It all started with the menu. In the Sunset kitchen in mid-May, we cooks dreamed about the end-of-summer dishes we wanted to make: Peppery arugula salads with a rainbow of ripe tomatoes in oranges and yellows, greens and purples, reds and pinks. A platter of avocados and oranges with paper-thin red onions. Sweet corn on the cob, definitely. Ripe figs, because we had spotted a vine growing out back.
With a tentative menu drawn up, we sat down with the garden department and got a reality check. Arugula, a cool-season crop, would wilt in our summer heat. Our fig vine had been pruned so severely the year before that it probably wouldn’t bear much fruit—not enough to plan on, anyway. We had no avocado trees, and even if we bought some young ones, they would take several years to produce.
There were consolations, however. We could grow good tomatoes, though they would be on the small side in our cool climate. Corn would not have the savory depth that it does in the Midwest, but it would be sweet and juicy. ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes would be no problem. “How about zucchini?” suggested Lauren Swezey, our garden projects editor. “Zucchini does really well here.” Privately, I was crushed—zucchini is just about the most boring summer vegetable I can think of. But then Lauren described a wondrous variety called ‘Trombetta di Albenga’. She took out a seed packet with a picture on it. “It curves like a trombone,” she said. “And it’s sweet and a little crunchy. Completely delicious.” We were sold.
Over the next few days, we settled on a cooking fat (not peanut oil, because peanuts need a southern climate, or corn oil, because three cups would require about sixty pounds of corn, and we wanted to eat our corn). What Sunset did have were twenty-one olive trees, planted all around the property as landscaping back in the 1950s. They were loaded with fruit, and surely it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out how to press it.
For seasoning, we would plant chiles, lemons, and potent summer herbs. And, because we lived close to the Pacific, it seemed worth trying to make some salt from seawater.
What would we do for protein? Our menu sounded good, but gossamery. We asked ourselves what we were collectively capable of, and it did not include raising meat animals. Eggs and cheese seemed more doable. We could keep chickens right in the garden, and as for the milk for cheese, the closest dairy would do. We didn’t dream (then) that we might someday have a cow.
For dessert, we’d need a sweetener, and honey seemed like the natural solution. Why not try keeping some bees? Plus, all those pollinators would help our crops produce.
Within a couple of weeks, we’d finalized our menu. I wandered out into the garden to imagine how it might all look. A pair of grapevines caught my eye. What if we made wine? Our little vines wouldn’t supply enough grapes, but maybe we could find a vineyard nearby. Wine editor Sara Schneider loved the idea and agreed to launch Team Wine. In the meantime, Rick LaFrentz, our head gardener, volunteered to lead Team Beer. He had brewed at home using kits, and wanted to try planting barley, wheat, and hops to make beer from the ground up. It was intriguingly medieval of him.
Our made-from-scratch project had not even started, and here we were, “importing” wine grapes and milk and ocean water. But we would transform the imports into foods that would be wholly our own: grapes into wine, milk into cheese, water into salt.
Italians have a lovely word for the locally grown produce in their farmers’ markets: nostrani—“ours.” It usually sells out first because it’s often the best. That’s exactly what this summer dinner would be, from start to finish. Ours.
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I walked around the office to see if any of my other colleagues wanted to join the project. Erika Ehmsen, our stately, calm copy chief, knew where we might get the hundreds of pounds of grapes we needed: Thomas Fogarty Winery, in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Her dad and Dr. Fogarty, a cardiologist, had worked together, and she’d visited as a child and had always wanted to go back. She signed up for Team Wine. Researcher Elizabeth Jardina and art director Jim McCann liked the idea of chickens. Garden associate editor Julie Chai, whose heritage is Korean and German, wanted to join Team Vinegar (formed in the wake of Team Wine). “I have kimchi on one side and sauerkraut on the other,” she told me. “I love all things fermented.” Margaret Sloan, production coordinator, and Kimberley Burch, imaging specialist, were drawn to Team Bee. Margaret had always thought bees were mysterious and fascinating, and Kimberley, concerned about colony collapse disorder, mainly wanted to help increase the bee population.
By early June, we had started researching our various projects and were ready to roll. The fact that we had no experience with any of them, except cooking and gardening and a bit of beer making, did not dim our enthusiasm a bit.
That was a good thing, because it would take us about a year and a half to create everything we needed for our summer feast. The wine grapes wouldn’t be ready until October; then they’d need months to ferment and mature. The olives ripened in November. And we could not harvest the wheat and barley until the following summer.
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At least we could get the chickens going. I personally yearned for fabulous-looking breeds like Silkies, whose feathers are as soft as kitten fur, or Polish, whose feather crests make them look like Tina Turner. Fancy chickens are not always the best layers, though. In the end, we just got what Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel happened to have on the day we visited, which were tiny chicks from breeds known to lay well: Ameraucanas (exciting, since they would lay blue- and green-shelled eggs), Rhode Island Reds, and Buff Orpingtons.
We bought two of each, and fussed over them like crazy, hanging a heat lamp over their wire cage—which we put in a storage shed behind our main office building—and visiting them every couple of hours. The runt, a Rhode Island Red we called Ruby, immediately developed a condition that the feed store had warned us about: pasty butt. Untreated, it can block a chick’s digestion and be lethal. This we handled as instructed by the feed store, gingerly applying cotton balls soaked in warm water to the tiniest butt imaginable. Ruby survived.
