Chefs Tour of the Brentwood Valley | Civil Eats

Chefs Tour of the Brentwood Valley

It’s not often that you see a group of restaurant insiders, gardeners and business leaders crouched over a land use map, but this was exactly the scene on a beautiful Monday morning in the offices of the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust. We were all there for a “Chefs Tour of the Brentwood Valley,” one of California’s richest agricultural regions that just happens to be less than fifty miles from downtown San Francisco. The focus of the tour was to increase communication between the local farmers and the chefs and restaurants that need good quality produce for their customers.

Kathryn Lyddan, Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust’s director, started by explaining the increasing pressures on agricultural land in the area, primarily encroachment from spreading towns. “In rapidly growing regions like Brentwood, the pressure on farmers to sell their land for development is tremendous.” (Kathryn is also the moderator for the upcoming Changemakers Day panel “Labels and Indicators: New Tools for Delivering Good Food in the U.S.”)

The time came to look beyond the map, and we loaded up and traveled about ten minutes to Dwelley Farms. A small family operation, the farm is run by Mark Dwelley who is soon to be joined by his son John. They set out an impressive array of vegetables for inspection, including their famous sweet corn, while Mark frankly discussed the trials they have faced in their transition to organic farming. His love of the land and the farming lifestyle was evident in every perfect tomato and box of beans we saw.

The next stop on our tour was the Smith Family Farm stand, where we sampled a buffet of heirloom tomatoes. Ken and Janice Smith are third generation farmers in the area, and are famous for the variety and quality of their tomato crop. Kathy Scruggs led a short tomato demonstration, explaining how the color related to the tomatoes acid content. In general, the lighter the color, the lower the acid content and the sweeter the tomato will taste. My favorite was the light-green striped “Copia” variety, with a firm flesh and a mild tangy taste.

We continued up the road, then turned down a small lane to a little piece of paradise, the ten-acre Brookside Farm. Welling Tom met us beneath the shade of a pecan tree near their house, and introduced us to his parents Quong and Anne. Their mixed orchard, herb and vegetable operation is all hand farmed. Welling first gave us a short lesson on the various varieties of garlic they had drying, explaining why they grew the “hardneck” vs. the “softneck” varieties (you guessed it: it tastes better, but doesn’t last as long in the supermarket). Next as we walked through the field past rows of chard, tomatoes, sunflowers, and fruit trees, Anne laughed as she talked about the birds and other animals that also enjoyed the fruits of their labor. “You just live with them,” she says with a smile, “they are masters over us.”

Our fourth farm was Frog Hollow—who will be at Slow Food Nation Marketplace—famed for their peaches and jams. The secret to their success, farmer Al Courchesne said, was two fold: their proximity to the urban Bay Area markets allows them to pick fruit at peak ripeness, without worrying about shipping damage, and they are able to use fruit that was too ripe for market in their coveted jams, reducing waste without sacrificing taste. He loaded us up with some tasty empanadas, and we all headed off for lunch.

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We retreated to downtown Brentwood and stepped into the CoCo County Wine Company. We feasted on food from the farmers we had visited, paired with some local wines poured and produced by Tom and Becky Bloomfield. Tom and Becky, members of the local Slow Food convivium, are particularly proud of their award winning Viognier. In addition to their own wine label, the CoCo Wine Company also features wines from other local producers.

“This tour should be part of every chef and every cooking school’s agenda,” summarized Alexander Ong, Chef/Partner of Betelnut, “It was so humbling to listen to the farmers and have them share with us their vision in trying to grow the perfect peach, heirloom tomato & corn.” Staff from Olivetto, Acquerello, and The Sunny Side Café also participated in the tour, and all came away with contacts and an increased local awareness to benefit their menus and the farmers alike.

A number of Brentwood area farms will be coming to Slow Food Nation, including Frog Hollow Farms with their famed peaches, G+S Farm with Sweet Corn and Knightsen Honey will be highlighted at the Honey Pavilion at Taste.

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Photo 1 by kusine
Photos 2 & 3 by Aaron French

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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