It was a quiet Sunday morning two days after Christmas and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. For the first time this year, I pulled into the Hillcrest Farmers Market parking lot and found a space immediately. Even though many of the regular vendors take this week off, days like this at the market can provide opportunity for new discoveries. What happens is, the market master offers the farmers on his waiting list, who often have a regular presence at other markets, the opportunity to sell their wares on this day at the coveted Hillcrest Market. This brings in a variety of new and unusual products.
Terra Bella Ranch was one of the “new” vendors this day. Jeff and Nicolina Alves are second generation farmers with agricultural degrees and are dedicated to organic and sustainable farming. Their booth was full of information, including a “daily feed-your-brain” product sheet and descriptions of their wares. The written information was bolstered by their enthusiasm and knowledgeable chit-chat.
As I surveyed their table, I felt as though I had discovered gold. Right before me were packages of ruby-red walnuts. Jeff explained that these treasures, developed through natural hybrid methods, take seven to eight years to produce fruit compared to the normal three years. Jeff told me there are groves scattered around California, the biggest being no larger than five acres, thus making these delectable jewels very rare.
The sign proclaimed:
“The Red Walnut is also known as the Livermore variety. The Red Walnut is an English Walnut with a mild flavor similar to the Chandler Walnut. It is naturally grown with a beautiful burgundy/red wine colored skin making them a perfect addition for salads, cheese plates or baking. Walnuts are the HEALTHIEST of all nuts”
After my initial “wow” over the red walnuts, I began to notice the other items on their table–Chandler walnuts, apricots and almonds, all fresh and relatively local (some are grown further north in California). I felt like I hit the jackpot and bought a bag of everything. Because the oils in nuts are delicate, creating a relatively short shelf life, most of us have become used to nut meats that are not at the peak of freshness and often a little rancid. I usually refrigerate or freeze them to avoid this. Using freshly-harvested nuts when cooking makes a world of difference, providing subtle flavors that are usually not present when using store-bought varieties.
When I arrived back at the house, I set the ruby-red walnuts out for everyone to see and taste. At first, they were intimidated by their vibrant color, but decided to take a chance and try them. The nuts were sweet and velvety with a pleasing walnut-flavor and did not have the slightly bitter aftertaste characteristic of many walnut varieties. This made it necessary to refill the bowl within a matter of minutes…..
For more information about Terra Bella Ranch, mail-order info and a list of all the markets they sell at, contact Jeff and Nicolina at email@example.com.