The Joys of Picking Your Own Fruit

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For the last 5 years or so, I’ve made a pilgrimage of sorts. I’m not a religious person, and to imply that I might be seems almost laughable, but going down to Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, CA is a sublime experience that satisfies me to a degree that surprises me every time I go. Andy Mariani is a fruit grower extraordinaire, with a beautiful orchard just over 20 miles south of San Jose. It’s a long drive for me, coming from Oakland, but it’s so worth it. Every year, Andy hosts a few tasting events – generally, one in June, one in July, and one in August, to offer the public an opportunity to sample the abundance of his orchard, and his hard work developing, preserving, and evangelizing rare, precious, and fragile stone fruit varieties. (Stone fruit is anything with a pit: cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, and so on.) The August tasting always has a wide array of the larger, later-season fruits – peaches, plums, nectarines, and hybrids. This year, I’m sure we tasted at least 25 or 30, and if we’d been intrepid enough, could’ve tasted through at least 25 more.

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After you walk down row after row of sliced, delicately flavored and complex fruit, you get the opportunity to trek through the orchard with a box or a bucket, picking however much of whatever fruit you’d like to take home. This is a test of discipline and will for me. I am, after all, the crazy girl who has a peach tattoo, and setting me loose in an all-you-can-pick orchard is a dangerous proposition. This year, I walked away with only 25 pounds of fruit that I split with A, who joined me. We picked 3 primary varieties – the  Kit Donnell and Baby Crawford peaches, and the Silk Road nectarine. Types you’ll surely never see in stores because they’re so delicious, but so delicate and fragile that they didn’t even make the trip from the  tree to my house unscathed, let alone from tree to distributor to store to display to cart to trunk to your kitchen shelf. They last so few days once home, that consumers would never tolerate it. But trust me – the flavor, texture, and joy is totally worth the experience.

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If you’ve never picked a tree-ripened summer fruit from a branch, noticing that the sun has warmed its – and your – skin, you’re truly missing out. I recommend this experience to everyone. Being able to pull a piece off a tree and bite into it to tell what it is, and whether you like it or not, is something unmatched by even going to the farmers market. This is as close as I can get to my food, and for me, it makes it taste all the better. A and I agreed that the Silk Road may be the best stone fruit we’ve ever eaten. I decided to turn it into sorbet to preserve the beautiful deep goldenrod color, and the creamy, dense texture.

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Oh, so what did I do with those 25 pounds of fruit? Y’all know I like pie, right? Like I’m kind of obsessed? It’s still delicious two days later, even. We also made some peach brandy (hopefully I can tell you about it when it’s done, but that might be a few months,) peach ice cream, the aforementioned nectarine sorbet, and ate many out of hand – the best way to enjoy them.

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This event was the last one at Andy’s Orchard for 2013, but if you’re jealous, you can order some of Andy’s fruit and have it delivered to you in a foam-cushioned box. So, have you ever visited a you-pick orchard? There are tons! What did you do with your treasure?

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Declare Ham Independence with La Quercia!

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Have you ever had a transcendental experience with pork? Well, last weekend at the La Quercia // Magnolia prosciutto and beer tasting at 18 Reasons, Tala and I did. We had the good fortune of sitting in a room, sampling 6  fine cured prosciutto products from La Quercia (pronounced La Kwair-cha), out of Norwalk, Iowa paired with 5 great beers from local favorite Magnolia Brewery.

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Herb and Kathy Eckhouse started La Quercia after spending several years living in Parma, Italy, and being inspired by the delicious food products from the area. Coming from Iowa, they felt confident that the resources and farmers there could offer them the exceptional raw material (great pork) they needed to make out of this world prosciutto. Turns out, they were right.

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We tasted 6 products from La Quercia, including two of their acorn fed or finished prosciuttos. One of these was hand shaved by Herb on the spot. This pork was flavorful and complex, with a distinct nutty overtone. It had luscious fat and tender meat – Tala’s favorite for sure.

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The one I loved the most, though, was the Speck – smoked prosciutto. It’s much more delicate than American bacon, which also smoked pork. The fibers were short, the smoke flavor was slight and understated, and the meat was delicious. This could be because it was paired with my favorite Magnolia beer, the Cole Porter. The subtle smoke in the meat, combined with the malty nuttiness of the beer was a match made in heaven for me.

In a product as simple as this – as Herb and Kathy said, they only have 2 ingredients, salt and pork – the quality of the ingredients really matters. La Quercia’s relationships with their farmers are critical here; where they are involved in many aspects of the husbandry, rearing, and finishing of the pigs that eventually become La Quercia’s cornerstone products.

I can’t recommend this prosciutto enough – everything was delicious and tender, delicate and versatile. It’s readily available in our area, at places like Whole Foods, Bi-Rite, and Berkeley Bowl, and they have a diverse line of products including salame, guanciale, and lardo. Make sure you pick some up for your next party, and let us know what you think in the comments!

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Special thanks to Joe Ruvel from Beer at Joe’s, who invited us to cover this great event at 18 Reasons. What a great time!

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