we decided to keep driving east, to see where we ended up. Thus, we arrived, eventually, in Brentwood. After noticing the numerous orchards and produce stands, some of which had signs saying "Harvest Time Member", I decided to do a little internet research when we got back home. "Whoa! How cool," I thought after finding the Harvest Time website. It was then that I made plans to someday check it out.

That "someday" came eventually last Saturday when we borrowed a car with air-conditioning from a friend and made plans for a Brentwood day trip. When we left the city, everything was as it was – cool and breezy. By the time we got into Brentwood, specifically the El Gallito Drive In for a bite to eat, it was like walking into a furnace.

Rarely do I have the sensation of wilting like a flower under the high heat of the sun, but out of the microclimate of our air-conditioned car, I felt every drop of moisture squeezed from my pours and evaporate from my body. This was around noon.

And I wasn't expecting heat like this. Had I used my brain and did a little more research, I would've learned that it's normal for the temperature in Brentwood to be above 100 degrees at this time of year. That day it had reached 108F.

Tomatoes love this kind of heat

After a fine lunch at El Gallito, we headed towards our first farm/produce stand.

However, before I go any further, I think it's important to jump to the chase here and share with you my tips for a successful and fun trip to Brentwood for Harvest Time.

BACON PRESS'S TEN "Harvest Time in Brentwood" TIPS (plus 1)

1. Bring a map.
The Harvest Time website has one in PDF that you can print out. However, you want the real, folding, hard copy map, so ask them to mail one to you. We picked up a free one at the Smith Family Farm stand.

2. Disregard most of the map.
For some reason or other, the Harvest Time map is wildly inaccurate in that many businesses no longer exist (or at least appeared that way). Along those lines, the map doesn't indicate which ones are closed for the season – or for good. Further, some operating produce stands aren't on the map, such as the one at the corner of Walnut and Marsh Creek Road, opposite from The Farmer's Daughter stand. If you're really concerned that a place you're interested in might not be around any longer or closed for the season, call first.

3. Go early.
Farmworkers usually start their day around 4 or 5 in the morning. You might want to sleep in a little, but you should plan to arrive in the town around 8 or 9. Most places are closed by 2:30 or 3 PM. Plus, if you decide to pick your own, take a practical, common sense lesson from the farmworkers – you won't see them out in the orchards after 10 AM.

4. Eat when you get there.
Patronize local Mom and Pop restaurants. In this case, El Gallito is a good choice. Unfortunately, much of Brentwood has devolved into a soul-crushing, characterless, subdivision, box store, chain hell (I should be careful – those are the only places people like me can afford to buy now). However, El Gallito is precisely the part of Brentwood that gastronomists and "counter" revolutionaries like us seek out.

Brentwood? Or just another generic town?

5. Buy things on a whim.
You've made the trip to buy produce direct from the farmer, so plan on spending money on things you aren't sure what you'll do with and worry about it later. We kicked ourselves really hard when we passed up a huge box of tomatoes for $7, thinking we would see similar deals at other stands. We didn't, and we also had no idea that we were at one of the best stands. That's a lot of homemade canned tomato sauce we'll never see.

6. Know what's for sale.
The map is very helpful for this and I'll elaborate on each farm stand later. But what you should know at this moment (as of late July): berries are still in season and prevalent, as is stone fruit and cherries.

7. Think Seasonally.
Like I mentioned above, berries and stone fruit are in season now. Not all places listed as "U-Pick" are pickable during certain times of the year, even though they are open for business.

8. Don't look for organic.
We saw one stand that sold organic produce. The rest, I assume, were conventionally-grown or non-certified. Perhaps we didn't look hard enough or failed to ask the right questions, but only one place, Lon's Farm Stand, actually had "organically grown" on their sign.

9. Don't look for deals.
Though deals are to be had, many of the prices across the spectrum of stands we stopped at reflect standard supermarket prices. For example, corn at most stands were sold 3 ears/$1. Some were 4 ears/$1. At Whole Foods, at the corner of Harrison and 4th in San Francisco, conventionally-grown corn is for sale (not "on sale") for 4 ears/$1. Still, who would you rather buy from? Personally, I prefer buying straight from the source. And in the not-so-big scheme of things, $1 for 4 ears of corn is cheap.

10. Beware of non-locally grown produce.
I didn't see obvious violators of this rule, though I had to wonder some times. It's best to ask if you're unsure or concerned. I know whenever we visit the Central Valley roadside produce stands around Manteca, Escalon, Riverbank and Modesto, I often see bananas, mangos, and tomatoes out-of-season. Even fruit and produce grown in season, and obviously not from tropical environments, can seem suspect about whether they are actually locally-grown or fell off a truck from Mexico (or worse, Southern California….I kid). I don't know the reason for this type of situation, but if any of you do, I'd appreciate finding out.

Plus 1. Burst into spontaneous song.
After a visit to the Smith Family farm, back in the air-conditioned car and giddy from the heat, living in the moment, I suddenly burst into a rapturous round of Hee Haw-inspired song.

"Harrrvest tyyme in Brentwood
Sangin' blah, blah, blah, bluh-blah
Harrrvest tyyme in Brentwood
Sangin' blah, blah, blah, bluh-blah
Harrrvest tyyme in Brentwood
Harrrvest tyyme in Brentwood
Harrrvest tyyme in Brentwood all day law-wong"

Now, you may be more of a "diamond in the back, a sunroof top, diggin' the scene with a gangsta lean" type, or even of the "on s'fait des langues, en Ford Mustang" persuasion, and if so, go with what makes you happy whilst living in the moment.

