A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on August 21, 2002.



Cooking Fresh
Cooking Fresh: Fig farmers gives varieties a new infusion of energy
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

"A couple of figs in the morning, when you're tired, or run down, or hungover, is almost like a blood transfusion," says farmer Rick Knoll.

Huh. And to think I've spent all this time supporting my neighborhood coffeehouse.

"They're highly nutritious, high in iron and calcium," continues Knoll. "If I'm dragging, I eat a few and get a real energy surge."

Knoll, who owns Knoll Farm in Brentwood along with his wife Kristie, is a visionary, one of the pioneers of sustainable farming, in addition to being famous for his figs.

Although the Knolls farm organically and biodynamically, which involves farming in harmony with the land's ecosystem, they are trying to avoid being pigeonholed as "organic."

"We're one of the original organic farms that are now marketing our product under our own label, "Tairwa," he says. "With the increasing growth and corporatization of organic farms, the growing methods are becoming less sustainable and ecology-minded, so we decided we needed to distinguish ourselves from those types of operations."

The Knoll's new label, "Tairwa," is a play on the French term, terroir, which roughly translates as "sense of place." It's a term used to describe how the unique characteristics of a particular area's soil, climate and indigenous plants can affect the food grown or raised there. For example, cows that graze on the salt-tinged grasses along the Sonoma coast will produce milk that not only tastes specific to that breed, but also to that region and season.

The Knolls grow a variety of fruit and vegetables on their small Brentwood farm, but figs and green garlic are their trademarks.

"The fig thing came about by accident," says Knoll. "I used to grow a lot of peaches and nectarines, but there were a lot of stonefruit growers in the area, so I felt I needed to distinguish myself, and I decided to tear out all my trees. It was a dumb move, but it worked out because we decided to grow as many outrageous varieties of figs as possible."

Knoll currently grows six types of figs, but he doesn't plant new varieties on a whim.

"Fig trees will bear fruit after just three years. But when we try a variety we find interesting, we get its genetic material, grow a tree, experiment with seeing what its seasonality is, test the fruit out on our customers, then start grafting root stock and starting new trees. The whole process takes around 10 years."

If it sounds as though Knoll is a bit of a mad scientist, perhaps it's because he holds two separate doctorates in organic chemistry and agricultural ecology. Still, he is as laid-back and down-to-earth as the farm he has created.

"I don't like categorizing. We're not 'organic.' We're just the essence of this place, this soil on this patch of land we farm on."

Knoll nurtures his fig trees by doing the opposite of what most farmers do.

"We intentionally plant and add to what's already there - native bunch grasses, alfalfa, red clover. Some people call them weeds. But keeping the diversity of the soil really high by keeping lots of root systems going and adding to the microbial life in the soil, well, I think it makes for great crops," he says.

"People have a tendency to hoe out everything and denude the area they're planting, but you need to create an environment that's hospitable, to keep root systems active and healthy."

Knoll's fig season begins in late May with his two varieties of Adriatic figs. Weather permitting, the season extends to Thanksgiving with, appropriately enough, Brown Turkey figs.

Brown Turkeys are a large Turkish fig with a rosy interior. They are more juicy than the average fig, which Knoll says makes them good for baking because they hold their shape well and the sugars in the juice caramelize as they cook.

The ubiquitous Black Mission fig, the "Fig Newton fig," jokes Knoll, came to California along with the Spanish missionaries. They are black-skinned, with reddish flesh.

"They're the only variety that freezes well," says Knoll. "After you take them out and they've tempered a bit, they have the flavor and consistency of fig sherbet. They're bad for cooking with, though, because they just melt down."

Kadota figs have a thick, green skin with a salmon-colored interior. They are syrupy sweet and are best used for canning or paired with prosciutto, the saltiness of which provides a good contrast to the sweet flesh.

"Kristie likes to make a fig vinaigrette with our Kadotas," Knoll says. "She uses a food processor to blend up the figs, balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and a bit of herb such as basil."

Of his Adriatic figs, Knoll explains that every region of Sicily has its own specific variety. "They usually grow later in the season, but in our microclimate, they're early producers. They're thin-skinned, green with a reddish tinge, and fragile. The interior is very strawberry-like. The best way to enjoy them is to get a good baguette, some almond butter, and smear on some fresh figs and make a sandwich."

Knoll's current favorite - perhaps because he's still experimenting with the trees - is Melissa.

"There's a nice bit of folklore to the fig," he says, "You know the Allman Brothers song, `Melissa?' Well, it's about a woman who was as sweet as this fig. It looks like a smaller, rounder, Brown Turkey, with white dots. It's got a custardy, salmon-colored flesh. It's outstanding for eating fresh or with creme fraiche and mint, or on pancakes."

I like my figs in a salad of baby greens, walnuts, good blue cheese and tossed with a sherry or balsamic vinaigrette. Or I'll put them on toasted walnut levain bread layered with prosciutto and drizzled with honey.

But however I choose to enjoy them, I don't think I'm ready to give up my morning caffeine surge just yet.

- Knoll Farm figs are available at Ferry Plaza farmers' market in San Francisco, Monterey Market, Mollie Stone's, Berkeley Bowl, and Rainbow Grocery. The following farms also sell figs: Guru Ram Das Orchards at the Berkeley farmers' market; and Terra Firma Farm at the Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets.

FIG, WALNUT & POINT REYES FARMSTEAD BLUE CHEESE SALAD

For vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or to taste, if you prefer a less acidic dressing)

1 teaspoons finely minced shallot Salt to taste

For salad:

6 cups mesclun mix

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and broken into large pieces

4 ounces Point Reyes Farmstead Blue or other good-quality blue cheese, crumbled

8 figs, preferably Black Mission, halved or quartered, depending on size

Freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and shallot in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and set aside to allow flavors to develop.

When ready to serve, arrange mound of greens on each of four salad plates, and top with walnuts and blue cheese. Arrange four fig halves or quarters around the perimeter of each plate. Drizzle with sherry vinaigrette and season with a twist of freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Per Serving: 382 Calories; 28g Fat; 13g Protein; 26g Carbohydrate; 7g Dietary Fiber; 21mg Cholesterol; 418mg Sodium.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org




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Last modified: March 26, 2002