Sep 3, 2009

The Biggest Little Farm in Napa

You've probably heard of The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's definitive nouveau American restaurant that launched a little Napa County town called Yountville into the culinary stratosphere. You may even know that The French Laundry grows their own produce, mostly in a two-acre plot across Washington Street that brims with herbs and seasonal vegetables—from broccoli and Brussels sprouts to beans, tomatoes, radishes, leeks, and a seemingly infinite number of lettuces, to name just a few.

But what you probably don't know is that when Chef Keller needs green almonds, or white strawberries, or one of 10 types of figs or countless different culinary flowers, he travels a little farther afield: to Jacobsen Orchards.

Although it's just a few blocks from The French Laundry, you won't find Jacobsen Orchards on any map, nor is it open to the public. As essentially the restaurant's R&D laboratory, the 1.3-acre farm teems with 120 fruit trees, half a dozen varieties of melon, 18 different citrus, 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and curiosities most of us will never grow: white carrots, white miniature cucumbers, Japanese eggplant, caperberry, the odd-looking but delicious perennial tuber crosnes ("crones"), and the singular savory-acid-crunchy-juicy Ficoide glaciale.

Our host at Jacobsen Orchards was Ryan Hill, proprietor of the Hill Family Estate winery which has long ties to the land and landowner, Peter Jacobsen (aka PJ). Ryan walks the farm as if he had sown the seeds himself, bestowing samples of Korean mint and scarlet runner bean blossoms as he fluently discusses the breba crop of Brown Turkey figs. Ryan HillHe shows off the outdoor kitchen and fireplace, expertly crafted of rammed earth. And he gets our mouths watering with a description of "PJ's Peach Flambé," a dessert that sounds as much art form as recipe (below).

Nothing on the farm is wasted; or rather, every opportunity is maximized. The 'Sylvetta' arugula which has bolted? Its flowers are used in salads. The lovage which invites pollinator insects to the garden? Its pungent celery scent makes a great substitute for bay leaf. Long after those Brown Turkey figs are gone, the tree's leaves may be used to impart a coconut essence to soups and other dishes. Fennel pollen seasons fish, daylily petals are roasted into chips, garlic blossoms and lemon verbena leaves perform their olfactory sleights of hand. We and our host revel in the symbiotic relationship between the produce and the chefs who use it in their daily culinary alchemy.

CompostNaturally, all the green waste is composted, with the yield used as a mulch and reintegrated into the soil as crops are rotated throughout the seasons and years. The scraps also contribute to perhaps the farm's most precious product: snails, in fact the only certified organic culinary snails in the United States. The little critters are sourced to The French Laundry for—what else?—escargots, perhaps prepared into a fricassée with a puree of sweet carrots and roasted shallots. To accompany such a dish, Ryan recommends either the Hill Family's 2007 "Stewart Ranch" Pinot Noir, with enough acidity to complement the snails, or the silky-smooth tannins of their 2006 "Clarke Vineyard" Syrah. Happily for us, their tasting room also sells seed packets of some of Jacobsen Orchards' organic flowers and produce, so we can attempt to replicate a bit of the Jacobsen family's magic.

In the 15 or so years of its existence, I've never had the pleasure of dining at The French Laundry. If you have, most likely you've enjoyed the fruits of PJ's labors. But even if you haven't, chances are that almost any contemporary meal you enjoy has been influenced by Chef Keller. And, in turn, by Jacobsen Orchards.


PJ's Peach Flambé
As narrated by Ryan Hill and Peter Jacobsen

"This is culinary theatre, a circus act that creates a great dessert. This is not a recipe for wimps."

Serves Four

≤3 large peaches or nectarines, cut into irregular pieces
2 figs (not necessary, but adds flavor)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup rum
½ cup Grand Marnier (or any orange based liquor)
Pint or quart (depends on how much your guests enjoy ice cream) Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche

1. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the bottom of a 12" frying pan and put it over very high heat. Let it melt until clear and then let the edges start to brown. You are creating caramels. Caution! The pan will be very hot.

2. Once the sugar has melted and you have the browned the edges (brown, not black) then add the butter. Don’t forget, the pan is screamin’ hot, the butter will melt fast. Roll it around the pan until it is completely melted. You can even stir it a bit with a spatula. You are making brown butter caramel. You will love the smell and the drama. But there is more drama to come.

3. Once the butter has fully melted and has almost stopped foaming, quickly put all the fruit into the pan at once and stir so that each piece gets coated with brown butter/sugar caramel. Timing is important here. If you let the butter or sugar burn, that’s not good. Be prepared with all the fruit ready to go. You will notice, when you put the fruit into the pan, the pan is still very, very hot. That’s the plan. You want the sugars of the fruit to mix with the butter caramel and scorch a little bit as the boiling juices cool the pan down. You still have the pan on a very high heat. Temperature and timing are all in this recipe.

4. Allow fruit to sit and "fry" for 1.5 to 2 minutes as the pan cools down to boiling.

5. Quickly pour in the rum (measures get less exact at this point. Two or three glugs [a unit of measure based on the sound of the fluid pouring out of the bottle] is perfect.) Did I mention, quickly? The pan is hot, the rum has alcohol, and there will be fire. Quickly pour in the rum and get the bottle far away from the flame. This is not Molotov cocktail time. That would be too much drama. You can always pre-measure the rum in a cup and have it ready. Cups don’t explode. That is a good thing.

Shake the pan so the rum coats the fruit and starts to boil, then tip the pan slightly so the flames "see" the alcohol boiling off. Pow!, now we’re smokin’, or actually you will be flamin’. (Do the French say flambé-in'?) Let it boil until the flames die down and then boil a bit more, 1.5 minutes, to get the juices hotter and thicker.

6. Add the Grand Marnier, and repeat step 5.

7. Allow the fruit and juice to boil down until the liquid becomes thicker and concentrated. It is thick enough when the bubbles of the liquid start to get very small.

8. Scoop over a bit of cake or beside a nice dollop of Dulce de Leche ice cream. The caramels of the Dulce de Leche ice cream complement the caramels of the peaches perfectly.



Susan aka Miss R said...

Sometimes I am so jealous of all the cool California stuff...sometimes not so much. Today is a yes! Sophisticated food and sustainable gardening + a great recipe. Yowza!

Daffodil Planter said...

You're serving this at your house when? I'll drive down!

steve said...

Hey, John, I went and did that MeMe thing. Funny enough, I even included your Mz Rumphius in there.

The Galloping Gardener said...

Sounds good to me!!

Barbara Miller said...

I had the unique pleasure of dining at The French Laundry and it was purely by accident. About 10 years ago, my husband at the time and I, actually got lost trying to find our B&B. We pulled off the main road and stopped directly in front of the restaurant. I have been trying to make reservations for months and here I was in front of this icon of a restaurant. I decided, what the heck, and went in to say "hi" and ask if they had a reservation available for the next evening. "Yes, we do" at 9:30 p.m. I took it!! It was the most amazing dining experience of my life.

Barbara, Welcome To My Garden