As everyone who lives in the Bay Area knows, September is the finest month of the year. On a particularly beautiful Saturday, warm and languid, we headed up to Guerneville, that hotbed of new wineries and gourmet restaurants. (Is west Sonoma County the rural version of gentrification?)
We had been invited to visit Sabor Mexicano, an organic farm owned by Jorge Saldana, farmer, chef, and restaurateur. Bay Area Green Tours, which had organized the afternoon, runs a variety of fascinating tours centered on sustainability, green businesses, and environmental responsibility. They call Sabor Mexicano “our special farm,” and after visiting, I can see why.
We arrived about 3pm and were greeted by Marissa LaMagna of Bay Area Green Tours and our warm and gracious host, Jorge Saldana. Saldana grew up in Mexico and fell in love with the Bay Area while here visiting relatives. He opened Cancun, his first restaurant, in Berkeley in 1991. Tlaloc, in San Francisco, followed in 2000. (and opening spring 2015 is Cinco in Sebastopol at The Barlow) He always wanted to grow his own produce, and when he found this property just outside Guerneville, he knew it was the perfect place.
After a brief overview of the farm (130 acres, purchased in 2005, right next door to Armstrong Redwoods State Park), our group of twenty started with a tour at the Colonel Armstrong farmhouse. Built in 1872, it’s a lovely old building that sits on a small hill overlooking an outdoor eating area and the gardens. At the moment, however, it is in the midst of being renovated, with all the chaos that entails.
Why show this work-in-progress to guests? Because in keeping with Saldana’s environmental philosophy, all the renovations are being done with recycled or green materials. The original redwood siding has been repurposed on the interior walls, the insulation is organic, there will be a gray water system, and heat will be provided by a heat pump system. There will be both an herb and a botanical garden. (In this time of drought, it’s nice to know that all the water used on the farm comes from a natural spring on the property.)
Saldana’s eyes shine as he describes what the house will look like when the work is done next spring. (I’m quite familiar with this remodeler’s fervor, having done several major projects of our own. You can imagine the finished product and want to communicate your vision to others.) It will have six bedrooms, a large kitchen (guests may gather produce and fresh eggs for their meals), a spacious common area and a wide front porch on which to sit and gaze out at the view. It’s easy to imagine having a morning mug of coffee on that veranda, or spending hours with a good book, or hanging out with friends for evening cocktails and a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity.
Next year Saldana plans to build some individual cabins scattered around the property and an open-air platform that can be used for yoga, meditation and dance.
His ultimate vision is to create an ideal venue for events, workshops, retreats, and weddings, as well as an enticing getaway for any group of friends or family. Fife Creek runs through the lush redwood and fir forest, as do numerous hiking trails. There’s a commercial kitchen on site that can host cooking classes or be rented for an event if needed. With advance notice, you can even arrange for a Temazcal ritual steam bath based on traditional Mexican healing methods. I know from experience that it can be difficult to find a property that will sleep 10-12, let alone one this lovely with so many activities readily available.
After poking our noses into all the unfinished rooms upstairs and down, we walked out to tour the ten acres currently under cultivation. We passed row after row of garlic hung up to dry. And then we saw the peppers. A whole lotta peppers. I guess if you are supplying two Mexican restaurants with produce, you might need a lot of peppers.
Jorge (by now we were on a first-name basis) told me that when he first started farming, he planted 150 different kinds of peppers, most of them from seeds handed down by his family and friends in Mexico. He searched for rare varieties that were never available at markets, such as the chiltepec and the piquin . Some flourished, some didn’t, and after experimenting with various growing techniques, he is now down to 15 to 20 varieties—from the glossy black mulato to the tiny Maya .
The other crops include tomatoes (heirloom and otherwise), cucumbers, tomatillos, squash, onions, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, watermelon, cilantro, yerba buena (peppermint), and the dramatic hickory corn that grows to a height of 12 feet—higher than an elephant’s eye! (I googled it.) Jorge showed us how to gently bend the tall cornstalk in order to pick the ear without breaking the stalk.
We next visited the free-range chickens that supply eggs, and frolicked with the goats. (Goats! They are so darn cute!) Jorge grew up in Mexico eating a lot of goat. He’s been cooking for thirty years and assured me that he has perfected the dish known there as cabrito rico .
“You need a humanely-raised cabrito, marinated overnight with sun-dried peppers and garlic. Roast it for four hours in a wood fire oven, serve with handmade corn tortillas and a special chile de arbol salsa with onions. Enjoy!” explained Jorge with enthusiasm.
And then it was time to eat! Jorge’s restaurants offer classic Mexican cuisine enhanced by direct-from-the-farm organic ingredients, meat that is free from hormones and antibiotics, and Saldana’s own magic touch as chef. And that’s exactly what we got in the meal Jorge and his sous chefs prepared for us.
—Tortilla chips with three different salsas (excellent use of all those peppers!)
—Kale salad with shaved parmesan and an intense, lemony dressing
—Rice with onions and tomatoes
—Succotash (a spicy mélange of corn, peppers, squash and beans)
—Fresh-squeezed lemonade and/or Corona beer
And for dessert, there were home-baked goodies for sale at a nearby table manned by Jorge’s delightful and enterprising local children. The flan was gone before I got there (how did that happen?), but there were Mexican wedding cookies and apple cake as compensation. Yum.
Jorge Saldana’s mission is to help the world by growing and cooking healthy, delicious food. As we sat at the outdoor plank tables with the sun filtering through the tall trees, enjoying our feast, we felt most fortunate to be a part of his success.
We asked him for a few recipes, and he offered these ideas. In the spirit of the most successful cooks it is best not to be specific about the amount of ingredients. Test, taste and enjoy the results.
Heirloom Corn Succotash
Sauté corn with fresh chopped garlic, leeks, tomatoes, diced squash, a bit of fresh jalapeño peppers, cilantro and sea salt.
Garden Harvest Soup
Boil fresh beans from the vine, add sliced heirloom corn, tomatoes, diced zucchini, cilantro, garlic and sea salt. Usually you can make this soup with any thing you have in the garden, but the base should be the beans. Enjoy!!