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8 Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables With Sonoma County Roots

Many of our best-known crops — grapes, olives, apples— were originally tended in distant lands. But a few local treasures have deeper roots that sink down into history right here, and only here.

Yes, Sonoma is blessed — with extraordinarily fertile soils and countless microclimates. Our carefully tended gardens, nurseries, farms, vineyards, and orchards offer a year-round abundance that nourishes our bodies and delights our spirits.

Many of our best-known crops — grapes, of course, but also olives we press into oil, and our famous Gravenstein apple — were originally tended in distant lands. But a few local treasures have deeper roots that sink down into history right here, and only here.

Mesclun, that ubiquitous mix of baby greens now typically sold as bagged salad mix, got its start in Sonoma in the 1980s. The greens themselves were not born in our soil, but the idea of harvesting them young and combining many varieties and species, long a practice in France, came from a few passionate Sonoma farmers. And every Shasta daisy in the world is genetically connected to its roots in Sonoma County.

Our unique abundance engenders a passionate pride of place, which can in turn lead to some friendly competition among local farmers. The late Nancy Skall of Healdsburg’s Middleton Farm, for example, was fond of saying that growing garlic is a competitive sport. Among the hundreds of heirloom varieties that thrive here, several stand out as truly ours. The eight that follow are some of our favorites.

The Crane melon

Close your eyes, lean close, and breathe in the sweet floral aromas of Sonoma County’s signature melon, the Crane. Inside the greenish-white, lightly striped skin is juicy, succulent coral-colored flesh that, at its ripest, possesses hints of honey and rose petals. It is a Crenshawtype melon, a cross of several varieties including ones from Japan and Persia. Its unique taste is an expression of the place where it was born and continues to thrive.

Oliver Crane, the son of the original settler who established the farm on Petaluma Hill Road in Santa Rosa in 1852, developed the melon around 1900. It has been sold exclusively at the Crane Melon Barn for nearly 100 years. The landmark 1868 barn, built entirely of redwood, has withstood earthquakes, floods, and fires and is now a county historic site.

Harvest begins in September and wraps up around Halloween, when the last of the year’s crop vanishes like little ghosts. This year, there are 20 acres of melons, all of which will be sold at the barn. Many Crane melon lovers are so devoted they make a special trip to the barn each fall.

Farmer Rick Crane and his daughter Jennifer Crane now oversee the barn and farm. Although her parents prefer the melon at room temperature, Jennifer prefers hers chilled. If she wants to gild the lily, she might add some vanilla bean ice cream, but nothing more. The melon is a delight on its own.

The Petaluma Gold Rush pole bean

“I grow the Petaluma Gold Rush pole bean because it is local, because it is our bean,”  says farmer Wayne James of Tierra Vegetables.

The bean was introduced to Petaluma in the mid 1800s by the Azevedo family, who farmed here for decades. It has a speckled appearance, a rich, meaty flavor, and a creamy texture. The pods are packed so tight – with about six beans per pod – that the beans end up with squared-off edges from growing so close together. To grow the plant well, it must be trellised, which means it’s more difficult to harvest than a bush bean. Trellised beans are harder to put through the thresher, explains James. Because of these challenges, James can’t grow enough of the bean to keep up with demand. The farm typically sells out soon after harvest in late summer and early fall.

Chef Eric Tucker of Oakland’s Millennium Restaurant is a customer and fan, especially of the flavorful pot liquor produced as the beans cook. A simmering pot of these beans needs nothing more than salt, pepper, and perhaps a bit of chile to be deeply satisfying.

The Nopal cactus

As the story goes, plant breeder Luther Burbank liked to talk to his plants. “Give up your thorns,” he told the Nopal cactus, which he grew in an effort to establish the tough little cactus as cattle fodder. “You have nothing to fear; I will protect you.”

But Burbank was wrong about that, as he was about many things. The cactus gave up its giant thorns, but cattle loved it so much they ate it down to the quick, and the cactus could not regenerate.

Despite being nearly wiped out in the 1920s, it now thrives in locations throughout the North Bay, including an original planting at Burbank’s garden in Santa Rosa and another at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, where the author grew it to feed to cattle on his sustainable farm. The cactus’s paddles, which have tiny thorns, are harvested for nopales.

The fruit, commonly called prickly pear or tunas, makes delicious juice and puree. The cactus also provides a home for the cochineal beetle, the source of the bright red dye used in everything from liqueur to lipstick.

Removing the tiny thorns is time-consuming and many Sonoma markets now offer nopales already de-thorned and diced. Nopales taste similar to green beans and okra. They are delicious in a soft taco with diced potatoes and chorizo. And chef Colleen McGlynn of DaVero Farms & Winery in Healdsburg enjoys nopales seared in a hot skillet with chiles, then folded into salsa.

The Chilean guava

To add a spark to fall salads, look no further than the Chilean guava, which is not a guava at all but an unusual and rare bush berry with a taste evocative of strawberries, black pepper, and, some say, tropical punch. It’s descended from a plant native to Chile and was hybridized by Luther Burbank.

