Rick Bishop is as close to celebrity as we get in the local food community in New York. Saturday mornings at his stand in Union Square, you’ll find at least half a dozen chefs jockeying for his attention. The lure: tiny Tristar strawberries, frilly bunches of spigarello, clamshells of bright green chervil and his famous potatoes. But Rick’s popularity is due not just to his beautiful and flavorful vegetables. He exudes – even at 55 – a youthful excitement and exuberance that is infectious.
Rick has helped enable the most ambitious dreams and visions of chefs in New York City for more than two decades. He has a standard roster of produce that has found its way onto nearly every important menu from Per Se to Semilla. He begins in the spring with ramps, which he has been harvesting for years from the same spots in the Catskils. From there he moves onto a rainbow of peas – many of which are trial varieties from the famous pea breeder Calvin Lamborn. His succrine lettuce and wild arugula begin in the spring and are often sold out before 10am for most of the season. And then come the berries. The Tristar strawberry is a cross between a traditional strawberry and a daylight-neutral alpine variety. It was developed at Cornell 30 years ago. They are tiny and flavorful – the epitome of strawberry flavor. In good years he will harvest them into October. Rick has befriended several Italian chefs over the years and they have persuaded him (though it doesn’t take much) to grow a handful of heirloom varieties: spigarello broccoli (grown for the leaves), annellino green beans (a curly variety), cannestrino tomatoes (for sauce) and a beautiful squiggly pepper from Lombardi. In the height of the summer he begins with the potato harvest. He grows fingerling potatoes – which are especially tasty given his focus on minerals in the soil – and German Butterballs, which are graded into 4 sizes for chefs (the smallest are called 18k and 24k). In the winter he sorts out the cosmetically imperfect potatoes to make chips with.
Roscoe, NY is about two and half hours from Manhattan, located on the western edge of the Catskill Mountains. Because of the cooler temperatures (and for weed control), Rick grows almost all his crops in black plastic covered beds. For additional frost protections some crops will get a layer of row cover in September. When it comes to pest and disease control he relies on rotation to keep much of it at bay. He also selectively sprays when necessary. The berries are especially prone to disease of all his crops. Rick focuses much of his energy on soil amendments to make sure that he has a good mineral profile – part of why his produce is so flavorful.
Peas just after cultivation
A new pea variety from Calvin Lamborn on trial
Rick inspecting berry set on a Tristar plant
Red sucrine lettuce
Spigarello broccoli leaf
Rick in the tomatoes
Principe Borghese tomatoes
Shelling beans growing on trellises
Sorana shelling beans
New Mexico peppers for roasting
German butterball potato chips
Campo Rosso Farm
Chris Field and Jessi Okamoto spent a few years working with Rick Bishop (Mountain Sweet Berry Farm) and Tim Stark (Eckerton Hill Farm) before setting out on their own on a few acres in Pennsylvania. They describe themselves as a “Pennsylvania farm specializing in the bittersweet life of growing specialty chicory.” Only a handful of farmers in the Northeast grow chicory; the short growing season and harsh frosts make it much less forgiving than the west coast where chicories are abundant. Chris and Jessi have invested a lot of time and research to figuring out how to grow their chicories. Chris confessed to me that he often checks the weather in Verona to figure out what the plants would typically be experiencing in their “hometown.” He works closely with a seed company in Italy that has helped give them advice about planting and cultivating. In their second autumn of chicory production their gearing up to harvest tens of thousands of heads of radicchio, endive and the like. The frisee needs to be blanched in the field for ten days. Treviso and Castelfranco can be harvested as is, but Tardivo requires some time in a water bath to set its color and the Belgian endive needs to be picked, trimmed and then forced in darkness to develop the tight, pale yellow heads. And when it comes to Puntarelle, only 2 heads out of 10 will develop a proper “heart.” Growing chicories is a labor of love for them, but also a smart business plan. They’ve developed a loyal following of restaurants and customers at the farmers market, drawn to the chicories. Customers also love their misticanza (made from a dozen or so varieties of baby greens), and their unusual varieties of peppers, squash and herbs. Chris and Jessi seek out varieties that have unusual flavor or color or shape, sometimes building close relationships with the seed breeders themselves.
