Nancy Skall of Middleton Farm grows what may be the best asparagus I’ve ever tasted. Stalks range from about the diameter of a chopstick to that of your big thumb and shoppers in the know reach for the fattest ones. The thinnest stalks are not, as many restaurant menus imply, baby asparagus. They are actually the shoots of older plants. For the best-tasting most-tender asparagus, get fat stalks and either roast them in a hot oven or grill them over hot coals. Skall’s are so good that they warrant being at the center of the plate, a main course rather than a side dish. They need nothing more than a bit of salt and pepper but are delicious with a simple lemon vinaigrette, too.
Currently, Skall is also harvesting fat leeks, tiny fennel with tops attached, sunchokes, sprouting broccoli, rhubarb, fava beans, tiny green garlic and sweet-tart naval oranges. Her celery root, unpeeled with tops intact, is delicious and she has several varieties of beets, including white, golden, Chioggia and Bull’s Blood, which is, of course, red. Beet leaves are pert and delicious. There are gorgeous branches of lilacs, both light lavender and deep purple, and dried chiles from last fall’s harvest.
There’s also garlic from 2012, which should last until the 2013 crop is ready. Skall often calls growing garlic a competitive sport, referencing the friendly rivalry between local growers to have the most obscure, hottest and most delicious varieties. She’s one of the best players, with juicy flavorful bulbs.
Skall still has shallots, too, though she doesn’t expect them to last much longer. Her Eureka lemons are also nearing the end of their season and they sell-out quickly at farmers markets, despite the customers who turn up their noses because they are not Meyer lemons.
“Malcolm wanted lemons that tasted like lemons,” Skall says of her late husband, who was the face of the farm at local markets until he passed away in 1999.
As the season unfolds, more of Skall’s specialties will appear and others wind down. Once we have a few more warm days, we’ll have her famous strawberries. And before long, there will be fresh pole and bush beans, from true haricots verts that aren’t much bigger than pencil lead to long flat Spanish Musica,an extraordinarily flavorful relative of the Romano bean.
Soon, the first peaches, one of Skall’s favorite crops, will be ready and, come fall, Comice pears will take their place at her beautifully arranged farmers market table. There will be delicious tomatoes of every size and enormous Moon and Star watermelons with their succulent yellow flesh.
Skall has given up on some crops, like her extraordinary red torpedo onions, because they simply don’t generate enough income to warrant the attention and space they require.
Nancy Skall uses organic and sustainable practices, including one most of us don’t think about: She pays her workers a good living wage. Think about this when you compare prices–cheap produce indicates someone is doing a lot of work for little compensation.
Middleton Farm, located off Westside Rd. in Healdsburg and founded by Nancy and Malcolm Skall in 1989, sells year round at the Sebastopol Farmers Market and attends three other markets, the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market (at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts) from late fall to mid spring; the Healdsburg Farmers Market on Saturday from May through November and the St. Helena Farmers Market from May through October.