North Bay saffron, chile add local flavor to Mediterranean dishes
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.