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Jacobsen Orchards — Napa Valley’s ‘culinary muse’

Jacobsen Orchards — Napa Valley’s ‘culinary muse’

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For 35 years, Peter and Gwendolyn Jacobsen have owned and operated a small farm within the Yountville city limits. They live and work primarily in San Francisco, but they initially became farmers because an orchard existed on their 1 1/3-acre weekend property. Over time they’ve grown a deep appreciation for their farm and gained an ever-increasing respect for both the soil and the plants that grow there. As a result, their efforts have influenced Napa Valley’s culinary landscape and beyond.

“For Gwen and me it was as if we’d stepped into our rightful place here at the farm,” Jacobsen said. “When we first got here all the fruit was just falling on the ground, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to waste it and so we carried boxes around to restaurants, many of whom loved the variety and freshness.”

Today, 80 percent of their produce goes to Yountville’s Michelin three-star-rated restaurant, The French Laundry, with the remainder going to other highly regarded Bay Area eateries, such as San Francisco’s SPQR.

A small-town farm

Jacobsen and I met on a rainy day in January. Hedged by a perimeter of tall cypress trees, the farm was smaller than I imagined. Situated on the edge of town, surrounded by tracts of houses, it is like a small oasis. Large redwood trees tower over a modest two-story wooden home flanked by an orchard and garden.

From the orchard came the chatter of birds as they clustered on the leafless branches of the 120 different types of fruit trees or from their hidden perches within the green foliage of 16 different types of citrus. Worm casings dotted the earth and a fuzz of newly sprouted green grass carpeted everything that had not been tilled into rich-dark-earth rows.

As we walked and talked, Jacobsen occasionally stopped and either reached up into the branches of a tree or kneeled down to grab an edible morsel.

“Take this, for example,” he said, reaching down and plucking off a tiny green sprig from the base of one of the enormous redwood trees. “When they’re tender like this these have a wonderful flavor that is reminiscent of citrus and pine.”

He handed me the delicate cutting and I placed it on my tongue and then chewed it lightly. Indeed it did have a grapefruit-rindlike taste and finished with a distinctly cedar note.

“I’m not a chef, but I sometimes think of myself as a culinary muse,” he said. “When I taste something new I immediately think about what other food it might go with and which chef might be able to appreciate it best.”

A satisfying journey

Gwendolyn (Gwenny to her friends) and Peter met while at college in Florida — her focus physics and his dentistry. Eventually they would move to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he’d work as a dentist and professor of dentistry while she’d run their office.

“Deep down, I think we are both caregivers,” Jacobsen said. “This includes giving care to plants — nurturing them. Caring for them is a sort of meditation, but it has given us an opportunity to work on something together and also allowed us a connection with aspiring young people, as in chefs, students and farmers.”

Every year, the Jacobsens host students from the various local colleges and culinary schools to visit their farm and learn about how food is grown.

“The whole experience was eye-opening — I mean, it changed my life,” said David Cruz, a third-year student at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone who visited the Jacobsen’s farm last summer. “I’d never seen where my food was coming from before. I also didn’t know how much work and care goes into growing and transporting all the food we eat.”

Ryan Hill, proprietor of Yountville’s Hill Family Estate winery and vineyards grew up next door to the Jacobsens’ orchard.

“I was born across the street from them,” Hill said. “Peter is an incredible farmer who loves showing you the latest thing that he’s planted or harvested. He was a proponent of being 100 percent organic before the organic movement took off, and that speaks volumes about his stewardship of the land and their relationship with Mother Nature.”

Inspiring aspiring chefs

In 2008, Luisa Perez was a cook working the garde manger (salads, hors d’œuvres, appetizers) station at Thomas Keller’s per se restaurant in New York City. Encouraged by the chef de cuisine at the time, Jonathan Benno, Perez tasted figs that had been flown out from a small farm in California.

“Our salad that day featured Peter’s figs with burrata cheese,” Perez said. “We added 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, sylvetta arugula, and finished it with Armando Manni olive oil and Maldon salt — it blew my mind! I had never had a fig so delicious and sweet.”

After that experience, Perez made a point of tasting any fruit they’d receive from Jacobsen Orchards.

“A little seed was planted in me to come to California and see where such beautiful produce came from,” she said. “A few years later I moved to Yountville and started helping at The French Laundry’s own garden.”

From there, Perez met the Jacobsens and eventually worked on their farm in exchange for some farming knowledge.

“The time I have spent at Jacobsen Orchards has been monumental in shaping how I view food — realizing how important it is to have a connection with the land and to know where my food comes from,” she said.