Our first stop after eating at El Gallito was the Smith Family Farm.

This place, like the place after it, was certainly off the beaten trail and far from any housing developments. This was also the place we found a good deal on tomatoes, and other things as well. There were a variety of mostly vegetables and some fruit, ranging from eggplants, summer squash, red onions, cantaloupe, "Anannas" melons (I believe this is the same as a Persian melon), and garlic.

I liked the open feel of this place as it felt, in hindsight, like the most user-friendly of all of the places. I think it also had the most outgoing and nicest people working there (with the exception of Lon's).

The second best stand we found in Brentwood was called Dwelley Farms, which seemed to be the biggest competitor of Smith Family Farm. It's prices were about 50 cents cheaper. This stand was in an old barn and, like the SFF, was really user and people friendly. As we were there, one or two farmworkers were still bringing in and restocking produce.

Dwelley Farms had an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables I rarely see for sale, such as yellow zucchini (as well as the standard yellow crooked neck squash), really thin and small green beans, lemon cucumber, and blackberries (which were pricey).

We left with several purchases, including those green beans and zucchini, and headed towards more farms on the map. Only, they weren't there. Numbers 11, 40, 31, and 28 were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were mildly entertained by someone's front lawn sculpture garden.

Next we headed down to the farms/orchards south of Balfour Road, the majority of which sell peaches and cherries. Again, no Numbers 5, 26 (closed)19 (misplaced on the map), 32, 23,17, 24, 22, 3, 9, 37, 25, 4, 20, 39 (all either closed or nowhere to be found).

However, we did find Number 7!

So we stopped by Tachella Family Farms, which is definitely the most dressed up place we stopped at (although we didn't stop at the Farmer's Daughter, since that place just looked too...hmmm...how should I say...too much overhead?). Tachella came complete with grocery style cold case displays and fancy-schmancy tiling on their counters. It was a little too dressed up (they even had an ATM machine) for my vision of a produce stand, but then, that's probably what the masses want.

This mass did buy a pretty nice, cheap, and delicious half box of strawberries (3 containers) for $4.50, with cash. I don't want to come down hard on the Tachellas for trying to make things nice and earn a profit. Considering they're competing with ruthless, corporate grocery chains, I respect the fact that they've tried to go a little beyond being a wooden shack on the side of the road.

However, I like those funky wooden shacks.

Funky shacks like this one, TK's Best Produce, which wasn't listed on the map.

At TK's, I bought some cucumbers while Bruce bought a canary melon. Despite it's ramshackle appearance, prices here were comparable to most of the other stands we had visited. This place was also pretty busy, probably from being off of Walnut and in the main farm stand district.

After TK's, we headed off in what would be a futile search for Number 39, Olio Bello d'Olivo, which we figured would have some type of storefront or business presence. After passing it twice and ending up way out in the boonies, we gave up figuring that those olive trees we could see from the road must be part of someone else's farm.

We eventually stumbled upon Lon's Farm Fresh Produce stand on the border between Byron and Brentwood, which was the only stand that advertised itself as "organically-grown". There was only one person working there and he was sweating up a storm. By this time of day, it was wicked hot and the bucket of sunflowers standing in water beside him were sadly wilted and drooping over. Most of the cut leafy greens were also wilted from the heat.

Nevertheless, the guy at Lon's was super nice and didn't seem to mind standing for so long in the heat. We probably should've tried to get use to it as well, since jumping in and out of a cold car into the outside heat eventually made us tired and gave Bruce a migraine.

We asked him where the olive oil place was and he pointed to the olive trees we had passed, although he knew nothing of it being a place for people on the "Harvest Time in Brentwood" tour to just drop in. Later, after reinspecting the listing on the map, it did say to call for a "tasting appointment". Still, this is kind of lame. Why even list yourself on the map if folks just can't drop by?

Anyway, I ended up buying a huge, organic beefsteak tomato, and had I known we were out of eggs at home, I would've bought some of the farm fresh ones for sale at Lon's.

Basil growing next to Lon's stand

After a few more stops (nothing special), we concluded our harvest time in Brentwood and made our way home, back to the cool city by the bay and out of that damn heat!

We'll definitely be back, and hopefully some of the places that were close will be open. If you go, good luck – and I hope my tips will be of some help.

If not, you can break out into song anyway.



Blogger mingerspice said...

Sounds like a productive trip!

4:19 AM  
Blogger Cali said...

It sounds like the sort of trip I might really enjoy. But right now I can't sleep and ran out of Deadwood DVDs so I'm reading here while eating a salad caprese. Tomatoes and basil grown in my yard, olive oil produced 15 miles away, sel de mer, fresh ground black pepper and fresh mozzarella. Mmmmmmm. I really should have made the cheese, too, but I'm just not that anal retentive. And because it's so good for me, I'm not even going to worry about eating it at... *gasp* 5:44 a.m. Oh well, I won't have to eat brunch. But I probably will anyway. It's tomato season, you understand, and somehow I've got to keep up with a six to twelve tomato a day harvest! In hind sight, six hybrid tomatoes might have been three too many. I expect that I will get my fill of tomatoes in the next three months.

6:03 AM  
Blogger molly said...

Posts like his = the reason I love your blog.

9:40 AM  

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