Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tara Firma Farms

I was very lucky enough to spend a very sunny and clear Sunday morning out at Tara Firma Farms, a few miles west of Petaluma, on "I" Street extension.  They offer farm tours every Sunday on the hour from mid morning to early afternoon.

Craig and Tara Smith, proprietors of Tara Firma Farms, came into Central Market for dinner the other night.  Coincidentally (or not) I had just been poking around their website earlier that day.  In fact, I emailed them about a special dinner they are sponsering for now-famous Virginia farmer, Joel Salatin.  If any of you read The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's treatise on the benefits of sustainable farming and the negatives of Monsanto and their corn/cow industrial machine model, you will remember Salatin as the owner of Polyface Farms, where he rotates his fowl and cattle systematically to increase the recovery period of the grazed grasslands, and maximize the animals' natural grazing and foraging behaviors.

The Smith's at Tara Firma are emulating Polyface in that manner, as well as other sustainable, ecologically rich practices that make me proud to live just a few miles down the road.  Cheery with a tanned face and infectious energy, Craig showed Tony Najiola (my new boss) and I around the ranch, traipsing down muddy roads lined with bright green and white milk thistle plants, under electric fences and out to the chicken pens which they move every few days so the chickens have fresh greenery to ingest.  The cattle were high up on the hill happily munching on fresh grass blades.  We made our way across the muddy field (thank God for my new Orchard Supply Hardware $17 rubber boots!) and admired more chickens out in the open: colorful  reds, whites and grey plummage pecking around their mobile chicken coop and hanging around the edges of the pig pens. 

At dusk Craig and his staff corral them back in to ensure safety from the racoons, opossum, and coyotes that would love a fresh plump chicken dinner (and I can't quite blame them).  The pigs, well they are another story.  Loving the mud and rooting around in the dirt, they couldn't have looked happier.  Large sows laid on their sides, teats exposed for the little 2 week olds running around.  There were about a dozen 2 month olds and quite a few beheamoths oinking and snorting and sticking their noses through the fence.  I wanted to stay there all day watching them be their pig selves.

We finished the tour walking through a large open barn where the Smith's hold events and parties, inviting the community to experience their way of life, and turning people on to their CSA meat boxes, $35 or so dollars a week, with an alottment of fresh meat, chickens and vegetables, perfect for a small family and way healthier than anything you will find at Safeway.  Tara Firma feeds about 100 or so families a week off their produce and meats, and connect the folks in our community to the freshness and health of non-factory farmed organic meats and greens.  Tara Firma also has a farm store that you can stop by and pick up their seasonal offerings without the commitment of a weekly drop.
Tours Sundays starting at 10.

Friday, February 5, 2010

For the love of Quark - The Petaluma Creamery

Last Saturday morning's sunshine was welcomed with a nice long walk out to the edge of town, up to the end of B Street, and looping back down Western Avenue.  Happy horses and cows munched on grass probably enjoying the sun as much as I was, and a huge-sounding bullfrog exercised his lungs, echoing off a tumble of rocks that traversed a small stream.  The green hills sparkled with early spring mustard blossoms. Even though its not quite spring, as it was still January, but who could tell? It was 58 degrees and the rolling farmlands were simply shimmering with emerald lushness.

Down on Western, just a few blocks from the center of town, I happened upon the Petaluma Creamery.  Being a neighborhood institution since 1913, the Creamery (as the locals call it), was recently purchased by Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company and revived, keeping alive the ability for small local dairies to process their milk there.  The other great thing about Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Co. is that most of their products are organic!  Yay!  The Spring Hill Farm is only 7 miles out Western Avenue (which eventually turns into Spring Hill Road) in Two Rock Valley. This land of dairy farmers harkens back to well over 100 years ago when Italian, Swiss, German and Irish immigrants set up homesteads, bringing their native traditions with them. I imagine the landscape doesn't look much different now than it did then, as many of the farmhouses are original and the nearest neighbors are still quite a walk over to the next hill.

You know I've never been a purist (well, it sorta depends on what we're talking about), but organic dairy products are a must.  They don't contain the fat soluble pesticides and hormones that other products unknowingly have (they certainly look the same though, right?). Not to pontificate, but most people don't realize that butterfat concentrates these toxic and disruptive substances.  I was once taught by the local well known herbalist, Adam Seller, (although hard pressed to find a reference on the Web about it) that butterfat is one of the only fats absorbed directly across the gut into our bloodstreams, bypassing the liver.  So, in essence, not to be morbid, but standard "non-organic" butter has scary stuff possibly piggybacking across our gut walls, getting a free ride to wreak havok on cells and tissues.  Hmmm, food, or I should say, fat for thought, eh?

Back to the Creamery though (even though I may have now ruined your appetite). Housed in the original wooden clapboard building from the early 1900's and looking straight out of an old western, the Creamery makes an impressive array of organic cheeses, various butters (some flavored, some not), and ice cream!  Samples abound, some made with goat milk, and some with Jersey cow milk (hence the name), many flavored with herbs.  The Jersey milk has a higher percentage butterfat than regular Holstein dairy cows, producing richer products.  Large scale commerical dairies usually don't use the Jersey breed because their yield is so much less than the Holstein's, making them not as economically viable. (and we know, in large scale food production, it all comes down to the almighty buck...)  Speaking of which,  I had no cash during my first visit to the Creamery, having been out exercising, and felt a little guilty working my way through the samples, using way too many toothpicks (no double dipping, of course!).

Some cheeses were deliciously sharp and distinctively "grassy" tasting, and others, like my favorite, quark, creamy and indulgent. I'm a huge ricotta fan, sneaking bites as a kid when my Mom was making lasagna and stuffed manicotti. The Creamery's quark reminds me of a cross between ricotta and cream cheese. German style in origin (as opposed to French style, which is firmer like a brie or camembert), quark has about the same fat content as lowfat cream cheese, which means I can happily eat it by the spoonful without even the need for a bagel (ha ha, just kidding, sort of).

Sold in half pint tubs, quark comes plain, garlic infused, vanilla bean, or my personal favorite:  lemon (pictured on right).
A few days later, money in hand, I went back and bought some quark and a pound of fresh butter.  The Creamery also sells fresh local free range eggs and straight curd (milk solids without the watery whey), the essential start to fresh mozzarella making.  I have yet to dig into their small organic ice cream collection, but with flavors like lavendar, lemon chiffon and espresso, and $8 a quart, I'm sure to make this a destination spot with friends and out of town guests, old school style and just 3 blocks from my house.