As our chickens grew that fall, we plunged into wine making. Fogarty Winery agreed to sell us both Syrah grapes (a relatively forgiving variety, so we would have a chance of making drinkable wine) and Chardonnay juice (since pressing white grapes is much trickier than pressing the red). On a golden October morning, we drove out to the winery and picked five hundred pounds of small, luscious Syrah grapes from Fat Buck Ridge, a vineyard with sweeping views to the west. It was surprisingly fast—a couple of hours of snipping and we had all the grapes we could handle. We had a quick picnic in the vineyard, with a bottle of Fogarty Syrah from that very ridge—“the prototype, the goal . . . the competition,” Sara joked later.
We had to crush the grapes as soon as possible. Waiting for us back at Sunset, with a giant pile of equipment, was Dan Brenzel, husband of our garden editor, Kathy Brenzel, and a serious home winemaker himself. His crusher-destemmer was entirely capable of handling our harvest. But a couple of us had seen the grape-stomping episode of I Love Lucy at an impressionable age, so we did some foot crushing, too, there in the Sunset parking lot. We laughed so hard we practically fell out of the garbage cans we were using for crushing. As Erika pointed out, it was sort of like a StairMaster. Set in quicksand.
The next several days were tense for Team Wine. Sara woke up at 3:00 a.m. worried that our grape pulp (called must), which was soaking under the eaves in a big vat to give the juice as much flavor and color as possible, might be spoiling. So we added yeast to kick off the fermentation and crowd out any unwelcome microorganisms. (We’d already added yeast to our Chardonnay juice.)
And at first everything went like it should. The yeast attacked the sugars and belched carbon dioxide gas, which made the pulp gurgle and foam as though it were alive. A warm, thick, seething cap of skins and seeds formed on the surface, and we punched it down a few times a day so it could deliver its goodness to the juice. But the sugar level wasn’t dropping fast enough. This meant we risked a “stuck fermentation” that could lead to spoiled wine. We decided to move our vats into the warm building, hoping to prod the yeast into gobbling more sugar. It worked, and the sugar eventually hit zero. We had gotten through the hardest part.
Now we eased the Syrah into a slower, secondary fermentation by sprinkling in powdery, freeze-dried malolactic bacteria. It was as easy as adding salt to a stew. A few days later—once the bacteria had a chance to settle in—we pressed our wine off its skins and seeds. This involved using Dan’s homestyle basket press, which looked not unlike a toy rocket. We poured the inky slurry into the press and set up a tag team running buckets from the press’s spigot over to several waiting carboys (big glass jugs). Then, once we’d popped airlocks into the tops of the carboys, we left our beast alone to be tamed by beneficial bacteria and the gentling hand of time.
Meanwhile, our chicks had become fully feathered young hens and were ready for their coop in the test garden. The henhouse itself, which opened right into a fully enclosed yard—to keep out raccoons and other chicken hunters—was a grand sloping-roofed structure given to us by Wine Country Coops, in Napa. The hens took to it as though to the manor born, hopping up to its comfortable perches and exploring the nest boxes. Pretty soon, their personalities—yes, they do have them, it turns out—began to show: Rhode Island Red Carmelita was the boss lady, the most aggressive and the shiniest feathered. (Elizabeth worried that she might be a rooster.) Ruby was a talker, croaking insistently whenever we came to visit, as though cussing us out for something. Alana, slightly shy, was named for our managing editor, Alan Phinney, because her lustrous head feathers resembled his hair (he is a good sport about this). Her fellow Ameraucana, Ophelia, was much more outgoing and instead of clucking produced a sort of low foghorn tootle. The two Buff Orpingtons, Honey and Charlotte—both big, fluffy, and blonde—were the most inclined to jump on your lap for a pat. They weighed as much as house cats and liked to be stroked under their wings, where the down was softest. It made them burble happily, as did an ear of corn or a bulb of fennel thrown down for them to peck. And the burbling of a happy chicken is a very sweet sound.
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Everything was going well. Then, in late October, disaster struck. Olives began pelting the ground weeks before we had expected to harvest them. Not only that, the fruit looked shrunken and deformed. We sent some off to The Olive Press, up in Sonoma, for advice, and were told that we had the worst infestation of olive fruit fly maggots that the store’s owner had ever seen.
Apparently, you can press olives with a small percentage of maggots—although you might end up with a flavor flaw known in the olive oil trade as “grubby” (seriously). Our fruit, though, was riddled with them. We could try treating the trees in the future, but this year the grubs had won.
We badly wanted olive oil, and we really wanted to learn how to pick and press olives. Fortunately, Valencia Creek Farms, in the Santa Cruz foothills, agreed to sell us eight hundred pounds of olives, which we could pick ourselves. So we rented a U-Haul and drove off to the foothills again.
At the orchard, we picked big, fat green Ascolanos. The rest of our order had been harvested for us earlier that day, and although we felt a little sheepish about this, we were also very grateful when we realized that it would have taken our five Team Olive members about eleven hours to pick what we needed.
As with grapes, speed is of the essence when pressing olives. The second they are off the trees, they start to degrade. We loaded up our twenty-two crates and drove south, to Pietra Santa Winery, near Hollister, and its olive press. The olives were destemmed and washed, and then ground by three massive stones into a pinkish, brownish paste that looked exactly like chopped liver.
We tasted the olive oil right from the spigot. It was grass green, flecked with bits of olive, and extremely fresh and bright. The mild climate of Santa Cruz had tamed the olives, so the oil was not nearly as peppery as a typical “three-cough” Tuscan oil. We were absurdly and instantly proud of it. Our hens were not laying yet and our wine was still aging, but we had our olive oil and it felt great.
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From the Hardcover edition.