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As you drive east from Ukiah on Highway 20, passing Lake Mendocino, Redwood Valley and the turnoff to Potter Valley, a calm sets in as an unfamiliar landscape begins to engage your imagination.

A series of small lakes (Blue Lakes and Tule Lake) hint at what is soon to come ? Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. It stretches for nearly 20 miles and is, at its widest, eight miles across, forming the fluid heart of Lake County, the dramatic Mount Konocti nestling against its southern shore.

Lake County has long endured a reputation as the poor cousin of the wine country, a place of cheap property, trailer parks and, in the summer, the stench of decomposing algae.

But there is so much more to Lake County than the seasonal algae blooms that locals understand are natural.

Today, there is a refreshing vitality and sense of enthusiasm reflected in a flourishing local food movement, a passion for organic and biodynamic farming and a thriving wine industry.

And Lake County has that precious, rare resource, open space, vast stretches of undeveloped land that is home to a vast array of wildlife.

Local agriculture

Colleen Rentsch began working at her family?s farm stand when she was in eighth grade. During college, she worked at the stand duringsummer break and today is in charge of the 120-acre farm her grandfather founded in the 1950s.

?We grow all the summer crops except sweet corn,? Colleen says, ?including pears, peaches, apples, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, winter squash, pumpkins and 80 acres of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.?

Seely?s Farm Stand, open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving, also sells Lake County?s Yerba Santa Goat Cheese, Socora?s Salsa, made in Lower Lake, and honey from R.B. Landrum, who has hives throughout the county. This year, Colleen will offer value-added products such as jams and jellies from the farm.

The stand?s prime location on Highway 20 in Upper Lake brings a steady mix of locals and tourists, many of whom have come year after year for decades.

?When I first started as a young girl,? Colleen says, ?the customers were mostly grandmothers doing canning. They would buy five boxes of pears. Today, customers buy a handful of one thing, a handful of another. They buy a great variety and they want to know everything about how it is grown.?

Lars Crail of Yoxagoi Orchards has been farming at his 25-acre Lakeport pear orchard since 1997, though his wife?s family began growing pears in Lake County in the 1800s. The orchard?s farm stand is open from late July or early August through September, though most of his pear harvest is sold on the wholesale market.

After the farm received organic certification in 2004, sales became much stronger. Prices are great, Lars says, and the demand is high.

The demand is high, as well, for the organic eggs, chicken and walnuts from Barrett Farms, where Jacquelyne Byers and her husband, Michael Barrett, tend their 15 certified organic acres themselves, with little or no help.

?We currently have 800 Rhode Island Red layers in production,? Jackie, as her customers know her, says. ?They are all named Norma, after my sister.?

The farm also has several dozen guinea fowl who are seasonal layers, offering their unique eggs from spring through early summer. The eggs have a greater ratio of yolk to white and extremely hard shells with a shape suggestive of a diamond. Campers love them because they don?t break when carried in a backpack.

The layers, the guinea fowl and the meat chickens, a variety known as Cornish Cross that Jackie describes as the ?Pamela Anderson of chickens,? have at-will access to the outdoors, where they are guarded by two livestock guardian dogs, and a barn for laying and roosting at night, a chicken?s preference. Thanks to the efficiency of the canine team, there?s not a raccoon within five miles, Jackie says, and ?a coyote wouldn?t dream of coming on the farm.?

Jackie relies on a larger market than Lake County to sell products, including the hundreds of eggs her chickens produce each day. The new Bardessono Inn and Spa in Yountville is a customer and Jackie is a year-round vendor at the Sunday farmers market in San Rafael. She also attends seasonal markets in St. Helena and Napa.

Farmers Markets, Co-ops

and Cooperation

At last month?s Stars of Lake County awards, presented by the Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Lake County Community Co-op received the Star of Agriculture award, an impressive accomplishment for an organization that just celebrated its first anniversary.

Founded in January, 2008 in Clear Lake, the co-op has 260 members in its buying club, which offers two weekly CSA subscriptions, one for $16 a week that features local and regional organic produce and one for $9 that features organic fruits and vegetables.

The co-op also co-sponsors a Friday night farmers market in Clear Lake from June through September and produces an educational series, ?Lake County Community Co-op Presents,? for the community television station.

Steele Wines in Kelseyville hosts a certified farmers? market on Saturdays from the beginning of May through October and Trevor Lipscomb, general manager of Tallman Hotel, is considering launching a market in Upper Lake this year.

