Immediately beneath the baby blue stenciled characters spelling out ‘Frog Hollow Farm‘ on each box of the farm’s produce is the tagline, ‘Legendary Fruits‘, a modest hint at the treasures that await. If you’ve never tried the fruits of this Northern Californian orchard before, you could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the claim. Fruits are usually ‘flavorful’, preferably ‘complex’, sometimes even ‘life-changing’. But legendary?
Take a bite into one of their fruits and it quickly becomes apparent that this claim is justified. I had my first Frog Hollow Farm cherry on a recent visit, and I was sold even before I knew it. Utterly sweet, juicy and bursting with flavor, my tastebuds knew that I had met the real deal. All other cherries from now on have a lot to live up to.
“It’s all about quality when it comes to food,” shared Farmer Al Courchesne, the man who started it all. “You can’t lie about whether a fruit’s good or not. It simply is or it isn’t.”
Starting in 1976 with just 18 acres and 1,500 fruit trees, Frog Hollow Farm has grown into America’s premier producer of organic fruit, with a name highly sought after by chefs and restaurateurs of some of the finest dining establishments in the country. The farm now occupies over 130 acres, home to about 30,000 fruit trees producing apricots, cherries, plums, peaches, quinces and pears, among others. Keeping things running smoothly is a team of 50 office and field staff who tend to the planting, harvesting and pruning needed as well as meticulous record-keeping and data-entry to track inventory throughout the season.
How does a small, independent fruit grower become one of the most sought after names in fruit? And what can today’s small growers do to succeed?
Listening to Farmer Al’s story, it would seem that a relentless focus on quality, a commitment to community as well as some splashes of luck – being at the right place at the right time – went a long way to propelling the humble peach to celebrity fruit status.
“I grow for flavor, complexity and consistency,” he said. “Lots of research is involved, and there’s always something new to learn and experiment, even after 35 years. I’m still learning!”
He’s also a firm believer in selling directly to the consumer instead of working through a middleman, an approach that allows him to grow and build a real farmer-consumer relationship that goes beyond the transactional.
“We want to hear from our customers, what they liked or disliked about our produce – is it too sweet, too sour, too ripe, not ripe enough? This not only helps us to improve, it keeps everyone happy,” said Jeff Bordes, the farm’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “It allows the farmer-consumer relationship to become dynamic, a two-way street.”
Although he’s one of the prominent faces of the organic food movement in the US today, Farmer Al hasn’t always been a farmer. He used to be a high school teacher in Hawaii which was where he dipped his toe into backyard farming.
“There was no such thing as organic back then (in the ’60s and ’70s),” he shared. “I used pesticides on my crops like everyone else. Nobody knew anything different, it was just the way we did things.”
Gradually, as he learned about the detrimental effects that industrial farming methods had on the environment and on health, he made the switch to an organic and sustainable method of production. The farm now composts all yard waste and unused fruit which is used, along with fish, seaweed and limestone, to enrich the soil.
Said Farmer Al, “Food is about community. I believe that the food we produce should not only taste good, but also be good for us, our children and the environment.”
Apart from selling their fresh fruit at Farmers’ Markets, some grocery stores and through their Happy Child CSA, the farm also offers a wide range of processed fruit. Becky Courchesne is the Frog Hollow Farm pastry chef who transforms the farm’s excess fruit into conserves, chutneys and filling for pastries. Generous chunks of peaches fill each spoonful of their Peach Chutney, a concoction nicely balanced between sweet and acidic notes with a little spicy kick at the finish. Their olive oil, made from the fruit of lush olive trees on the farm is a Tuscan blend that’s light yet complex on the palate, the perfect condiment for dipping your bread into or drizzling over soup.
Outside of the labels and certification jargon surrounding organic farming, the approach at its heart is about working with the ecosystem you’re in to produce the best possible food that can be made instead of trying to compel the environment to do one’s bidding. It is the long, hard way and takes far more planning and vigilance, but it’s also more rewarding when you taste the fruits of your labor. We left the farm with a generous box of bing cherries, conserves and a small bottle of olive oil that I wish was unlimited. More valuable though, is the memory of biting into that first cherry, plucked just minutes ago. That flavor profile is truly legendary.
Cherry Frangipane Tart
Fresh cherries in season are so delicious it’s hard to want to transform it into anything else. When we were not working through the box, I saved a few for this tart, chosen because the cherries are barely ‘cooked’ by the heat of the frangipane and the conserves. The frangipane recipe below makes 1.5 cups. You will only need about ¾ cups for this tart and the rest can be kept, well-covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- 10½ oz/ 300g pitted cherries
- 2 tablespoons cherry conserves
- 3½ oz/ 100g caster sugar
- 9 tablespoons/ 128g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 4½ oz/ 125g all-purpose flour
- 4½ oz/ 125g pastry flour
- 3½ oz/ 100g sliced almonds
- 3½ oz/ 100g sugar
- 7 tablespoons/ 100g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons rum
- 1 large egg
- Begin with the tart shells. In the bowl of your mixer, cream together the sugar and butter on medium speed until smooth. Lower the mixing speed and add the egg, mixing until well-combined. Stop the mixer, scraping down the sides of the bowl, then add the flour all at once and mix on low speed just long enough to incorporate.
- Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into three discs, half-inch thick (or leave whole if you’re using a 9-inch tart pan). Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours.
- Prepare the frangipane. Process the sliced almonds and 1 oz/ 25g of the sugar in a food processor until finely ground.
- In the bowl of your mixer, beat the butter until creamy then add the remaining 2½ oz/ 75g of sugar and mix to incorporate. Add the ground almonds and beat until full combined. Add the salt, rum and egg and mix until fluffy. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F/ 190C. Butter your tart pans and set aside.
- Roll out each disc of dough on a lightly floured surface, changing sides after a few rolls and dusting as you go. Roll the dough until they’re 1/8-inch thick with a diameter that’s at least 2 inches bigger than the size of your tart pan. Cut out circles if your dough is significantly larger than your pan.
- Gently transfer the dough to the pan, easing it into the bottoms and sides and patching any tears with extra dough. Trim the edges of the pan with a knife or by passing your rolling pin over the rim. Refrigerate the shells until firm, about 15 to 30 minutes.
- Prick the bottoms of the tart shells all over with a fork then place the shells on a baking sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes for tartlet shells (10 minutes for a large shell).
- Fill the pre-baked shells halfway with the frangipane, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Bake, uncovered, for 25 minutes until golden.
- Top each tart with the pitted cherries in a single layer and drizzle the conserves over the cherries.
- Let cool before removing from the pans and serve as is or with a dollop of whipped cream.