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Sally Schmitt looks like any other 76-year-old grandmother, with short-cropped gray hair and eyes that crinkle at the corners.

But this formidable culinary pioneer who launched Yountville?s famed French Laundry restaurant 30 years ago, then moved to Anderson Valley to help a daughter and son-in-law run an apple farm, is far from ordinary.

Schmitt raised five children ? all of them independently employed ? and set the family on a cutting-edge path that encompasses both farm and table. And she has executed it all with a penchant for simple yet distinctive design.

The Philo Apple Farm farms 32 acres of organic orchards and gardens using biodynamic farming practices. The farm also includes guest cottages and a commercial kitchen that produces a line of savory chutneys, balsamic vinegar, jams and jellies.

The family shares its food legacy with the world through its weekend cooking classes, presented nearly every weekend from February through early November at the Apple Farm. Up until this year, Schmitt taught all the classes.

Last January, Schmitt suffered a stroke and was forced to hand the apron strings over to her daughter Karen, who now teaches the classes and runs the farm with her husband, Tim Bates. Schmitt and her husband, Don, have retired to their cottage in Elk but still spend time at the farm they helped create.

Schmitt?s culinary tradition lives on in the many recipes that still comprise the core of the Apple Farm?s curriculum, savory applesauce with thyme and apple-fennel soup among them.

As the peak of apple season arrives at the farm this month, three of Sally?s grandchildren are adding their youthful energy, and a fourth is on her way.

?Our daughter Sophia is coming back as well,? Karen Bates said. ?She?s bringing her own farm horse and harnesses. ... We?re hoping she can add to the next layer of complexity.?

Sitting at the sunny kitchen table at the farm, Schmitt sounds almost apologetic about the radical turn her life took when she and Don first moved to Yountville in 1967.

?Don and I started out as a conventional couple,? she said. ?At that point, all five kids were born. I was a stay-at-home mom by choice ... and I was ready for something big.?

Back then, Yountville was little more than a rundown stagecoach stop. It had a grocery store and little else. But the Schmitts fell in love with the brick walls of the Vintage 1870 building, Napa Valley?s second-oldest winery, now known as the V Marketplace.

?It was purchased by a bunch of dreamers with not enough money,? Schmitt recalled. ?We were brought in as managing partners.?

A farm girl who was raised in Citrus Heights outside of Sacramento, Schmitt grew up canning and making jam and attended UC Davis. Don grew up in Visalia, went to UC Berkeley and served in the Air Force. He started his career as an agricultural appraiser in Fresno.

Soon after they arrived in the Napa Valley, the couple took over the cafe in the Vintage 1870 building and introduced the first espresso machine to the valley. Then they built their own restaurant, The Chutney Kitchen, at the rear of the building.

?We made chutney and offered a lunch room with soup and desserts,? Schmitt said of the space, now being transformed by chef Michael Chiarello into Bottega Ristorante.

Meanwhile, the Vintage 1870 marketplace grew into a kind of early Oxbow Market, boasting its own sausage maker, a good kitchen shop, a flower and basket shop.

The Schmitts stayed for 10 years and left the marketplace with an ace already in their pocket. In 1973, they had purchased an eccentric building in Yountville with crooked rooms and a checkered past.

?It had been many things,? Schmitt recalled. ?Originally it was a bar, then a French laundry, then a brothel and a rooming house.?

The Schmitts gutted the building, then, over the next 17 years, built it into one of the finest restaurants in the valley: The French Laundry.

?We wanted just a little neighborhood restaurant,? Schmitt said. ?I consider myself really lucky because there were discerning people there who knew what they wanted to eat, so I learned from them.?

Schmitt?s vision for the restaurant was a prix fixe dinner menu and no choices. When it opened on Feb. 7, 1978, the hand-printed menu offered Pasta with Clam Sauce, Blanquette de Veau, Fresh Asparagus, Rice, Green Salad, Cheese, Rhubarb Mousse and Coffee. The price tag was $12.50. Over the years, the restaurant?s reputation grew, along with its prices. By 1992, the average dinner cost upward of $50 a person, and it was difficult to get a reservation.

By the time chef Thomas Keller bought The French Laundry in 1994, the Schmitts had already planned their exit. Their son Johnny and daughter Karen had expressed a desire move to Anderson Valley.

In 1984, Schmitt headed for The Sea Ranch for a summer getaway. She was supposed to be working on a cookbook, but instead, she discovered a rundown apple farm for sale. The farm itself was a wreck but the setting was ideal: 32 acres on the Anderson Valley floor, next to Hendy Woods State Park.

While Karen and Tim moved to the farm, Sally and Don kept working at the restaurant to help pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, Johnny started cooking at The Floodgate Cafe in Philo, then bought the 10-room Boonville Hotel, a failed business sitting empty, which he would turn into a destination restaurant and inn.

On the farm, the Bates family was struggling to make ends meet, so they got creative. First, they started a line of high-end Apple Farm products, including fruit jams and chutneys. Then they went organic and biodynamic, to find a niche. In the meantime, they started planting old-time apple varieties like Wickson and Baldwin, to help them compete in the marketplace.

In 1996, Schmitt started teaching cooking classes, drawing clients from her former followers in the Napa Valley. In 2000, her husband suggested taking out a loan to build three cottages on the property to generate more income.

With that puzzle piece in place, The Apple Farm has been able to keep its head above water financially as well as nurture a new generation of farmers.

?Our crew is young, strong and smart,? Karen said.

In 2005, Karen opened a Boonville housewares shop, the Bates & Maillard Farmhouse Mercantile, offering housewares from modern Asian woks to old-timey glass citrus reamers.

?It?s old-fashioned, but not,? Karen said. ?That?s like our life here at the farm.?

This recipe is from Sally Schmitt. Peeling the potatoes is optional if you?re using red or gold potatoes.

A Soup of Fennel, Apple and Potato

Makes 6 servings

4 to 6 red or gold potatoes (or 2 russets)

2 apples, peeled and cored

3 cups weak chicken stock

? Salt and white pepper

2 fennel bulbs

1 onion, cut

3 tablespoons butter

Scrub, peel and cut the potatoes. Then put the potatoes in a soup pot with the apples and the chicken stock. Add the salt and pepper.

Remove and reserve foliage from the fennel bulbs. Cut the fennel and onion into slices, and saute it in the butter. Add a little water. Cover and cook on medium until tender. Then add to potato and apple mixture and bring to a boil, then simmer until very tender. Run through a blender, thin with light cream and adjust seasoning, adding salt if necessary.

Chop fine 3 to 4 tablespoons of the reserved sprigs of fennel for garnish and add to soup before serving.

This is one of Karen Bates? favorite recipes for apples. It evolved from an old carrot cake recipe, and now calls for organic cane sugar and organic flour.

Apple Cake

Makes 1 cake

1? cups good olive oil

2 cups organic cane sugar

4 eggs

2 teaspoon cinnamon

? teaspoon nutmeg

2 cups organic, unbleached flour

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups grated, tart apple (unpeeled)

1 tablespoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat together the olive oil, sugar and eggs. Combine the cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, baking soda and salt and add to the olive oil mixture. Then add the apples and the vanilla.

Pout into two 9-inch cake pans that have been oiled and lined with parchment paper, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Cool for five minutes. Turn out onto plates.

Frost when completely cool with cream cheese frosting and lots of toasted chopped walnuts.

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

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