April 25, 2022
I’m writing this from a little Airbnb cabin about five miles away from the spot in the Sierra Nevada foothills where the infamous Caldor Fire began its rampage toward South Lake Tahoe on August 14, 2021. Here, bluebirds, oak titmice, house finches, and at least one hairy woodpecker keep company with bears and coyotes, plus one young bobcat, whom I just happened upon as he was stalking the morning smorgasbord of rodents from the end of a row of cabernet sauvignon.
Yesterday, my foraging guru and I hauled about a gallon of morel mushrooms out of the burned-down woods just uphill from these vineyards. The “little soldiers,” as she calls them, were dressed in shades of olive drab that so perfectly matched the soil and pine duff that I would never have spotted them on my own. As I busied myself cutting and cleaning the catch—following strict “leave no trace” protocol—my captain scouted for new redoubts on the steep, fire-scarred slope. I felt heartened while observing how these and other fungi participate in the recovery of a burned forest.
So, how did we cook the “soldiers?” A dozen of them surrendered their umami flavors (along with some fine particles of charcoal grit) into a sauté with chopped shallot and a quiver full of Full Belly Farm asparagus spears. After the mixture had sizzled in olive oil for about 10 minutes, we stirred in a big dollop of crème fraîche and served the mélange over fusilli pasta. To wash it down, we popped the cap on a pomegranate-flavored hard cider, procured the day before from apple farmer Johann Smit at his Hidden Star Orchards tasting barn in nearby Camino, a town on US 50 that luckily did not succumb to the Caldor Fire.
Stepping back to the beginning of this three-day culinary treasure hunt, we’re at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley town of Guinda. The occasion was one in a series of EcoFarm Field Days held in April through June 2022 by the Santa Cruz County–based nonprofit Ecological Farming Association as part of its work to advance “just and ecological farming and food systems through education, alliance building, celebration and advocacy.” Indeed, most of the farms being showcased in the series are quite well known among Northern California’s food and farming crowd as pinnacles of leadership in regenerative practices. This particular tour drew many farmers (plus a mix of master gardeners, teachers, architects, and the merely curious) who had come to learn how this exemplary 37-year-old organic farm is producing abundant food in our time of climate crisis.
The day felt like a peak moment in the Full Belly Farm spring calendar as the (above-mentioned) asparagus strove to outperform the grower’s huge strawberries, which were vibrating with intense sweetness and heat in their small patch near the farms’ 50-year-old legacy walnut orchard. After gorging on hot berries, we were relieved to wade into the orchard’s lushly cool knee-deep ground cover—a variegated lacery studded with flowering rose clover and purple vetch. Full Belly farmer Paul Muller listed the ground cover mix as vetch, peas, clovers (rose and burr medic), oats, rye grass, radish, fava beans, and an assortment of weeds including plantain, groundsel, and shepherd’s purse. “Most of these were planted to increase diversity on the orchard floor, and we let things go [through] the flowering season for the myriad of beneficial insects, wasps, bees, and other good workers who need to be fed a little pollen and nectar in order to go to work on the farm,” he said.
Such ground covers also help hold moisture in fields that are about to be pounded by a long summer drought. That threat from extreme dryness was in the corner of everyone’s eye in the form of a black stubble of burned trees up on the western ridge that separates this demure valley from neighboring Napa Valley as a reminder that the farm had a close call with the LNU Lightning Complex fires in August of 2020.
Fear may be a flavor we have to accept in our changing world, but that does not take away all joy, and in that mood, I’ll hand you over to this issue. You’ll find two uniquely dramatic farm-to-table stories, two charming tales of young men learning in the kitchen, plus sundry guides, recipes, gardening advice, and news items. I hope you will find much to care for as we move into another challengingly dry season with love for all that life gives us and perseverance to see our way forward.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Edible East Bay