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Beltane Ranch chef focuses on farm-to-table for rustic meals

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On a foggy morning in mid-January, the long driveway up to Beltane Ranch off Highway 12 appears out of the mist of the Sonoma Valley floor, winding upward along an unmortared stone wall and leading to a fairytale land that time forgot.

At the heart of the ranch — a total of about 105 acres spanning vineyards and olive orchards, open fields and gardens — is a yellow ranch house, built in 1892 and rimmed with a white gingerbread porch. The house, with five guest rooms on two stories, is where ranch chef Greg Markey can be found most days, cooking in the cozy kitchen by the back door.

“It’s beautiful here ... and it’s magical at twilight,” Markey says. “The family feels it’s a special place, and they want to keep it that way.”

Like Beltane Ranch itself, the chef’s farm-to-table cooking feels both timeless and contemporary.

Using vegetables from the estate garden — even in the heart of winter — Markey carefully builds layers of flavors into the breakfasts, picnic lunches and rustic dinners he serves to overnight guests, wine club members and regional wine tours that stop by.

This particular morning, Markey is listening to Beethoven as he works on a dish he developed to showcase the winter garden. The breakfast is based on an old Southern favorite — biscuits and gravy — updated with a vegetable ragout topped with a poached egg.

“We want to give people more than what they expect,” he says. “For breakfast, I like to mix it up a lot.”

Markey, a soft-spoken guy who has cooked all over Northern California — from the legendary Masa’s in San Francisco to Auberge de Soleil in Napa and Timberhill Ranch on the Sonoma Coast — has been working with plant-based cuisine since 1985, when he was hired by the Sonoma Mission Inn to launch its exciting, new “spa cuisine” menu.

“That was the beginning of the plant-forward trend,” says Markey, who also opened Brannan’s Grill in Calistoga in the late ’90s and more recently worked in catering for Stark Reality Restaurants.

Markey calls himself “the vagabond chef.” Though he received a solid culinary education from San Francisco City College at age 19, he’s also picked up a quite a few tricks along the way.

For his biscuit and gravy breakfast, for example, he makes a sauvignon blanc cream gravy for the biscuits to sit on, then whips up a red kuri squash “mock Hollandaise” to pour over the eggs.

“At Masa’s, I learned to put two sauces on the plate,” he says. “It makes it more interesting.”

Each breakfast comes with a glass of juice — a signature house blend of orange, apple and cranberry juices that ranch matriach Rosemary Woods invented one day because she didn’t have enough OJ — and a bowl of seasonal fruit, often sourced from the ranch’s orchards.

“The property has figs, heirloom peaches, white nectarines, plus pears and apples, Eureka and Meyer lemons,” Markey says. “I make a persimmon and chia-seed dressing with the Hachiya persimmons and serve it with pecans, pears and prosciutto.”

Beltane Ranch Winery

About 25% of the grapes grown on the property go into the estate wines: a sauvignon blanc, zin, rosé of zin and carignane blend. There is no tasting room, so every bottle of wine from the 1,200 cases produced a year goes to the boutique winery’s wine club.

The ranch has been ramping up its food and wine program with a farm dinner series and wood-fired dinner series for wine club members and guests, in addition to wine club events.

For the rosé release party, the ranch offers a camp-out on the sprawling green lawn where they also host about 20 weddings a year.

“We do a sauvignon blanc release party in June with fresh oysters, shucked,” he says. “We release the zin in the first week of November. Then things settle down a little bit.”

Markey says guests used to be mostly local. Now they come from all over Europe and Asia, thanks to the many guidebooks and magazines that have written about the ranch.

A family affair

Beltane Ranch has been in the same family since 1936, when Rosemary’s aunt and uncle, Effia and Ralph Heins, purchased the property to raise turkeys, sheep and cattle. In 1960, Rosemary restored the now-landmarked Victorian ranch house and welcomed Julia Child as one of her first inn guests.

