Nestled in the foothills of Santa Paula, Limoneira Ranch, the largest domestic grower of lemons and avocados, served as the back drop for Ventura’s recent Dinner at the Orchard. The event, part of an on-going charity-driven series, had caught Steven’s attention and we were happy to “help him out” by joining him on DuPuis’ behalf.
With only a cryptic “wear flat shoes and layers” advisement, we met at the designated shuttle stop. Much to our delight we were greeted with a chilled artichoke soup perfectly complemented by a fresh slice of locally grown avocado. This pairing provided at a bus stop was a pretty good indication of the evening ahead.
A weathered trolley arrived to take us up into the orchard. As we bounced along the winding road, the fragrant eucalyptus trees melted away any stress from that day’s work. Through the trees we caught sight of Chef Jason Collis and his staff at work in the avocado grove. More small bites, including fresh little Kumamoto oysters from seaside-purveyor The Jolly Oyster, greeted us as we stepped off the trolley. Hors d’oeuvres were paired with a selection of wines and beers from local vintners and breweries and we found ourselves eager to meet our dining companions with whom we were about to share a culinary adventure.
Dinner was served at a beautifully set, rustic table overlooking the valley. Family-style seating and pass-around courses encouraged guests to socialize. The arrival of the Dinosaur Kale salad was a perfect excuse for us to start a conversation with our neighbors: a food stylist, Paty Winters, two bakers from Rabalais Bistro, Kelly Bunder and Tracy Lippert, and, Ventura County Agricultural Education Coordinator, Mary Maranville. Mary runs a farm tour program that brings agriculture into the classroom.
As we were savoring our first course, Chris Sayer, a farmer and writer at Petty Ranch, spoke about the rich varieties of figs in development on his property. With excitement, he told us that they were only a few years away from a full-blown harvest. For the Orchard dinner, he supplied a colorful array of cauliflower and fava beans. Chris spoke about the role of the fava bean in crop rotation on Petty Ranch. Many organic farmers use the cover crop method on their land. Without the harm of synthetic fertilizers they can replenish the soil with vital nutrients, maintaining it for future generations. What is uncommon about the Petty Ranch approach, however, is the secondary use made of the cover crop. When prepared as a risotto and coupled with citrus glazed short ribs, one would never guess the fava’s humble origins of utility on the farm.
The next farmer to visit us was former chef John Fonteyn. He infused a new enthusiasm around the table, and could have easily enlisted any of us to volunteer at his organic growing operation. Through his 9-acres of land in Ojai and Ventura, John brings to life his vision for contemporary farming: a return to working with nature rather than controlling it. John spoke of the unrivaled qualities of Ventura County’s five growing seasons, which led to the inspired combinations we were tasking at table, including golden beet gratin with blood orange reduction. Only in the warm climate and soil conditions found in Ventura can you access local root vegetables and citrus in season at the same time.
We finished the meal with an ice-cold glass of Limoncello and one more walk around the table to mingle with the other lingering guests. As fellow Venturans, we felt a kinship with these wonderfully passionate and dedicated farmers, stewards of a new era of intelligent farming. With access to one of America’s most productive and unique agricultural locations, farmers and foodies are joining together to develop a culture of honesty, transparency, and creativity.
As we descended back down the hill and had a moment to savor the evening, it struck us how fortunate we are to be experiencing first hand the people and passions surrounding fresh, local foods. It made us realize that DuPuis made the right move to this inspiring community called Ventura.
-Sabine Dodane & Jenna Melnyk