By Barbara Kobsar, with illustrations by Zina Deretsky and Helen Krayenhoff
Every year in May, the passion to pick my own fruits and vegetables resurges faithfully. My backyard garden offers a smattering of baby carrots, potatoes, early tomatoes, and herbs to pick in early season, but that doesn’t usually suffice. I know it’s time to pack my pail and head for Brentwood.
What began on May 17, 1976, with a group of about 10 farms incorporating under the name Harvest Time in Brentwood, Inc., has now become a consortium of over 40 farms scattered around Brentwood, Byron, Oakley, and Knightsen. Between them, they offer hundreds of varieties of in-season produce along with gourmet treats, juices, wine, and olive oil.
Over half of the Harvest Time member farms grow cherries and a majority of those farms are U-picks, where customers pay by the pound for produce they harvest themselves. Hundreds of families head to the farms on Memorial Day weekend, the customary U-pick opening day, and continue to visit throughout the six- to eight-week cherry season. If the cherries are ready early, some farms open sooner, so it’s a good idea to check at the Harvest Time website (or the individual farms’ recorded phone messages) to make sure you aren’t missing the short cherry season. www.harvest4you.com
Bacchini Farms (est. 1945) on Walnut Avenue in Brentwood offers both sweet and sour cherries. You’ll find plenty of dark red to deep purple sweet cherry varieties, such as Bing, Burlat, Brooks, and Utah Giant, but many pickers come especially for the golden-skinned, red-blushed Rainiers, which have a delicate flavor and fine texture. Tino Bacchini also boasts a few dozen Montmorency sour cherry trees in his orchards, and area pie bakers and preserve makers wait in deep anticipation for their once-a-year chance to pick this high-acid, tart cherry variety locally. (It originated in France and is grown widely in Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of Canada.) Bacchini’s general manager, Ken Hagan, is planting an additional 58 sour cherry trees to meet growing demand, but the pie bakers will have to wait another seven or eight years for those trees to mature and produce. www.brentwoodfruit.com
Families with young children usually head to Freitas Ranch Cherries, where pickers of shorter stature can easily pick from the big bunches of cherries typically found on the low branches of the compact Coral Champagne trees. These are good-looking cherries, large, coral pink, very sweet, and low in acid. www.freitascherryranch.com
When picking cherries (or any fruit) at these farms, it’s important to follow the rules, which are meant both to preserve the integrity of the trees and to ensure that your fruit will be good to eat for many days after picking: Cherries do not ripen or improve in flavor after being picked, so choose only firm fruits that are deeply colored for their variety. Hold the cherry stalk between your thumb and index finger right below the bud (where it attaches to the branch) and then twist the cherry stalk away from the bud. Leave the bud on the branch, since a broken bud never will grow cherries again. Also, leave the stalk attached to the cherry so the fruit will stay fresh longer.
Peaches, Plums, Apricots, & Nectarines
A few years ago I signed up at peterwolfe.com for Wolfe Ranch e-mail notices just to be sure I wouldn’t miss any of their stone fruit varieties as they ripen to perfection. In mid-May, watch for early white and yellow peaches, but don’t forget to come back in mid-July: that’s when my all-time favorite, the Suncrest peach, ripens. By late July the Fay Elbertas are at their prime along with the clingstone peach varieties, which will appeal to canners.
Apricots at Wolfe Ranch are sold on a pre-picked-only basis, since they are quite delicate when tree ripened and deserve an experienced picking hand. From late May through June you can stop by for Castlebrite, Perfection, and Patterson apricots, or for my apricot of choice, the Royal Blenheim. By the end of June, Wolfe Ranch’s Santa Rosa plums are ready.
Two other Brentwood-area farms with good stone fruit are Tachella Family Farms (now on Facebook or call 925.513.8495), home of the small but extraordinarily flavorful Goldensweet Apricot, and McKinney Farms (A Peachy Place) growing almost 20 different varieties of white and yellow peaches for the u-pick crowd. Call McKinney at 925.634.7830 to check on availability May–July.
To determine ripeness with stone fruits like apricots, peaches and nectarines, you’ll be looking for various shades of red, orange, and yellow over a creamy color background. Make sure you see no sign of green (unless they are Royal Blenheims, which sometimes have a green tinge when ripe). All will give off a very pleasant smell when ripe, and that’s maybe the best indicator. Since tree-ripe stone fruits are not as sturdy as apples, it’s important to pull them straight off the branch using the sides of your fingers, not the tips.
Berries are available picked and for-the-picking at several farms in the Brentwood area from May into July every year. Pease Ranch is my regular stop for boysenberries, loganberries, and olallieberries. Picking berries brings back fond memories of languid childhood summers, but the effort is a labor of love, so there’s no shame in letting the experts do it. If you’re planning to pick your own, be sure to wear long sleeves to protect your arms from the brambles. The farm supplies a wide cardboard tray so your berries can spread out and not crush under their own weight.
Color is always the best indicator of ripeness. Properly ripened blackberries, boysenberries, and olallieberries should be a deep, rich purple-black hue, while loganberries will have a red tinge. A ripe berry will pull free from the plant with only a slight tug. Picked berries should be refrigerated as soon as possible when you get them home. Wash only as many as you need at a time and freeze any extras.
Other Crops in the Brentwood Area
Lots of farmers in the Brentwood area grow asparagus, corn, figs, cucumbers, and melons, but these are never offered for public picking, so look to buy them pre-picked at the stands dotting the Harvest Time Trail. Some of my favorite stands are: Farmer’s Daughter, Dwelley Farms, Smith Farms, Gursky Ranch Country Store, and The Stand at Knightsen.
Enjoy and see you in Brentwood! If you stop by my Cottage Kitchen farmers market stand at the Walnut Creek market on Sundays, Lafayette market on Thursdays, or at the Orinda market on Saturdays, I’ll have complimentary copies of the Harvest Time in Brentwood map. •
Tips for a Pleasurable Picking Experience
• Before you go, call or check farm website for updates.
• It’s fun to photograph people having a good time in the orchard, so don’t forget to recharge your camera battery the day before.
• Bring snacks for the trip out, but once you’re there, everyone will have plenty to eat.
• Pack washcloths and water for wiping sticky fingers.
• Wear comfortable clothing, a hat, and sunscreen.
• Follow farm rules regarding picking, ladder safety, and trash.
• Pay for what you pick.
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. When not roaming the produce aisles she is at her farmers market stand selling the Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at email@example.com
Zina Deretsky is a board-certified medical illustrator, and a science and technology illustrator for the National Science Foundation. You can see more of her work at www.zina-studio.com . More of Helen Krayenhoff’s illustrations can be found at
www.helenkrayenhoff.com . To purchase her decorated planting calendar go to www.kassenhoffgrowers.com