January 2022

Preservation History

In June, 1975, I moved to San Francisco and rented a flat on South Van Ness at 23rd St. At that point, my only experience with preserving was pickling okra and cucumbers and very little of that. But something clicked when I moved to San Francisco, and my interest in preserving escalated. Early the following summer, I discovered the Alemany Farmers’ Market. Oh my goodness! I’d moved here from Midland, Texas, and I was just stunned at the beautiful produce in Safeway because west Texas had set such a low standard. The farmers’ market took this to the next level by offering produce that was at least as handsome as that in Safeway, but cheaper. The first jelly I made was of blackberries and the first jam of peaches. I also went in with my friend Gary on a flat of little cucumbers that we split to make cornichons. Oh wow. The tiny French ones in upscale markets were certainly cuter, being so much smaller, but they were blindingly expensive, and Gary and I thought ours for a tenth of the price tasted every bit as good.

Back in the seventies, the only farmers’ market in town was the Alemany. The Heart of the City Farmers’ Market opened in 1981, but I didn’t discover it until 1988, and it was about then that my great love for preserving took off, and I started making friends with my favorite vendors. See, if you start buying frequently from a vendor, you begin to recognize each other. Then they smile when they see you coming and you start talking with them, and somewhere along in there you start thinking of them as friends and take them a jar of something you’ve preserved (but not something they grow and are up to their necks in). Then they smile even more and give you embarrassingly large discounts and comp things.

The first vendors from whom I bought regularly were Apolinar (Poli) Yerena and Lou Iacopi. They have both endured and are now at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and the Mission Community Market as well. Poli is at the Alemany and Heart of the City markets, too. He sells berries: strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and the queen of the berries, tayberries. Lou specializes in a wide variety of heirloom beans that he sells both fresh and dried but also has gorgeous Brussels sprouts and artichokes.

In the 1990’s I became a regular at more vendors:

Schletewitz – I actually discovered Schletewitz at the Foster City Farmers’ Market in 1992 when I was working at Oracle and drove over to the little market on my lunch hour. I met there Erik Schletewitz, then a farm boy still in high school who had, as an experiment, thrown a bunch of bags of his father’s oranges into his pickup and gone to the market to hawk them. Erik was handsome and charming, and the oranges were excellent; so he quickly sold out. I went through a bag every week until I kinda burned myself out on them. He continues to sell at the Heart of the City market, but unfortunately married a fabulous cook.

Oakdale Cheese – I discovered Oakdale at the Foster City market when I passed by their counter and spotted out of the corner of my eye “Quark”. I nearly knocked the counter over in my eagerness to grab this treat that I’d discovered in Germany in the sixties and had not eaten since. They were in the Ferry Plaza market when it opened, but got squeezed out later by a combination of escalating booth rental charges, too few products, and too much competition from too many other cheese vendors. Damn shame because they were the first vendor to sell quark. They continue to sell at the Marin Farmers’ Market on Sundays.

I discovered several favorite vendors at the Ferry Plaza market:

Hamada’s. Yukio Hamada was responsible for a great expansion of my knowledge of stone fruits, most especially the wild array of plum and apricot crosses spearheaded by Floyd Zeigler, and also various exotics like the Buddha’s Hand. Yukio passed the farm down to his son Cliff, who carried on until just a few years ago he got backed into a corner by a combination of drought and increasing expenses and had to stop coming to the market.

Tierra Vegetables. Lee and her behind-the-scenes brother grow an astonishing variety of heirloom produce on a tiny farm just north of Santa Rosa. They specialize in chiles, a great range of them, and sell them dried in various formats. My favorite is what she labels “Mole Crumble”, which is a great time and labor saver. By cooking this powder in a bit of schmaltz and then whipping it into some chicken stock, you have, almost miraculously, an excellent mole sauce, so good that I don’t recall better. And you haven’t spent the previous day in the kitchen messing up half your pots and pans. I served it one time to a group that included a Malaysian Chinese gourmet who, upon first taste excitedly exclaimed, “What is this?!” How sweet that was. Lee also introduced me to the Chantenay variety carrot, which has got to be the carrotiest carrot I ever tasted, and best of all, the poha. They look like a small tomatillo, to which they are closely related since they’re both in the genus Physalis, but when you tear the papery husk away the fruit is orange and sweet…and delicious.

Olsen’s. At some point in the early nineties I discovered Olsen’s mandarins and realized I’d never tasted better. So long as their season lasts, I eat nobody else’s.And then, at the Castro Farmers’ Market a couple of years after it first opened, a new vendor appeared, Rodin Farms, and I got a chance to meet the delightful Marie Rodin and feast on her stone fruit. What hooked me was the yellow nectarines, my favorite fruit, but they also bring to market white nectarines, yellow and white peaches, apricots, pluots, and plums. Ah yes, the plums. She grows several varieties including the meaty “sugar plums” (prunes d’Agen) and the prized Greengage plums (Reines Claudes). I know of no other source for these plums since few farmers grow them because they have a short season and don’t travel well. They are also accused of being capricious producers. As the name implies, the French consider them the queen of plums and treasure jam made from them.

Also at the Castro market is Shelly’s Eggs. Shelly is a delight, and her eggs are delicious. I get all my eggs from her in the months when the market is open.

Herr’s Farm at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market. The jewel in the crown of this market is Elizabeth Crane, the market manager and an old friend. The market has two vendors whom I patronize. The Herrs are Hmong immigrants and grow a variety of produce, including some unusual Asian vegetables. (I’m not talking here about ordinary stuff like bok choi and gai lon although they have them, too.) They also do repeated plantings of garlic so as to offer fresh green garlic for an extended period starting in the end of winter. They’ve also had snow peas, which I’ve pickled and are a great favorite. They comp me stuff and give me huge discounts that I try to repay by bring in my very “hottest” (extra chiles) jams that the grandmother likes.

The other vendor at the Noe Valley market that I routinely patronize is Johan Smit’s Hidden Star Orchards from whom I mainly get “seconds” apples that I use in my jams and jellies for their pectin but also in recent years his superb hard apple ciders, the strongest 8% alcohol. He’s also at the Ferry Plaza and Heart of the City markets.

Finally, a couple of vendors I like at the Alemany market are Bernard Citrus Ranch from whom I mainly get the old “Marsh” variety of grapefruit that is now nearly extinct since the farmers began replacing the old trees with sweet varieties. I like sugar as much as the next man, but grapefruit is supposed to be sour and eaten with salt. And mine is, so there.

The other is Nash’s Olive Oil. Nash presses superb upscale olive oils that I use on special occasions. He also has chickens and brings their eggs to market but sells out early. When I first started buying from him over twenty years ago I inquired whether he brought to market “retired” laying hens. He responded, “Aw, they work hard for me, so I just let ’em live out their lives running loose.”

I have never felt smaller.

No pic this time because I seem to have forgot how to insert them.

I have grist for another post, but don’t hold your breath because I sure am feeling my age.

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