Philo’s Apple Farm shares its legacy through classes and soon-to-be-published cookbook

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It’s mid-July, and the harvest of heirloom apples has just barely begun at The Apple Farm in Philo, where 32 acres of organic orchards are planted with more than 80 varieties of heirloom apples.

“We just harvested the very first apple, called the Astrachan,” said Karen Bates, who runs the biodynamic farm with her husband Tim Bates. “It’s a Russian apple, and it’s a really great, tart apple for applesauce and pies.”

The Navarro River meanders peacefully by the orchards in the summer but during last winter’s rains, Bates said, it raged over its banks and changed its course, taking out a big chunk of a pear orchard along with their well.

“We try to use as little water as possible, but it’s an old orchard and it’s always been irrigated ,” she said. “The silver lining is we built a new well, and the water is wonderful.”

This summer, Bates said, she and her kitchen crew have been making jams and jellies “like crazy,” which keeps everyone employed while waiting for the apples to ripen.

“We start with strawberries, then we get the apricots from Capay (Valley), and then the plums and our own berries — raspberries and blackberries,” she said. “So it’s been really busy.”

Once the apples start coming in, the commercial kitchen processes the fruit that is not “table quality” into a high-end line of apple products: pasteurized apple juice, apple cider syrup (reduced cider that is tart, sweet and caramelized), apple cider vinegar, apple balsamic vinegar (a custom blend of the aged vinegar and the cider syrup) and a Farmhouse cider.

As part of the early season harvest, Bates said they will harvest a few early crab apples, then move onto two early eating apples: the beloved Gravenstein — being celebrated this weekend at Sebastopol’s annual fair — and the tart, crisp and aromatic Pink Pearl.

Both apples will make their way to The Apple Farm farmstand at the entrance on the Elk-Hendy Woods State Park Road.

Three generations

The Apple Farm enterprise comprises three generations, including Bates’ mother, Sally Schmitt, a culinary pioneer who opened three Yountville restaurants — The Vintage Cafe and The Chutney Kitchen in 1967, and The French Laundry in 1978 — then sold the old, stone restaurant to the rising young chef Thomas Keller in 1994.

Schmitt started teaching cooking classes at The Apple Farm in 1996, then later retired for real to a cottage in Elk for 10 years with her husband, Don. After her husband died in 2017, Schmitt moved back to the Apple Farm to be closer to her daughter and two of her grandchildren, Sophia and Rita.

“She’s 87,” Bates said. “She lives in the same building as the farmstand, so she can watch what’s going on.”

The Apple Farm family shares its food legacy with the world through its cooking classes, originally taught by Schmitt and now taught by Bates.

Stay & Cook

The weekend and mid-week classes known as “Stay & Cook” are more concentrated in the spring and fall, when the farm is less busy. Participants are able to stay in one of the guest cottages on the property, which provides a full-immersion experience.

“We love doing the cooking classes,” Bates said. “It brings people here to enjoy the property in a much more intense way than if they just visit the farmstand,’ she said.

“It’s very gratifying on weekends, and in mid-week on Wednesdays there’s a dinner class.”

Meanwhile, Schmitt is getting ready to share her legacy with the rest of the world, now that she’s finished her cookbook — first started 35 years ago during a vacation at the Sea Ranch — and the book proposal is in the hands of a couple of New York publishers.

Entitled “Six California Kitchens: Sally Schmitt’s Stories & Recipes from Over a Half-Century of California Cooking,” the book is part memoir about her life growing up on a farm outside Sacramento and her career cooking at The French Laundry, and part cookbook, boasting more than 100 of her signature recipes.

Recipes written by hand

The recipes are all written out by hand in the style she helped develop at her cooking classes at The Apple Farm.

“Six California Kitchens” — featuring design by Schmitt’s grandson, Byron Hoffman, and photography by his brother, Troyce Hoffman — will celebrate the woman who was hailed by Joyce Goldstein as a “locavore before the term was event coined” and by Thomas Keller as “a harbinger of what was to become known as California cuisine.”

“Once it goes to a publisher, who knows what will happen?” Bates said. “But the package that they put together is pretty complete, and the photography that Troyce did for the book is beautiful.”

From her mother’s cookbook in progress, Bates shared a recipe for a savory dish — Braised Pork with Cider and Apples — and a recipe for a sweet dish — Cranberry & Apple Kuchen with Cider Cream. Thomas Keller included the kuchen recipe in the final pages of “The French Laundry Cookbook” as a tribute to his predecessor there.

To read excerpts from “Six California Kitchens” and sign up for an e-mail newsletter about the book project, go to sixcaliforniakitchens.com.

For more information on The Apple Farm’s products and its cooking classes, go to philoapplefarm.com.

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

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