By Joanne Neft
Many people are surprised to learn that Placer County is blessed with some of the best growing conditions in the United States. Unbeknownst to many, our farming has a long history. When the First Transcontinental Railroad was built from the West to the East coasts through Auburn and over Donner Summit, food from the foothills was cooled on ice gathered in Truckee and was shipped all the way to Chicago, where people demanded the Sierra foothills’ especially juicy, sweet fruits.
Chicagoans knew that the granitic, volcanic, and sedimentary soils, the climate with its pockets of cool and pillows of sometimes unbearable warmth, the water — snow-fed and running downhill through mountain streambeds — all combine (with the dedicated work of farmers) to make delicious, healthy fruits, and vegetables in the Sierra foothills.
A big misunderstanding locally is that regional produce is grown only in summer. It’s not. When winter’s cold creates snow up high, downhill in the foothills, the weather is warmer, and farmers are at work growing food. Sometimes buyers have to look a bit harder for locally grown produce in winter — or travel a little farther to get it.
Nowadays, farmers markets are one of the main outlets for local foods. Even after farmers markets close down in Tahoe City and Truckee in October, lower down in elevation — in the foothills — you’ll find weekly outdoor markets and occasional roadside farm stands selling everything from Meyer lemons to pomegranates as well as broccoli, nuts, cherries, figs, green beans, potatoes, grapes, persimmons, squash — and the list goes on. Not only is the produce for sale, but also it’s also super-healthy food.
Early on, the foothills became a center for citrus production, especially lemons, grapefruit, and Mandarin oranges. Mandarins, in particular, grow especially well here. Twenty years ago, there were six farms growing them in the area. Today more than 70 farms and backyard growers raise the tart-sweet, seedless fruit. Some growers have only a couple trees, others work several acres of orchard.
Depending on the weather, Mandarins are usually sold from November through early March. On Nov. 18-20, Placer County will hold its annual Mountain Mandarin Festival, selling not only juicy, easy-to-peel fruit, but also creative off-shoots that include Mandarin-infused oils, jams, balsamic vinegars, soaps, and more. The festival will celebrate its 27th year at the Placer County Fairgrounds. Details are at mandarinfestival.com.
Another wonderful fall crop is the persimmon. This fleshy, sweet fruit is often overlooked, but it grows abundantly in the foothills area. Many of the trees were planted by Japanese farmers who settled here in the beginning of the last century. Dried persimmon is an expensive delicacy that only some farmers can make properly. It’s available at markets for only a limited time. Look for more on persimmons in next month’s Moonshine Ink Soul Kitchen.
My cookbooks, Placer County Real Food and The Art of Real Food, share recipes developed by me together with my friend, the creative chef, Laura Kenny, whose Auburn-based catering company is called Real Food. Placer County Real Food is sold out, but you can still get The Art of Real Food at local markets and book outlets. I’ve included a recipe here from the Placer County Real Food cookbook to inspire you.
If you want to see more of what’s grown in our neighboring farms in fall, visit a local market. In the higher elevations, markets are usually open into October. In the foothills, year-round markets are on Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Auburn in the Old Town Courthouse parking lot, and Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of December at the Fountains at Roseville.
So do yourself a favor: Buy food grown by people who live in your region, and who cultivate the soils, water, and climate that are closely linked with your own life. Your body, your mind, and your community will thank you.
Arugula and Grape Salad with Grape Vinaigrette
3/4 pound arugula
1 cup grapes, whole
1/4 pound soft cow’s
1/2 cup pistachios
3 cups grapes
2 Tbsp Champagne vinegar
1 tsp honey (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Toss salad ingredients together. Set aside. In a blender, purée grapes for vinaigrette. Strain through a mesh strainer and add vinegar, honey, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Dress salad just before serving.