There is something both fascinating and somewhat irritating about seeing things come full circle. I grew up in a village in Normandy, France, where I spent minutes, hours and years devising plans on how to leave the land of cream and apples, go to a bigger city, a bigger country, elsewhere. And I eventually made it to the next big town, then to Paris, then to Los Angeles.
Now, here I am, reading through wonderful food blogs, many of them describing the simple life on a farm, eating what you grow, the return to the soil, and I find myself irresistibly charmed by the whole idea. Did I go around in a circle all these years? I suppose it is what I learned, where I failed, the joys and sorrows and experiences along that circle which make up my path thus far. All to find myself longing to get back to where I started, appreciating now what I took for granted then. Maybe that’s what wisdom is all about. Finding my way back to the apples.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love big cities, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, among many. I love the mix of culture, the open-mindedness and diversity and vibration of a city, each in its idiosyncratic way. But I realize now more than ever, and perhaps because I now have a child, that I need the soil. I want the basics, the elements. Soil, water, fire, air. I want to get back to what’s real, and I want my son to experience those things fully while young. Instead of a disconnected view of a world of instant gratification, I would like to teach him to appreciate the genesis of things. The genesis of a crunchy sweet apple.
This is why I have felt so incredibly fortunate and privileged to meet Eric & Franka who invited us to spend a day with them, their son Dexter and their cat Pépé, harvesting fruit (ok, Pépé didn’t do much harvesting, but Dexter and Pablo did help!) at their wonderful place in Topanga Canyon, the newly formed Gopher Springs Farm. In the middle of Los Angeles in this haven of Topanga, is another little haven: on the grounds of an old school from the 1930s, a pink house with an oddball history, surrounded by old fruit trees and land (a rare commodity in the city), inhabited by a trio with a vision to build a life of farming here. A life I admire and which we were fortunate to share for a day.
That day starts with harvesting apples. Three different kinds on the property. Then onto the peaches and nectarines. The apricots have already been harvested, partly by the local coyote. The plums aren’t ready yet. As Franka points out, their fruit trees (apples, plums, peaches, nectarines, figs, apricots, persimmons) are the old kind, planted in the 30s probably, the fruit tastes wild and natural, for lack of a better description. “Like in Europe.”
They’re building this place from the soil up. Eric speaks of his compost, of the importance of good, rich, healthy, nurturing, giving soil. And he works at it, patiently and lovingly, this compost is going to be a life source. Vegetables and fruits will grow strong and flavorful and juicy in it. The idea just makes me want to plant my hands deep in the rich soil and just feel its potential. This is one potential you can really count on.
They’re also building from the air down. He speaks of bees, he knows so much about them. He’s not a beekeeper, he’s a bee-charmer, devising ways to make the bees want to set up hive and produce honey here, and pollinate the fruit trees. It’s already working, the trees are more bountiful this year than ever before.
Franka and I sit under the nectarine tree, talk about being expats, living improbable lives here in LA, lives we would have never imagined as kids. Meanwhile, 13 and 14 months old Dexter and Pablo help picking the apples, take a single bite out of each one they grab, before handing it to each other. Sharing an apple under the tree. I think this makes us all feel happy and warm inside. We’re all thankful to be spending this vacation day of sorts together.
Voltaire said it. “We must cultivate our garden”. I understand how profound that phrase is so much more fully than ever before. What a breath of hope and joy to see someone truly practice that. That is most definitely what is happening at Gopher Springs Farm, and I look forward, like the patient (or impatient) gardner-in-training that I am, to watching them grow…
Some things we saw: horses, frog, rabbit, mouse, artichokes, woodpecker hole, wild fennel.
Some things we heard: donkey, crickets, bucket of rainwater splashing, toddler babbling, toddler grunting, toddler giggling.
Some things we did: harvesting, eating, talking, wagon riding, laughing, cooking, sweating, laughing, smiling.
Some things we made: friends, and peach lavender custard.
Peach Lavender Custard
Age: Obviously this is for the whole family, but you can offer this at 8-10 months. This is a little bit on the sweet side, so not an every day dessert for baby, but a nice introduction to custard and lavender, for special occasions.
Note: It is pretty healthy as far as desserts go, with the help of the coconut milk, and the protein from the eggs balances the sugar & fat contents.
Makes 6 ramekins
1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp cane sugar
Scrapings from 1 vanilla bean (split lengthwise and scraped)
2 tbsp edible dried English lavender buds
Combine coconut milk, cream, sugar, vanilla bean scrapings & lavender buds. Bring to a light boil, remove from heat and let steep for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks. Take six ramekins and place a few pieces of cut-up peaches into each ramekin.
Pour the milk-lavender mixture through a fine mesh colander into a bowl (press the lavender with a spoon in the colander to squeeze the flavor out of it.)
Pour the whisked egg yolks through a fine mesh colander (not the same one, or wash it up first) into the milk-lavender mixture and whisk until combined.
Pour the milk-lavender-egg mixture into each ramekin, on top of the fruit.
Place the ramekin in a deep baking dish, and pour boiling water up to the level of the custard mixture inside the ramekins, being careful not to pour any water inside the custards.
Place in the oven for about 30-35 minutes, until set.
Let cool, and serve at room temperature or chilled.
(Optional: Sprinkle some cane sugar on top and torch for a caramelized top crust)