Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It's Persimmon Season!

Hachiya Persimmons

It is now early November and after a long dry summer we are enjoying all things Fall - the cool weather, the hills turning green, the smell of damp earth, and now, ripe persimmons. We have two types, the heart shaped Hachiya and the tomato shaped Fuyu. Both are delicious but very different in their ripening requirements.

Unripe Hachiyas have very high tannin content and taste terribly astringent in that stage. They must be allowed to ripen completely until the skin is translucent and they are as soft as water balloons. When fully orange but still firm they can be picked and allowed to finish ripening off the tree. (Tip: Enclose them in a paper bag with an apple or banana. These fruits give off natural ethylene gas which speeds ripening.) When fully ripe they taste like fruit syrup, super sweet and delicious. You can use them in persimmon cookies or cake, or just spoon the gelatinous pulp over oatmeal or ice cream.

Fuyu persimmons

Fuyus on the other hand can be eaten when still crisp-firm, or left to soften further. Once fully orange they are very sweet and can be eaten like an apple, sliced up into Waldorf or green salads, used to make chutney, or sliced on top of cereal or pancakes. One of our favorites is a simple fruit appetizer of peeled and sliced Fuyus sprinkled with fresh lime juice. Since the persimmons are sweet and very low acid, the addition of the lime juice really sets them off. This dish always amazes guests!

Sliced Fuyus and lime

Cover crop update
Timely fall rains and warm days have provided perfect conditions for the cover crop seed to sprout in the orchard floor. With adequate winter rains the seedlings will become a tall dense stand of nutrient rich plant matter by next spring. We will then mow it down to cycle it back into the soil for grow-it-yourself fertilizer. In the meantime we watch the weather forecasts hoping for more rain.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Feeding the Soil

Throughout the spring and summer our trees have flourished, drawing nutrients from the soil to produce vigorous growth and loads of fine fruit. Now, as the long dry summer comes to an end it's time for us to give back to the soil to restore it for next year's crops. Rather than relying upon synthetic chemical fertilizers we follow the organic practice of fostering nature's method of nutrient cycling.

In the natural world plants take up nutrients from the soil and convert them into roots, stems, leaves and seeds. The plants then die or shed their leaves onto the ground where they become food for a wide range of microbial life. Molds, fungus, bacteria, earthworms, and insects small and large break this vegetable matter down into nutrients available for future plant growth. In an undisturbed environment like a forest this cycling of nutrients is perpetual, from soil minerals to plant matter to microbial and animal life and back to the soil. In organic agriculture we do our best to mimic and enhance this natural method of nutrient cycling. In fact the rules of organic certification require not just avoiding synthetic chemicals but taking steps to actively improve soil health.
Spreading compost on the orchard floor

Our main methods are: annual soil tests by an agricultural soil testing laboratory, heavy applications of compost, planting a cool season cover crop in the orchard floor, and mowing the cover crop down to leave a mulch in late spring. So every year about this time, before the first fall rains, we spread 24 tons of high nutrient compost evenly over the orchard floor. This material is produced in Yolo County from recycled yard and farm waste, composted to maximize nutrients and microbial life and certified for use on organic farmland.

My home built planter sowing cover crop seed

Next we plant a cover crop mixture of bell beans, field peas, and vetch. These are all legumes, wonderful plants that take nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots where it will be available to successive crops. Other benefits of cover cropping are prevention of erosion, increasing soil porosity via deep tap roots, and increasing water storage in the soil by reducing rain runoff and raising levels of organic matter in the soil. At the same time the cover crop is a major tool in insect pest control. These legumes all bloom heavily in the spring, attracting many types of beneficial insects to the orchard which then help control pest species.

Since we depend almost entirely on rainfall to sprout and grow the cover crop, timing of planting and generous fall storms are critical to success. I'm happy to report that as I write this, just days after spreading compost and planting, the weather gods are coming through for us with the first big storm of the season. 2 1/2 inches of rain so far with more on the way. Sometimes things just work out right!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are you a Philosykos?

Ripe figs show splits in the skin
Every inhabitant of Athens was said to be a philosykos, literally translated a friend of the fig. Mithridates, the Greek King of Pontus, heralded figs as an antidote for all ailments, instructing his physicians to use them medicinally and ordering his citizens to consume figs daily. And Pliny, the Roman writer (52-113 AD) said, “Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly in better health and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.”

So if you need a reason to eat figs, there you have it. But those already familiar with the fruit will know their delicious flavor is reason enough. But as with most fruits you will seldom find decent flavor in grocery store figs. Happily though, fig trees abound in California backyards and grow wild along many local roads and creeks. The secret is to pick them ripe - the common Black Mission fig should be black almost all the way to the top. They should be very soft with the stem becoming limp. Another sign of ripeness is splitting of the skins.

Our second crop of figs is now winding down. We only have two trees, and most of our crop goes to our devoted Berkeley restaurant chefs who can never seem to get enough. We dry most of our seconds in our solar dryer for winter snacking and off-season restaurant sales. But keep your eyes peeled as you drive local streets and roads and you should have no trouble finding trees dripping with unwanted figs this time of year.

Fig Recipes
For those who have not tried cooking with figs we offer a couple of our favorite recipes here, one a main course side dish and one a dessert. Our restaurant clients often use figs as part of savory dishes. Grilled or roasted figs make happy companions to pork, fowl, and cheeses on the dinner plate.

