Days of wine, roses, and the funnest farmers market east of the Eden
It's not for naught that many swear that the Wine & Roses hotel in Lodi is one of the most romantic in the world. Anyone who has partaken of the air and waters (which in Lodi, smells and feels suspiciously like blood red wine) in this plush, compelling, wine country caravansary, and came back with rings set permanently on their fingers, would testify to that. Allthesingleladies, take note.
Ah, but W&R is also a soothing spa as well as culinary destination — in fact, all part of this packaging most potent — with the latter executed with the exquisite touch of W&R Executive Chef Didier Gerbi. Fittingly, Chef Didier is as passionate about what passes between the lips as anyone who's every cared about what lips are for. But before you go tying those words like lips and passion together, think more in terms of what the poet Francis Thompson once wrote, of how summer set lip to earth's bosom bare. For the flushed print left wherefore and therefore is what, perhaps, excites our Wine & Roses chef most: he loves summer's bounty of vegetables and fruits so much, he conducts free tours of the Lodi Farmers Market for anyone who cares to sign up for this weekly happening in the very heart of this historically rich and varied farming community — and he does it on his day off!
Talk about love, or simply loving life…
Chef Didier, as you may have suspected, is also French born, which is why he always talks about produce the way Proust writes of indelible memories in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. "Cooking is about remembrance of a flavor," Didier says, and is "a true enhancement in which to perceive life more intensely."
It also helps to know what the hell you're doing, which is precisely why Monsier Didier loves to lead these market tours. To partake of the chef's love and knowledge of food, we recently walked through the four blocks of Lodi's classic delta Downtown area (School St.), partitioned off for everyone's shopping pleasure each Thursday from 5 PM to when dusk turns into a moonlit dark blue.
"Two rules to start with when shopping at a Farmers Market," Didier started off with. "Number one, never buy with fixed ideas of what you want to cook. The idea is to search for the best natural, local fruit and vegetables, and the best quality for the price. Second, never buy during the first hour of a Farmers Market, because that's when the farmers are selling their older produce — stuff left over from the day before, or a Farmers Market two days ago."
As we walked through crowds of skipping children and comely couples (young and old), the music of a live bluegrass band setting a joyful pace, we passed a mother and child checking out some pale red grapes. "The season of grapes is very strange this year because of the cold weather," chef commented, "and these are not Lodi grapes, but ones picked further south in Central Valley where it is not so good. We pass on this because nothing is really ripe right now. In September we will probably find much better grapes."
Then we came to a stand of beautiful heirloom tomatoes, in multiple rainments of color, irregular shapes, even blemishes. "These are beautiful," Didier proclaimed. "I do not know why anyone would buy the so-called 'vine ripened' tomatoes in the supermarkets, because they are always picked green and hard for long trucking, and the varieties are selected for uniformity of how they look, not how they taste. The red supermarket tomatoes will not even be good this year for at least another two weeks because of the late season.
"In the meantime, buy these heirloom tomatoes, which come from seeds passed from generation to generation for good reason: they are the best. My favorite right now is the green zebra, because it's a cold season and are some of the sweetest at this moment." One person in the group asked the chef what they should do once tomatoes come in season and ripen all at once, producing more than anyone can eat. "It is not a good idea to freeze them," said the chef. Make tomato sauces or gazpacho, which can be stored away."
Coming to a stand of melons, Didier exclamined, "I am always on a quest for a good melon." And picking up an orbular yellow ambrosia with gray shadings like a sun peering through lacy clouds, Didier expounded: "There are male and female melons. The females have larger navels at the top, and are usually better. Also look for smoother skin in an ambrosia, and for smaller sizes; because the small ones will be denser, sweeter and better, picked at peak ripeness. The larger ones are picked a little past their peak, taking on more water — they are bigger but not as flavorful, and sometimes even bitter."
Picking up another moderate sized yellow melon with discreetly pocked facings, Didier did the classic knock-knock at his ears. "What you listen for is a deeper sound with a little bit of echo. When the fruit inside is dry, it doesn't have an echo." Finding one with, evidently, a sonorous melody, chef took out his knife and sliced it open to reveal glistening wet meat. "Ah, yes… have you tasted a can-dew melon before? This is a hybrid of cantaloupe and honeydew." It tasted sensational — dripping, alive, sweet.
Looking at long oval shaped watermelons, the chef commented, "these are good ones. Technology has made our supermarket melons smaller and seedless, but useless in flavor. It is the big old fashioned watermelons with all the seeds that still taste the best, but they are getting harder and harder to find."
Next up, a stand of peppers, hot and mild. "For most peppers, look for colors that are green turning to red, because those are picked when the flavor is the most intense — not too green, not too mild." Looking at yellow crook necked squash, chef commented, "these are yellow zucchinis, not squash, and they are very good." Then stopping at a mound of slim, green, gracefully elongated, almost snake-like vegetables with pale yellow vertical stripes, Didier once again took out his knife and began to slice long-ways down the middle to present to us: "See, this is an Armenian cucumber, which I think make the best cucumbers for eating, especially in salads. The flavor is soft yet nice and crunchy, without a lot of seed. The regular darker green cucumbers, I prefer to use for pickling."
Passing trays of strawberries, Didier pointed out: "These are not quite in season because they are perfectly smooth, and probably artifically ripened. When strawberries are picked in season, you can see the seeds poking out, not hidden under the skin — those are picked when they're ready."
Coming to an especially crowded table with a CCOF certified organic sign prominently displayed, the chef greeted the couple behind it. "These people are from Ferrari Farms in Linden, not far from here in San Joaquin County. I love their produce, and use them for Wine & Roses." Looking at some pale red, uneven textured apples, Didier once again brandished his blade, slicing us samples. "These apples may not be the most beautiful looking, but they are delicious. A good apple must have a crisp texture like Sauvignon Blanc; and like a good wine, it must have a balance between acidity and sweetness."
Then picking up some organic white peaches, the chef explained: "Look for peaches with their tops slightly opened, where you can actually see the seed inside. This means they were picked very ripe, soft and juicy." Picking up some yellowish red, velvet skinned (like peaches) fruit, Didier introduced us to plumarines. "These are crosses of plum and white nectarine," he said, cutting slices with his knife. "If you have not yet tried them, you will be very surprised — few fruits are as fresh, sweet, crisp and lively tasting as a good organic plumarine."
The revelations did not stop there. Taking his knife to some smooth, violet colored small fruits, the chef introduced us to the yellow fleshed variety called the flavor queen plum, and we savored a myrad of wild, soft, sweet/tart flavors, bursting in the mouth.
Towards the end of our trek through the crowds of happy shoppers, we stopped at Lodi's Toledo Farm table, where we revisited the glories of heirloom tomatoes. "Oh, this is so delicous right now," said the chef, and he sliced opened golden colored jubilee tomatoes. This may be the best tomato right now — so sweet, almost like an super-ripe apricot."
Taking his leave, Chef Didier left us with a few final caveats: "Although sometimes you have to pay a little more for the highest quality, at the Farmers Market prices are usually in line with the season, when the produce is picked perfect and ready to go. We like organic, but of course, organic is not always of gauge of quality. I will pass up organic produce that do not satisfy me. But at least with organic, you are guaranteed products that are free of pesticides; and if the flavor is good, that is the best you can buy."
Hungry for love and more? Then come to Lodi. If you or your group are interested in your own private time with Chef Didier, you can make reservations at the Wine & Roses site at winerose.com.
"What a wonderful life I've had," wrote the impassioned French novelist, Collette… "I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Only in Lodi is shopping like a celebration of a lush life, well spent!