In certain circles, some farmers are as famous as rock stars. Bon Appétit Farm to Fork partner Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, CA, is one of them. Renowned Berkeley, CA, restaurateur Alice Waters has been known to serve his O’Henry peaches, Rainier cherries, Goldensweet apricots, and Warren pears unadorned for dessert at Chez Panisse.
To learn why, I organized a tour of Al’s farm along with a group of 50 faculty members, staff, students, and Bon Appétit Sous Chef Cheylin Hale from Mills College in Oakland, CA. Al told us that instead of choosing fruit varieties for “shipability” and storage, he grows his heirloom and modern varieties for taste, and picks them at the peak of ripeness. With 300,000 trees and more than 100 varieties of fruits, most of them ripening in the summer months, Al also produces outstanding dried fruits and jams. Though the former are “just organic fruit plus sunshine,” as Al says, they have even more concentrated sugar and flavor than the farm’s fresh fruits.
Once an anthropology major and Spanish minor at UC Berkeley, Al has been farming his 133-acre certified-organic farm for over 25 years and is now a role model and resource for a growing group of the area’s aspiring young farmers, some of who are working to expand the Mills College Community Garden to production scale. Al jumped into farming with both feet first and is now a goldmine of information.
Cheylin created a special menu for the picnic lunch we all shared in the orchard. Raised on a 10-acre garden in southern Oregon, Cheylin gave a short talk about her passion for cooking with local ingredients as the students and staff enjoyed her baby mixed-greens medley with Sauterne-poached Asian pears, grilled Frog Hollow nectarines, shaved pecorino cheese and herbed lemon chicken confit, all dressed in poppyseed-pluot vinaigrette. A delicious plum and apple crisp followed for dessert.
Faculty representatives from Mills College Sustainability Committee, Campus Architecture, Human Resources, Provost’s Office, Biology Department, Institute for Civic Leadership, Mills Botanic Community Garden, and Sustainability and Recycling joined many first-year students who belong to Mills’ Social Justice, Sustainability, and Local Foods Living Learning Communities for the tour. For all of them, the day provided further connection with food and the people behind it