In 1972, her daughter, Alexa Wood, joined her and raised her own children on the property. Now, Alexa’s children, Alex Benward and Lauren Benward Krause, have joined the family business. Lauren serves as the business manager, while Alex takes care of the vineyard, orchards, gardens and farm animals.

This winter, the farm added seven babydoll sheep to control the weeds in the vineyard, plus two Great Pyrenees pups to guard them. They are bringing in dozens of chicks to lay eggs in a new henhouse.

A gardener himself, Markey is excited about the estate garden this year and hopes to stagger plantings of certain vegetables, such as radishes, for a longer, continuous harvest.

“Last year was such a banner year for the garden, after losing a season from the fire,” Markey says. “We hope to have enough produce this year to have a farm stand on the road.”

Beltane Ranch is at 11775 Highway 12, Glen Ellen. beltaneranch.com. 707-833-4233.

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Here are the recipes for the components of the Beltane Ranch Biscuits and Gravy. To serve, ladle a pool of cream gravy in the center of the plate. Slice a biscuit and place the bottom slice in the center of the pool. Top the biscuit half with the Kale and Chard Chile Ragout and a poached egg. Finish with a dollop of Red Kuri Squash Mock Hollandaise and garnish with a sprinkle of paprika, smoked paprika or, for the adventurous, a pinch of red chili flakes. Prop the top half of the biscuit alongside the other biscuit.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Makes about a dozen biscuits

2½ cup flour

½ cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

2½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup butter, unsalted

1 egg

½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425. Combine all dry ingredients in a food processor, add butter and pulse to cut butter into pea-size bits.

In a separate bowl, beat egg, add buttermilk and incorporate. Add the wet ingredients to processor and pulse until dough forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a floured surface, roll out to ½-inch thick and cut round biscuits. Bake on a non-stick surface for 6-8 minutes or until golden brown.

Kale and Chard Chile Ragout

Makes about 2 cups

1 bunch lacinato kale

1 bunch red chard

1 cup yellow onion

¼ cup plum tomato, chopped

¼ cup bell pepper, seeded and sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

½ cup ancho chile paste

½ cup butter

— Salt and pepper, to taste

Remove the stems from the kale and chard (save the chard stems). Blanch the stems in salted boiling water until limp, about 2 minutes. Remove and shock in ice-cold water. Blanch the kale and chard leaves the same way and shock in ice cold water. Squeeze the excess water from the leaves and slice the stems into ½-inch slices.

Add butter to a pot and melt. Add sliced onion and garlic and sauté until tender. Add the chopped stems, tomato and bell pepper and sauté for 2 minutes. Add blanched kale, chard and chile paste and stir well to disperse the flavors. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm until serving.

Sauvignon Blanc Cream Gravy

Makes about 32 ounces

½ cup butter

½ cup flour

1½ cup sauvignon blanc

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 quart whole milk

1 cup cream

¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground

— Salt and pepper, to taste

In a thick-bottom pot, melt butter, add flour and cook until lightly brown, stirring constantly. Add wine and simmer. Add Dijon, milk and cream, whisking until well blended and smooth, then season with fresh ground nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

Pay attention to the sauce, as it will scorch if left unattended. Simmer until gravy thickens. Season with salt and pepper to taste — not to taste the salt and pepper, but to taste the enhanced flavors of all the ingredients.

Red Kuri Squash Mock Hollandaise

Makes about 32 ounces

4 cups red kuri squash, peeled and large dice

1 cup yellow onion, sliced

2 tablespoons butter

4 cups water

½ cup cream

1 pinch cayenne pepper

— Salt and pepper to taste

Add butter and onion to the pot, sauté until soft, add diced squash and sauté. Season with salt and pepper. Add water, heat to simmer and simmer until squash is tender. Strain, reserving liquid. Place squash mixture and ½ cup of the reserved liquid in a blender, Vita-Mix or food processor and puree until smooth.

Add the cream and blend. Season with cayenne and check salt and pepper, to taste. Return to pot and keep warm until serving.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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