Grilled Figs Wrapped in Bacon - While grilling portobello mushrooms recently, we threw some of these on the fire. The result: amazing! About the time the bacon is cooked the figs assume a rich jam-like sweetness infused with bacon flavor. Use sturdy toothpicks soaked in water for two hours so they don't burn up. A recipe from Alice Waters
Wrap figs with a strip of bacon,
skewer with a toothpick
Grill until bacon is soft cooked,
turning constantly,about 10 minutes

Arrange thin fig slices on a simple crust
Fig Gallette - This is a very simple, fast and delicious dessert. We thank Oprah for printing this recipe in her magazine. Here is the link:

We like to add some almonds, slivered or sliced, on top of the figs.

The finished product!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's Pear Season!

A single old pear tree stands tall near the south fence line of our property. Its crop comes early and we are eating the last of its harvest this week. It's an heirloom variety, probably a Clapps Favorite, and sadly we never have enough to offer for sale. But since the Bartlett pears from Suisun and the Delta are available now, you might want to try out a new recipe idea. Pears involve a bit more work than some other fruits since they are usually peeled, halved, cored, then sliced.

Pear coring tool

A Pear Corer comes in handy for the job; if you haven't seen one in person, look at Bill's photos of this clever tool in use. The working end of the tool itself is even pear-shaped!

Pears are great for drying and canning; you can add fresh pears to salads or eat them with yogurt for breakfast. But at our house, pear pie is the ultimate showcase for this lovely fruit. This treasured recipe comes from Candy DuMont of Vacaville, who won first prize in a recipe contest sponsored by our local newspaper years ago. Here it is, as printed on the yellowed-newsprint clipping that is still filed in my recipe box.

Pear Pie with Cheese Crumble Top
5 fresh Bartlett pears
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
1/8 tsp. salt

Pare, core and slice pears. Combine sugar, flour, ginger and salt. Mix with pears and turn into pastry shell. Sprinkle on the cheese crumble topping. Bake below oven center in a hot oven (425 degrees) until pears are tender and crust crisp and golden brown (40-45 minutes.) Serve warm.

Cheese Crumble Topping
1/3 cup sifted flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3 Tbsp. melted butter

If you like almonds, try adding about 1/3 cup of sliced or chopped almonds to the crumble topping. We always do.

Eat well,


Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Life of a Fig

Right now we're enjoying a break from harvesting as we wait for the second crop of figs to ripen. That's right - figs generally produce two separate crops of fruit per year, one in June and another in August.

The first figs develop from buds that formed on the previous year's shoots. The tree sits dormant through the winter, then the leaf and fruit buds begin growing in the spring. The first crop figs expand, while each branch tip extends with new shoot growth. But all along this new stem growth more new figs form. These figs that grow on the current year's growth are the second crop figs. The photo above shows a ripe first crop Black Mission fig along with several immature second crop figs.

Lovers of figs might consider planting one as a backyard tree. Other than a fairly sunny spot, a reasonable amount of space and moderate water, figs don't require much care. Except for bird damage to the fruit, they are one of the most trouble free and productive of fruit trees. They require only minimal pruning, just to eliminate the occasional rubbing branch or to provide headroom if near a walkway. Left alone they continue to expand like most trees, so where space is a problem size can be controlled by heavier pruning. Insect and disease problems are rare and unlike most other fruit trees there is never a need to thin excess fruit, a time consuming chore with most stone fruits!

Monday, July 12, 2010

After the June Harvest Frenzy

June is the hectic month at Sunny Slope Orchard. In the midst of all the fruit frenzy, we enjoy seeing you and sharing the delicious harvest. But there is little time for extended conversation when the trees are raining fruit upon us relentlessly. So now that July has arrived, we are starting this blog as a way to connect more often throughout the year.

This past week has involved a lot of cleanup. The peaches and apricots finished in late June, and the last of the plums and first crop of figs were harvested this weekend. The ever-popular bird scare machines are stored away, depriving passing motorists of amusement. The orchard floor is clean now; all the dropped fruit is picked up and the foxtails mowed again (hopefully for the last time this season.)

We eat what we grow, so food preservation is our next priority. During the harvest we dried, canned, and froze as much as we could for home use; this will continue all summer until our shelves and freezers are full enough. Some of you have inspired us with your recipes and ideas for using our fruit. Keep it up and consider posting your recipe ideas on this blog.

For cooks and canners, here are two simple recipes that use our luscious California crops:

Santa Rosa Plum Compote

Drunken Fig Jam 

Freezing fruit is very simple and preserves the fresh taste. Frozen apricots make wonderful apricot pie for Thanksgiving or the primo ingredient for jam-making in December. Simply cut the quantity of fruit you need for your recipe and freeze it in a Zip-Loc type bag, being sure to evacuate all air. Or, if you have a FoodSaver machine, you can freeze fruit into convenient shapes in a Tupperware-type container; when it has frozen solid, pop the frozen fruit “brick” out of the plastic container. Place it in the FoodSaver bag, and let the machine suck out the air and seal it. These golden bricks stacked in your freezer will be your culinary Fort Knox.

In summer, sorbets are a most refreshing treat. Here on the farm, we get a lot of culled fruit, fruit that is overripe, bird-pecked, sunburned, or scarred. We freeze juice from the plum culls to make sorbet. To juice plums, let them get very ripe, then squeeze them in your fist, discarding the pits. They squirt in all directions, so do this outside and put your squeezing hand down into a tall, deep cooking pot to catch all the juice. Bits of plum skin and chunks of plum flesh add to the taste and texture, so there is no need to strain the juice. Freeze the juice in the same way as described above for apricots.

Favorite Plum Sorbet recipe:

  • 3 cups plum juice
  • 1 cup sugar or to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. Vodka (which prevents the sorbet from freezing too hard)
Mix the above together then refrigerate until the mix is at 40°F. Process in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.