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North Bay saffron, chile add local flavor to Mediterranean dishes

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Cooking in proximity to the niche farms of the North Coast has perks, especially if you are fond of Mediterranean food.

Chefs can often find exotic ingredients in their own backyard, and many realize that sourcing locally can strengthen the food shed.

One of those chefs is Perry Hoffman, chef/partner at the Boonville Hotel, who makes paella every Sunday in the summer. The chef sources saffron from Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville and his Basque red chile powder — Piment d’Ville, similar to the piment d’Espelette of France — from the Bucket Ranch in Boonville, which was co-founded by his uncle, Johnny Schmitt.

“They start them all from seed in the greenhouse, which is also used as a drying house,” Hoffman said of the sweet, complex pepper powder. “As the season moves into fall, the pepper spice gets hotter..”

Kendra McEwen, farm manager of Bucket Ranch, said the ranch started growing peppers when Schmitt, who was chef at the Boonville Hotel at the time, was having problems finding imported piment d’Espelette for his paella.

With the help of Bucket Ranch farmer Natcho Flores, the ranch started growing 50 plants one year, 500 the next and then expanded to 5,000 plants the next year. At that point, they were able to launch it as a commercial product across the country.

“That’s when I came on board,” she said. “We harvest in the fall — it’s a continual harvest. As soon as they are red, we pull them, and after two weeks, we get more peppers.”

The whole chiles are laid out on drying racks in the greenhouse for two or three weeks, then de-stemmed and de-seeded and put in a dehydrator to cure at a low temperature. Once ground into a powder, the chile powder is packaged in little jars for retail or vacuum sealed for wholesale, which helps it last longer.

The flavor of the Piment d’Ville has a nuanced, subtle heat that works well with the wines of Mediterranean climates.

“The nice thing about it is it’s not too sweet, because it has some heat, but it’s not hot enough to burn you, even if you use a ton of it,” she said. “That makes it fun to cook with.”

Fans of the Piment D’Ville call it the “third spice,” and keep it next to their stove with the salt cellar and pepper grinder.

“It goes into everything I eat,” McEwen said. “It’s called Piment d’Ville because it’s the pepper of Boonville.”

Bucket Ranch also grows a white Italian heirloom bean for cassoulet, olives for olive oil and a few other peppers, including Comapeño, a hot pepper with a bright, tropical flavor; and Cascabel, a Mexican chile of medium heat.

To order online Piment d’Ville, go to bucketranch.com or pimentdville.com. It’s available at the Boonville Hotel and at Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg and Oakville.

Peace & Plenty Farm

Melinda Price and Simon Avery of Kelseyville are both new farmers who wanted to grow a crop that would have a high cash value. They looked at wasabi, vanilla, mushrooms and truffles. Then they found out about a Vermont program helping small farmers cultivate saffron to add revenue to their farms.

“It’s a perfect crop for California, and no one else was doing culinary saffron on a commercial scale, as far as we knew,” she said. “We started the farm in the summer of 2017 and planted our first batch of saffron that August.”

Saffron, which is the stigmas of the crocus flower, is harvested mid-October through mid-November at Peace & Plenty Farm, a historic, seven-acre ranch with a historic barn, water tower and farmhouse.

“We are harvesting at the same time as those in Spain and Iran and Afghanistan,” she said. “Iran produces the bulk of it, but is not allowed to export saffron, so they send it through Spain.”

The flowers grow from a bulb, known as a corm, that put out blooms and leaf growth in the fall and then channel their energy into making multiple corms in the spring. The farm currently has 54,000 corms in the ground and will put in another 22,000 in August.

“We chose the farm because it’s a sandy, loam soil, which is good for saffron,” she said. “It requires a dry summer and a cold winter.”

The harvest is laborious. The saffron stigmas are picked before dawn, then separated by hand. Then they are dried in a machine and stored in the dark to cure until they are ready for packaging.

The saffron is sold in .30-gram and .5-gram jars for retail, because a little goes a long way. If you can taste it, you probably used too much. They have a few wholesale accounts in San Francisco and elsewhere.

“We only had 325 grams to sell this year, so we really limited our wholesale accounts,” she said. “Next year we’ll have a kilo.”

You can order the saffron at peaceplentyfarm.com or pick it up at the farmstand (4550 Soda Bay Road), which also sells vegetables, organic walnuts and walnut oil.

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