A palpable sense of cooperation and community permeates Lake County these days and people talk constantly of how the region is on the cusp of discovery, of recognition and of self-sufficiency. There?s a new food policy council hoping to increase awareness of local agriculture, encourage more field crops ? vegetables currently account for less than one percent of county agriculture ? and explore issues of food security, including the importance of local food in the event of an interruption in transportation, which could leave this remote region unserved.

A History of Viticulture

Viticulture in Lake County dates back to the 1800s and counts among its pioneers Lillie Langtry, the British actress renowned in her day for her beauty. Langtry purchased what had been the Guenoc Rancho in 1888 and although records indicate she visited her Guenoc Valley estate at most twice, she hired a French winemaker to make ?the finest claret in the world.? Today a single syrah vine planted during Langtry?s tenure thrives in the Tephra Ridge Vineyards, high above Detert Lake across from the tasting room of the winery that bears her name, Langtry Estate & Vineyards.

Langtry Estate, known for years as Guenoc Winery but renamed a few years ago, is the sole winery in the Guenoc Valley viticultural area, one of five viticultural areas within Lake County, which is also part of the vast North Coast viticultural area, which includes much of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, as well.

Across the county from Langtry Estates is the stunning Ceago Vinegarden, Jim Fetzer?s biodynamic estate, where a vast field of lavender bordered by olive trees stretches to the shore of the lake. A long beautiful pier welcomes visitors who come by boat to taste the wines and savor the environment. In the tasting room, lavender products and estate olive oil sit side by side with current wine releases.

There is significant variation in soil in Lake County but certain summer characteristics ? hot days, warm nights and no marine fog ? define the region. With what may be the highest vineyards in California, up to 4000 feet of elevation, vintners come from all over the world to study the mountain vineyards. More than a dozen varietals are planted in Lake County but sauvignon blanc and petite sirah are the current stars. More than two dozen wineries thrive here and scores of others, including many in Sonoma County, use grapes from Lake County and increasingly acknowledge the source on their labels.

Lake County is a rustic jewel, beautiful, unique and full of its own charm. There is good food, excellent wine and plenty to explore. That it?s little more than an hour?s drive from the heart of Sonoma County makes it an appealing destination for a relaxing day trip or weekend excursion.

Barrett Farms chickens, known as Clucky Plucky, are processed at 8 to 10 weeks, when they weigh between 3 and 4 pounds. If you don?t have Clucky Plucky chicken, use the best local pasture-raised chicken you can find and adjust the cooking time according to its size.

When Lake County pears are available ? usually from early August through early October ? serve this juicy, delicate dish with sliced pears sauteed in butter alongside. Wild rice makes an earthy accompaniment and a well-chilled sauvignon blanc from Lake County is the ideal quaffer.

Roasted Chicken with Pear Cider Mop

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1fresh chicken, preferably a Clucky Plucky from Barrett Farms, 3 to 4 pounds

2cups pear cider

1cup pear juice

3tablespoons butter

1teaspoon coriander, crushed

1teaspoon cardamom needs, lightly crushed

1teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1serrrano, minced, optional

?Black pepper in a mill

?Kosher salt

16- to 8-inch sage or rosemary branch

Rinse the chicken inside and out with cool tap water and pat dry with a clean tea towel. Set aside to let the skin dry while you make the mop.

Pour the cider and the pear juice into a saucepan, add the butter, coriander, cardamom, thyme, serrano, if using, and a generous amount ? about 2 tablespoons ? of freshly ground black pepper. Set over a medium flame and when the butter begins to melt, remove the pan from the heat, cover and let steep for 30 minutes.

Reheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Season the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper, set it on a rack in a roasting pan, dip the sage or rosemary in the pear mop and use it to ?mop? the chicken. Set the pan on the middle rack of the oven.

Mop the chicken every 10 minutes or so as it cooks, using enough of the mop that some pools in the roasting pan. Continue to cook until the skin is golden brown and the juices of the thigh run clear when pierced with a dinner fork. It should take 15 to 20 minutes per pound; do not overcook.

Remove the chicken from the oven, cover with a tent of aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes.

Carve the chicken and arrange on a platter. Taste the pan juices, season with salt and pepper as needed and add just enough of the mop to achieve an irresistible flavor. Working quickly, heat the juices if necessary, spoon over the carved chicken and serve.

Award-winning Sonoma County food writer and cookbook author Michele Anna Jordan regularly contributes columns and stories to The Press Democrat. E-mail her at michele@micheleannajordan

.com.

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