NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

Addicted to learning the hard way
Like most organic farmers, Andy Griffin is a pugnacious experimenter. He has taken radicchio to “radiculoso” extremes you wouldn’t believe—and he won’t give up on blanched celery either.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

December 9, 2004:I’d read in gardening manuals about the once-common practice of blanching celery by hilling up earth around the developing stalks. Antique varieties of celery were often more pungent and fibrous than modern cultivars and they benefited from the blanching treatment by becoming milder in flavor and tenderer in texture. Nowadays the so-called self blanching celeries completely dominate the market to the point where I can say I’ve never seen celery that was blanched by “earthing up” for sale on a produce rack. My curiosity about the blanching process was piqued when I heard food snobs whisper dark rumors that modern celeries are watery, fraudulent ciphers standing in for the real thing.

So, one year I decided to grow an antique red celery and blanch it to see if a market existed for “the real thing.” The labor involved first in hilling up the celery and later washing the harvested stalks free of soil caused me to blanch. In that sense my experiment was a complete success; I learned why I would never try to blanch antique celeries again. But now it’s fall again. With the blurred days of the busy season past and a more reflective period ahead of me for a few months it’s time for another experiment.

For the last several years I’ve planted a couple of rows of soup celery in early summer. Soup celery, or smallage, is an old fashioned celery with slender stems that can be cut several times like parsley. Our customers with a Greek background enjoy this celery for its strong flavor and a few restaurants buy it for their stock pots but this is one heirloom vegetable that seemingly hasn’t got much market potential. But what if I blanched it? No, I don’t intend to get out a shovel and repeat my experiment of years past. Instead I’m going to see if I can’t economically blanch this thin stemmed celery by covering it with black plastic.

My first step has been to cut the celery to the ground. The root system is already well developed, so the plants will bounce back from their pruning promptly. I popped a series of wire hoops fashioned from #10 gauge galvanized wire cut into 10 foot lengths over the 40 inch wide planting beds. I draped eighty inch wide black plastic mulch film over the hoops and then pinned it to the ground with dirt clods. Outside the black plastic tunnels the sun is bright, and the breeze is bracing and Nordic. Inside the dark tunnels the conditions are Hawaiian. To avoid cooking the plants I’ve cut air holes at each end of the tunnels. If all works as I hope, my experiment will prove I can grow tender, buttery yellow, slender stems of flavorful celery for hungry, winter shoppers.

I have reason to hope; some of my experiments have worked. Three years ago I decided to grow seven kinds of radicchio. When Globe, a restaurant in San Francisco, asked me If I would be interested in promoting a farm dinner in January where all the produce on their menu would come from our farm I said sure. But as an experiment in marketing I asked them if we couldn’t put a twist to the concept by having every single dish on the menu contain some form of radicchio. I figured that a radicchio dinner was a novel idea even in sated, jaded, Babylon by the Bay. For too many people radicchio is still “radiculoso” or “red-yucky-o”, the bitter red stuff in salad mixes that they push to the side of their plates.

The concept was novel and the dinner was a success. Nothing else was happening in January. Food writers hungry for a story were drawn to the event to see if Globe could rise to the challenge and base a whole meal around a bitter green. Cooks came from competing restaurants to taste for themselves. There was a buzz in the food scene that lasted well after the dinner, though a couple of chefs were heard to grumble that Globe had cheated by failing to come up with a radicchio-based desert.

Since people were still talking about the dinner, a year later we held a second one. Though we could no longer promote a radicchio dinner as an experiment, the second meal was a success, and this time even the desert, a caramelized radicchio gelato, was made with chicory. But last year we held no radicchio dinner. People were asking about it but my inspiration had gone south. Literally.

I had planted seven varieties of radicchio and the crop had germinated well. I left the farm one Friday evening in early fall and the long lines of tender radicchio seedlings were already about an inch high. I came back to work on a Monday and found every radicchio cropped to the ground. Where seedlings had lined out the field only two days before there were bald seed beds splashed with puddles of goose poop.

There is a pond at the back of our field. A migrating flock of Canada geese on their way to Mexico had stopped over for a meal that featured seven kinds of radicchio prepared differently in every course from the canapés to the postprandial cigar with radicchio-infused grappa. This year our radicchio crop looks beautiful and I’m going to propose a culinary experiment to Jason, the chef at Globe. I want to see if he can cook up a radicchio dinner where, for a main course, a bed of our bittersweet, braised Italian chicories serves as a tasteful final resting place for a lovely, cooked Canada goose.

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