This past Friday, early morning, I had the pleasure of standing alongside Nancy Skall, organic farmer extraordinaire, at the St. Helena farmers' market. With the good fortune of perfect timing, I called Nancy Thursday evening to ask her if she was going to be at the market, (which I thought was Saturday.) Not quite sounding herself I asked if she was ok. She wasn't and expressed worry about having to get up the next morning near 4 am to drive to the market. I immediately said I would get there and help her out.
Nancy has never had a helper at the market. Feeling much better the next day, she would have sent me home if I were not as stubborn as she about staying to keep her company. But I was so happy to have this opportunity, spending those hours watching her do her thang; meeting her longtime customers, lending her my ear for her take-no-prisoners wit and dish on the personal-political goings on of chefs and socialites in the Napa Valley, and meeting the many people who consider Nancy a treasure.
Farmers who see the insides of many kitchens on their delivery routes oftentimes know more about those places and the people who run them than you, if you've worked in them. And if you've worked in enough kitchens, you keep coming across the same delivery people, cooks, sous chefs and waiters. Pretty soon the world becomes smaller than you know, or want to know.
Nancy has always spoken her truth with me. She is smart and sharp, brutally honest and generous with praise. I met her 10 years ago after becoming friendly with Malcolm, her late husband who delivered Nancy's produce proudly and gracefully into The French Laundry kitchen. Malcolm never took credit for the emerald thumb his wife possessed, although I learned later that it was he who had gifted her with those 8 acres with which to plant and play, farm and garden, produce and sell from.
This past spring it was a great honor to write about my relationship with Malcolm and Nancy in Edible San Francisco. Memorable Fruit was about strawberries; Nancy's fruit gave me my chief inspiration and Malcolm's sneaky and affectionate antics created the narrative. This past Friday Nancy proudly gave away copies of the magazine, I helped weigh her exquisite produce and we caught up on each other's news.
Nancy admits freely that she makes no money farming. You might never know it from her steep price tags. Eight acres is a large back yard by most people's standards. She says it's therapy for her and I imagine she will do it right up until she truly can no longer handle it physically.
Nancy Skall is 77. Her farm is well worth a trip and the dent it will surely make in your wallet. (I once spent $66 on a single layer flat of the most perfect raspberries I had ever tasted.) But, like Mr. Hoffman's walnut farm, Middleton Gardens might not be around after its keeper goes.
I have paid a number of visits to Middleton Gardens in the last 10 years, although it has been a while since I've taken the scenic journey. I plan on making time in the next two weeks, before I am on the road until August. (!)
Nancy produces a number of specialty fruits and vegetables which you will be hard pressed to find elsewhere, unless you're a regular diner at Chez Panisse or work for the highly secret Chino Ranch farm near San Diego.
Please allow me to give you just 2 examples.
Pictured here is a white fraises des bois strawberry. The most delicate in body, flavor and fragrance of any strawberry, fraises des bois are veritably impossible to find as a retail or even wholesale customer. They are basically disintegrating as soon as they are picked and should be eaten as soon after as possible. I think I made one young woman very happy yesterday when I sent a handsome fellow home with Nancy's last basket.
Nancy also had about a half dozen half pints of light red, almost translucent berries which seemed to be glowing from the inside like fruit UFOs.
MARA DES BOIS! Strawberries like none you've ever tasted unless you are as old as Orlando. Read David Karp's expose on these rare fruits by clicking here.
Seriously. This strawberry could change your life. After I tasted this varietal from Chino Ranch when I was doing a bit of work at Chez Panisse a few springs ago, I could not get the taste and the perfume out of my head.
I'm happy to report I went home with some of the fruits of Nancy's labor. It's just me and the dogs for dinner tonight but I'm hoping when I leave the farm tomorrow, to share at least a few of these exquisitely delicious, rare and aromatic fruits and vegetables with one lucky person...
See you soon?