Sunday, July 31, 2005

Slow Food LA Weiser Family Farms field trip

What a wonderful day. Despite my early morning misgivings about getting up when the alarm went off at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, it was all worth it in the end...and even in the middle.

I joined the Slow Food L.A. tour to Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi, which is about 2 hours outside of Los Angeles, up where the Sierras are thinking about beginning.

Weiser Family Farms sells a variety of organic produce at southern California Farmers Markets. Much of it is rare or unusual varieties. At our market in Thousand Oaks, they mostly carry melons and tiny potatoes in red, white, yellow and purple.

About 40 of us foodies piled onto a fancy Santa Monica City "Big Blue Bus" (unlike most city buses, it had a restroom, TV screens and high-back seats) at 8 a.m. in Santa Monica after standing around drinking coffee and eating croissants and muffins in the parking lot.

Chattering like a bunch of caffeinated parakeets, we made new friends and talked food on the way up. We passed through dusty, deserty towns like Mojave, Lancaster and Palmdale, but as elevation rose we began to see more trees and green.

Alex Weiser greeted us. He is a wiry, enthusiastic, dark-haired guy who, along with the rest of his family, started the farm in the early 1980s after his dad, Sid, retired from teaching.

His passion and love for his work came through in every word, and as he got more into what he way saying, his hands began to fly in broader and broader gestures.

We drank Evan Kleiman's wonderful agua fresca of melon, mint and ginger while we listened to Alex's story of the first few years of the farm.

The family first tried growing apples and peaches and selling wholesale, but realized they couldn't make a living with such a narrow range of crops and with the low prices they were getting at wholesale markets.

Selling at certified farmers' markets is what made it possible for them to keep farming. Alex thanked us for supporting the markets. He said that the interaction with customers gave them the feedback they needed to know what to plant. The willingness of Farmer's Market patrons to try new foods or varieties also gives them an incentive to grow test plots every year, he said.

Then we headed out to the fields to see what the Weisers were growing up here at 4300 feet elevation in a town Alex calls "The land of four seasons." He said Tehachapi has four true seasons, each lasting about 3 months. It doesn't get as hot up there as it does in their other farms sites at lower elevations.

We saw tomatoes, branching broccoli, peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, berries, lilacs and all other manner of wonderful things on the farm.

People bring the Weisers seeds and cuttings from travels around the world so they can try new crops and introduce foreign foods to their customers. Alex revealed a few things he has in the pipeline to us, but I won't reveal his secrets, lest other copycat farmers get a jump on him.

We ate things that we harvested - tiny carrots, brocolli, tomatoes - standing out in the sun and enjoying tastes of pure freshness.

Warm melons were plucked from the vine, sliced up with pocket knives and shared. We had to bend over to keep the juices from running down our chins as we ate. It was a little taste of sweet heaven.

Someone said, "Notice how small everyone's vocabulary has gotten?" as everyone was reduced to saying "Oh wow," "Oh my God" or just "Ohhhhh."

We came in from the fields after about an hour and a half to find a feast that Evan Kleiman, chef/owner of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles, who also has a fabulous radio show on KCRW, Good Food, had made.

There was grilled eggplant, griddle-cooked bread, rustic bread drizzled with olive oil and grilled (or maybe grilled and drizzled with olive oil), sauteed chard, a rich potato and pasilla chile dish, carrots, a beautiful salad of heirloom tomatoes, oil-cured black olives, cucumbers and feta cheese -- and those were just the vegetarian offerings.

Weiser's workers had made a huge pork and potato stew in big pot in an underground oven and simmered it for a long time, letting the rich flavors come together.

We all came to the table and stayed for hours, eating, drinking and sharing. We were outdoors under a big tent with the fields just a few feet away.

The Weisers joined us and we toasted and thanked everyone in sight. There was a lot to be thankful for. I felt like I was in one of those gorgeous Saveur magazine photo spreads.

Just when we thought we were done eating, we found out that Evan had been busy making ice cream during the meal. Mindy Pfeiffer, one of the organizers, handed out little plastic cups of pinky-purple ice cream and as soon as everyone took a taste, conversation stopped for a minute as we pondered the layers of flavors our tongues were experiencing for the first time.

Then we got busy playing "guess the ingredients." Finally Evan came out and revealed the secret combination: goat milk, mulberries and saba, a concentrated grape must. I can make a pretty confident bet that that was a new one for everyone there and that it is something most of us will never have again.

The wine and the heat and our full bellies conspired to make our eyes heavy and our thoughts grow slow. Just in time, we climbed back on the bus, cranked up the air conditioning, and took a nice siesta on the two-hour trip home.

I love the spirit of people who love good food. Everyone was unpretentious, giving, and eager to share thoughts, recipes and experiences. I hope to be able to attend more of these Slow Food Los Angeles events.


Clare Eats said...

What a trip! I hope you keep going so that I can live vicariously through you!

Anonymous said...

hello you all!!!
i was the driver that took the group up to the farm and i just want to say that i had a great time up there. lets do it again soon!

Suebob said...

Thanks Clare. I hope you can join us!

Thanks, Ozzy. You were a great driver. I slept for 2 hours on the way home, so you must have been pretty smooth in all that Sunday traffic!