Chris surveys a row of flowering arugula
Birds beak peppers
Purple brussels sprouts, waiting for the frost
Chris & Jessi inspect a new variety of beet
Badger Torch takes characteristics from pink, gold and red varieties
Red mustard with a bright green frilly edge
Belgian endive almost ready for harvest
Debating the merits of a fluffy kale variety for the Misticanza
Frisee ready to be blanched in the field
After 10 days of blanching, the outer leaves are trimmed, revealing this gorgeous heart
A Puntarelle heart with properly developed stalks
Treviso, almost ready for harvest
Tardivo does a bit of self blanching in the field
Fluffing out the castelfranco to reveal the blanched inner leaves
Misticanza at market
Tamarack Hollow Farm
China Ranch Date Farm
The tastiest dates I’ve ever had lie 100 miles into the Mojave desert. After driving for hours you begin to worry about running out of gas. Just when you’re beginning to run out of hope you see the first sign for China Ranch Date Farm. The driveway is one of the most intimidating I’ve ever seen. A narrow, rocky road winds its way between 20 foot high rock faces. The first of many historical signs tells you that this site was once an active gypsum mine, until two men died in one of the caves.
I hope I’ve set the scene right. This is basically the most unwelcoming place you can imagine. Until you come around the last bend in the road and then in front of you is literally an oasis. A small creek runs through the small valley where China Ranch Date Farm is located, making the farm a lush haven in an expansive desert. 50 foot date palms tower over the farm house. They were planted almost 100 years ago by Vonola Modine, the daughter of a Death Valley pioneer. But the name of the farm goes back even further in the history of the ranch. In the late 19th century a Chinese man named Ah Foo (or Quon Sing, depending on the version of the story) came from the borax mines in Death Valley to the site and developed the available water and began growing vegetables and raising animals for the local mining camps.
In 1970 the farm was bought by the Brown family. They planted more date trees. They now grow more than a dozen varieties. The date palms take up to eight years before they begin bearing fruit. Once they reach maturity they produce 100-300 lbs of dates every year. Only the female trees produce fruit. The male trees are only cultivated for their role as pollinators. Most date farms manually pollinate the female trees (rather than allowing the wind to do the job) so that they can plant fewer male trees and more fruit bearing ones. Most people only know the medjool date, but the range of flavors and textures is incredible. The first dates we’ll have in the Quinciple box are called Black Beauty dates. They are small, sweet and moist. I like them with roasted chicken or stewed with cognac and served on top of ice cream.
Isabelle's Orange Orchard
Isabelle Cossart got stuck with an orange orchard after her divorce. She’d never grown citrus before, but once she found herself the owner of a grove of trees, she decided to give it a try. The property originally only had a few dozen trees. She picked the fruit and peddled it around the city. Her juicy, sweet fruit quickly developed a following among chefs. She started fertilizing the trees with the duck weed growing on the surface of her small pond. Spent orange halves from making juice were added back to the orange grove as well. Gradually she started planting more trees. Now she has several hundred and grows more than a dozen varieties of citrus. Her moro blood oranges are wonderful, but my favorite is the Lousiana sweet orange, a huge, meaty orange. She also grows satsumas (a favorite in Louisiana), grapefruits, meyer lemons and kumquats. Her fruit is never sprayed with chemicals and she doesn’t wax the fruit when it’s harvested.
I found out about Isabelle in a NY Times article written in 2010. Many chefs in New York read the article and tried to contact her about shipping fruit up to them. A few months after the article was written, I was in New Orleans visiting family and arranged to visit the orchard. I took two cases of oranges back on the plane with me. And Isabelle has been shipping me citrus ever since.
Moro blood oranges
An orange tree overlooking the pond where she harvests duck weed for fertilizer