Suisun Valley, who ever heard of such a place? Where is that? Why bother you ask.
Just a mere hour drive from the San Francisco Bay lies a valley steeped in rich agricultural legacy.
I’ve been visiting Suisun (pronounced Sassoon like Vidal) for the past 15 years. My parents lived at Red Top Dairy for a few years and they introduced me to the wonders of this relatively undiscovered valley of abbondanza. Suisun has a rich history of wine production since the 1850’s as well as a number of tree crops (pears, prunes, peaches, kiwis, apricots and citrus).
I’ve been harvesting fresh produce from the farms in the Suisun Valley and have always been amazed at the quality of the produce and how little is known about the hard working families that have coaxed some of the most delicious produce from it’s fertile soil.
Early on I had the good fortune to meet Suzie Parker of Parker Farms who was growing about 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, a few types of cucumbers, a rainbow of peppers ranging from sweet to screaming flames, corn, jujube’s and one of the best selections of fresh herbs I’ve seen in one place. Let me begin by saying that Suzie was a force of nature. Picture a 6’ tall blond Amazonian woman with hair down to her bootie clad in Doc Martins flitting about the fields like a garden nymph. Suzie had a spirit that was infectious. She loved to have little kids come to her farm and give them the grand tour complete with a visit to the hen house. I have fond memories of visiting Suzie’s Farm with the family and friends and picking to our hearts delight. Suzie always had a big part of her garden dedicated to fresh flowers for cutting, there were Sunflowers in a half dozen varieties, multi-colored zinnias, strawflowers in blue and white. Suzie and her husband made a valiant attempt at farming in the Valley and decided that 2010 would be their last year to nurture the soil which marked the end of an era of agricultural visits to Suzie’s Farm. It’s good to know that my son Julian grew up with such a rich experience and appreciation for the farm and the good folks who have a love affair with the garden.
Today, I ventured up to Suisun to harvest melons. Last year I had the earth shaking experience of picking a watermelon for the first time at Castaneda Brothers Produce on Rockville Road. I swear if I’d had a knife, I would have cracked one open right then and there. I know that September is the pinnacle of the melon season in Northern California. Melons of all kinds are in full flush and you’ve got to pick them at their peak or you’ll be relegated to air chilled melons picked unripe so that they’ll survive the drive to market or worse yet, Safeway… I ventured out into the melon field with a four-wheeled wagon because I wanted to bring back enough to share with my friends and neighbors. Watermelons everywhere as far as the eye can see. You’d think the soil was pregnant with hundreds of these 2 foot-long fecund orbs glittering with the sweet nectar from the leaves. I had to have two of these. Then alongside them came the relatively new invention, the seedless watermelon. Now as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a purist in my produce. How can you save seed from a watermelon that hasn’t a one? Are we really over the fun of sitting on the front porch eating watermelon and having a contest to see who could spit the seed farthest? Not to mention, I’ve yet to taste a seedless melon that compares to an old fashioned seeded one. Of course, I had to get two of those just to prove my hypothesis.
Then I caught a glimpse of cantaloupes about a block away. I huddled my watermelons into the wagon and rushed over to the cantaloupes in fear that someone might be watching and get to them before I. I paced myself. I didn’t want to appear over eager or excited to any onlookers. I slowly walked down the row taking in the sea of cantaloupes. I didn’t want to be thoughtless about this exercise; I was in search of the perfect cantaloupe. Firm enough to survive the journey home, fragrant to the nose, a bottom that gave ever so slightly to the touch and ready to fall off the vine. I found one and then another and then another three. Then I noticed this melon near the cantaloupes that was mottled green and gold with a carpet of tiny fuzz all over. I was immediately intrigued, what was this melon? I had to possess it. I reviewed all of them and decided the ones with the most gold color smelled deliciously sweet. I plucked two from the vine and headed out of the melon patch to my wagon, which by now was full of melons.
By now I was on a roll and my produce picking adrenaline was in high speed. I had seen the acres of tomatoes, Pomme D’Amour on my way into Castaneda’s and was at first so called by the melons that it was my driving force. Ah, why not just take a peek and see what they have. I ventured out into the fields to the tomato patch. I sauntered over, saw a bunch of Roma’s, (perfect sauce tomatoes) but I wanted sweetness and depth from the likes of Russian Krims and Old Germans. I decided I needed a system to ascertain which tomatoes had the best flavor. I know; I’ll try each one before I pick a one to bring home. I saw a few Roma plants that were heavy with fruit and their plants had dried up and died. You’ve heard about dry farming and the intense flavors left when you cut back on water towards the end of the season. These Roma’s were so incredibly flavorful. I’ll have to have some of those. Then I found these smaller ones that were deep burgundy with some green tinges to them. I bit into it and was in heaven, another 15-20 of those. Wait what is that I see? My favorite Old German’s, these are a whopping yellow fruit with a red hearts that are very mild and low acid. They were at their peak of ripeness and begged me to bring them home. Now I had 15 lbs of heirloom tomatoes in my box, all single-file and no one sitting on top of another. Tomato picking is a very fragile exercise. The key is to pick fruit firm enough to make the journey home, but also full of flavor and sweetness. Plus you cannot use up all this fruit in a day.
This u-pick business is like gambling, maybe just another quarter in the slot. At least, with u-picks you have something to show for your investment.
After hauling my 75 lbs of u-pick back to the stand to pay I decided to venture down the other end of Rockville Road past the circle to see what was new. I hadn’t been to Larry Produce Stand in years and wanted to see what had become of the burgeoning produce empire. One the way I ventured down Chadbourne Road to see if my friends at Tenbrink Winery were around. Steve and Linda were out with the kids harvesting Pinot Noir grape for crush so I said my hello and let them get back to the harvest. I noticed that the Suisun Valley Wine Coop was open and popped in to taste the bounty of the valley. Suffice to say, 2 hours later and 10 bottles in the trunk, I was quite happy and the dear folks from Sunset Wines suggested I try the barbecue from the truck in the yard. I cannot thank them enough because I was in no condition to drive and pork ribs outside at sunset in Suisun Valley went so well with the wine of the region.
All in all, it was a Fruitful excursion that may be repeated before the season winds down.