The plant, which resembles a pyracantha bush, is about 3 to 4 feet tall, easy to grow, and makes a pretty addition to gardens. Tiny, bell-shaped flowers ripen into sweet little berries later than most berries, well into October. Because of its resemblance to pyracantha, which also produces red berries, the berries can be easy to miss, but that would be a mistake, as they are delicious. Be sure to get to the berries before hungry birds can devour them. They’re best enjoyed raw, straight from the bush; they don’t do well as jam.

Sebastopol’s Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery sells this unique local heirloom.

The Bodega Red potato

“I love the potato-y flavor,” says chef and sausage maker Franco Dunn about the almost-famous Bodega Red potato. He cooks with it often, recently serving the potato in empanadas with homemade chorizo, zucchini, and corn. The potato’s pronounced flavor shines through it all, he says, even the sausage.

The Bodega Red is small and oblong with thin, deep-pink skin and pearly white flesh. When cooked, it is neither waxy nor starchy, but rich and creamy. It is said to have developed locally from a variety of potato that jumped ship with a Chilean soldier in the 1840s. It was grown commercially throughout our region until the 1970s before nearly going extinct due to a virus.

The Bodega Red was rescued from the compost heap of history in 2006 thanks to a few local farmers and a group of food enthusiasts, Slow Food Sonoma County North. That year, a few pounds of seed potatoes were grown for the first time in more than a century. Now, a company in Stockton provides certified virus-free seed to a growing number of backyard gardeners and small farmers, and not just in Sonoma. A pound of this seed yields about eight pounds of yummy spuds.

And the potato’s link to local history lives on in Bodega Bay’s Spud Point, named for a barge full of Bodega Reds that sank nearby.

The Winterstein apple

“I like to use a variety of apples to give a range of flavor to galettes and pies,” says Dominique Cortara of Dominique’s Sweets, a popular stop for pastries at the Santa Rosa and Sebastopol farmers markets. Those varieties include Sonoma’s own Winterstein apple, a cousin of the beloved Gravenstein, which comes from Europe.

Although some growers suggest the apple can be harvested late enough to provide fresh apples for Thanksgiving pies, most Wintersteins are harvested in September, extending the season of the Grav by just a few weeks, not months. The variety is a bit sweeter than the Gravenstein, as it hangs on the tree longer, during the typically hot weeks of late August. And like its cousin, the Winterstein is not a storage apple. It should be enjoyed soon after harvest or else it will soften quickly.

Luther Burbank selected the Winterstein from a group of Gravenstein crosses he was working with, eventually managing to extend the season a few precious weeks into fall.

The Trumpet Royale mushroom

Rich, meaty, and earthy, with a texture similar to a porcini, the Trumpet Royale was born in the heart of Sonoma County. A favorite of chefs, the creamy-white and tan mushroom blossoms when it is sautéed in butter over high heat or grilled over hot coals. Stirred into a creamy risotto, folded into a tart or pastry, or simply enjoyed neat with salt and pepper, the Trumpet Royale is irresistibly delicious.

This pretty ’shroom was developed at Mycopia Mushrooms in northeast Sebastopol. Malcolm Clark, a Canadian scientist, developed a technique for cultivating shiitake mushrooms and was looking for a location to establish his fledgling company. As luck would have it, the shiitake thrives in the same cool west county climate that supports favorites like the Gravenstein apple. Today, the company cultivates eight culinary mushrooms for sale across the country, including the Trumpet Royale, and maintains an active development program — which means we can look forward to more Sonoma-bred varieties in the future.

The Sebastopol tomato

For seventy years, a Sebastopol woman whose name is lost to history grew a unique cherry tomato, saving the seeds from one year to the next and passing them on to friends and neighbors. Today, that tomato is known as the Sebastopol tomato and its seeds are sold by several companies who specialize in distributing rare heirloom seeds, including the Living Seed Company in Point Reyes Station. The Sebastopol tomato joins a few other locally developed favorites, including the more well-known Burbank Slicing tomato.

The Sebastopol tomato is a vigorous bright-red variety is perfect for Sonoma’s cool coastal climates, as it can ripen without a lot of heat and produces very sweet ¾-inch fruits with a delightful burst of acid.

Local tomato expert Doug Gosling, garden and nursery program director at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, offers starts of the rare tomato at the center’s nursery each spring. He also happily eats quite a lot of them. “I like to cook them in a very hot oven with olive oil, garlic, and salt until they are melted but still intact,” he says. They are delicious spooned over pasta, polenta, or grilled bread.

Editor’s Note: Travel, dining and wine tasting can be complicated right now. Use our inspirational ideas to plan ahead for your next outing, be it this week or next year. If you visit restaurants, wineries, and other businesses during the pandemic, remember to call ahead, make reservations, wear a mask and social distance.

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