Bay Area Rooted Foods

March 23, 2007

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a thriving local foods movement, and it’s no wonder; the local lands that feed the Bay Area are extremely diverse, yielding a profusion of fresh foods year-round. Some of these edibles hold a special place in our region’s history, culture and cuisine. This week’s feature is about some of the foods you’ll find at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that have deep roots in the Bay Area:

Gravenstein apples
Stan Devoto of Devoto Gardens (a Sonoma County apple and flower farm) remembers that when he was a child, everything would stop for a few days when the Granvensteins were ripe. His family would spend several evenings in the kitchen together peeling apples for sauce. Some of Stan’s best Gravenstein customers today have similar childhood memories. Russians brought the German or Dutch variety to the American West and it dominated Sonoma County production for many years. Gravensteins, grown by relatively few farmers today, are uniquely suited to the soil and fog of the Sebastopol area.
When: August
Where: Devoto Gardens and The Apple Farm

Dungeness crab
Though Native Americans had been eating the shellfish for centuries, San Francisco was the first place that Dungeness crab was commercialized when in the mid-nineteenth century miners gave up on gold and sought the treasures of the local waters. The Dungeness population took a considerable downturn from the 1960s to the 1980s, but the crab trade still exists today. On the second Tuesday of November, once a price for crab has been negotiated, trappers head out to catch male crabs and bring them back to eager eaters. Dungeness, prior to the 1970s known simply as “market crab,” is a prominent part of many old-school San Francisco dishes including the tomato-based fish stew, cioppino.
When: Central Coast Dungeness crab season begins the second Tuesday in November and ends on June 30
Where: Ports Seafood and (occasionally) Shogun Fish Company

Red Hawk cheese
Though Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk cheese does not have a long history, it is a decidedly Bay Area product. Marin County, where the cheese is produced, has long been dairy country; cattle grazing on the rolling, grassy hills of the region once supplied more than a quarter of California’s butter. Red Hawk cheese is made with the milk from Straus Family Creamery in Marin and receives its distinctive flavor and red/orange tint from bacteria that exist naturally in the Point Reyes Station air.
When: Year-round
Where: Cowgirl Creamery

Blenheim apricots
Blenheim apricots were introduced to California in the 1880s, and by the 1920s the variety dominated a thriving dried apricot industry, blanketing the Santa Clara Valley. Most of the original Blenheim orchards have been paved over, but a few farmers still grow the intensely flavorful variety.
When: June
Where: Everything Under the Sun, Knoll Farms, Blossom Bluff Orchards

Sourdough French bread
Isadore Boudin created the first loaf of San Francisco’s famous bread when he combined his native French bread with a local sourdough. Boudin bakery still houses the “mother dough,” which dates back to 1849, but other bakeries (near and far) make the San Francisco sourdough, too.
When: Year-round
Where: Noe Valley Bakery and Acme Bread Company

According to a San Jose Mercury News article on the subject, “From the 1850s to the 1920s, oysters were a cornerstone of the bay’s economy and ecology, the most lucrative fishery in California and the stuff of Jack London stories.” Unfortunately, the fishery was all but decimated by the late 1920s; a combination of pollution and over-harvesting led to declines of the native Olympia Oyster population. Today, there are several local oyster farms in the region, and though none cultivate the native species, oysters are still a part of our region’s cuisine and culture. The nonprofit organization Save the Bay is spearheading a project to restore native oyster populations in the San Francisco Bay, but their efforts will likely never lead to an edible oyster harvest. Instead, we’ll enjoy the locally produced, but introduced, European and Atlantic oysters in our hangtown fry.
When: Year-round
Where: Hog Island Oyster Co.

Crane melons
The sweet, tear-shaped, speckled Crane melon has become a late-summer pride of the North Bay. The melon was developed by Oliver Crane, a Sonoma County farmer who crossed a Japanese melon with a cantaloupe. For many years, the Crane family were the only growers of this luscious hybrid, but a handful of other farmers now offer the melon.
When: Late June to September
Where: The Peach Farm and Allstar Organics