Perez continues to farm and cook in the Napa Valley and is currently the sous chef at Thomas Keller’s newly opened La Calenda restaurant in Yountville.

Another per se chef and Jacobsen Orchard devotee is Matthew Accarrino who is currently the executive chef at San Francisco’s SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus), a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves modern Italian fare.

“I first understood Peter existed when I was an opening sous chef at per se in 2004,” Accarrino said. “Jacobsen Orchards would be listed on the menu and I remember thinking, ‘where is that’? Once I made it to San Francisco in 2009, I realized Peter had an office (dental) just up the street and was a regular diner at SPQR. One day, he stopped by the kitchen and struck up a conversation. Within a few months he had left me the keys to their farm with the instructions to harvest whatever I could while they were traveling. We have never looked back.”

Local farms ‘keep us healthy’

“It’s important have local farmers in the Napa Valley because eating fresh fruits and vegetables keeps us healthy,” Perez said. “Also, buying from local farmers who we can have a direct connection with ensures that we are aware of the farming practices they use. Plus eliminating transportation and storage allows the farmer to take more of the profit.”

Hill agrees that small farms like the Jacobsens’ are important but also points out one potential drawback — heightened expectations.

“When you grow up eating fruit from trees and vegetables from dirt in your backyard you won’t settle for anything less,” Hill said. “You will also appreciate paying for a dish at a restaurant that supports local farmers as it will be far superior.”

Beyond the health and taste, farmers working closely with culinarians can result in innovation.

“When I witness Peter in the garden with a chef talking about a new dish that will be utilizing his produce, it’s like watching Steve Kerr drawing up a plan for Steph Curry from the Warriors,” Hill said. “You know that something magical is going to happen.”

Green almonds and ficoide glacial

“I remember Peter working with chefs on incorporating green (unripe) almonds into savory dishes,” Hill said. “He would braise different proteins in fig leaves (that seemed) to pass along a coconut essence; he seeped peach leaves in milk to create a peach-leaf ice cream that tasted like almonds and utilized ficoide glacial (ice plant) before it became a thing for chefs. From what I recollect, Peter was also the first farmer in America to have his escargot certified organic from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). These were always served to VIP guests at The French Laundry, and people got a kick out of hearing the story that Peter didn’t get mad, he got even — it was his way of seeking revenge on a pest in his garden.”

In the ‘weeds’

“Peter’s farm is too small and he supplies several friends with produce and fruit when abundant, so I never rely on his farm for any large production,” Accarrino said. “It’s the small things and crazy ideas that we have collaborated most on.”

One of these “crazy ideas” is to eat “weeds.”

“Wild cropping is basically harvesting ‘weeds’ or volunteers, as Peter says, so he grows an edible cover crop and harvests it in the winter months when produce is scarce,” Accarrino said.

The future of small farms

Although Jacobsen believes that small farms such as his are important for the health of the planet as well as for quality food production, he does admit that it might be tough for future farms such as his to survive.

“It can be really tough if this is your only source of income,” Jacobsen said. “We’ve been blessed, but it’s possible that this farm here will be bulldozed and houses thrown up after we’re gone.”

However, Jacobsen also points to new models of farm collectives that help gather produce from small to mid-sized farms such as his and then distribute it to restaurants and local grocery stores, allowing the farmers to reduce their costs and focus on farming (and probably to work additional jobs to supplement their incomes).

Examples include the Bay Area’s own Cooks Company, which sources from more than 300 different local farms, and Ohio’s Chef’s Garden that is fast becoming the go-to source for overnight delivery of hundreds of rare produce items.

Common cause

Pointing often to the work of the American writer and environmental activist farmer Wendell Erdman Berry, Jacobsen relates to both the concerns and hopes often expressed by the author.

During an interview with Bill Moyers, Berry once described the importance of maintaining connections with the “preciousness” of the earth — one way being the working of small farms tended by people, not heavy machinery.

“The poet William Butler Yeats said somewhere, ‘ Things reveal themselves passing away,’” Berry had said. “And it may be that the danger that we’ve now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty. The solution to our problems can’t be imposed but only solved through seeking to learn all you can about where you live and then make common cause with that place.”

And it is such a desire for common cause that keeps the Jacobsens tending their small plot of land in a Yountville neighborhood surrounded by the ever-expansion of homes and roads.

“Small local farms have a way of building connections with people while fostering closer ties with Mother Nature,” Jacobsen said. “We also hope to share our excitement for how food and nutrition can feed all dimensions — not just our bodies and imaginations, but also our souls.

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