This story was originally published on spoiledtoperfection.com, August 30, 2015
“Nobody really grows apples anymore.” These were the words my often crotchety, but very likeable 82-year-old Italian neighbor, Skip, barked at me when I recounted part of my morning visit with Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed. “There was a time I could tell ya who owned every orchard, and probably even who planted most of the god damned trees in Occidental and Sebastopol. Now, there’s nothing but (expletive) grapes.” (This, coming from the man who has at least one glass of wine, usually local, every night with dinner and afterwards with his biscotti.) When I told him I was going to Facendini Lane his grimace turned into a huge smile. I knew the mention of Facendini would lighten his mood from past stories he had shared with us. The lane was named for the two brothers that had lived there, who were also the father and uncle of his best friend.
With eighty plus years of living, about sixty-five of them right in the center of what were apple orchards, I can only imagine the changes he has seen, and understand and appreciate the sentiment about the overabundance of grapes. I love living in Sonoma County and am grateful, pretty much every day for finding such a special spot in the world to call home. But I can’t help echoing some of his feelings. Wine is everywhere, and the scale seems unfairly tipped in favor of the grapes when it comes to biodiversity.
I think this is part of the reason I was so taken by both of my meetings with Ellen. Her story resonated and inspired me. When she recounted the decision she and her husband made to leave New York City and live on a farm in New Mexico, but still maintain ties to the mainstream world, part of me wanted to run home and plan a trip to New Mexico. Somehow their decision to get away from the grind gave my own path some justification. Could it be possible to have an emotionally and financially viable career path that still keeps you honest, available to your family, and somehow connect with the land around you? Absolutely.
The golden ring of this merry-go-round is balance, something my Libran sensibility could definitely get behind. The thing to keep in mind, and I think what Ellen exemplifies, is balance can mean different things to different people, and even to the same person at different points during the year, or even their life. Sometimes it is seamless, but on most days it is a bumpy ride. And on most days you get tired, even wrung out. For Ellen, it could be having a bumper crop of apples, holding her son on one hip with one arm and chucking apples into the hopper of the press with the other. It could mean staying up until 2:00 am to meet an editing deadline in order to be ready to get in the car way too early to drive to an event. An event where you have to put on your best face and talk cider.
The morning I drove to Windsor to taste cider, Ellen looked tired, but she rallied and shared her cider knowledge and led me through a terrific tasting. We talked a bit about ourselves and among other things I told her about Skip. As we talked and tasted, we decided a wonderful way to showcase their ciders on the Spoiled to Perfection show was to have the final segment be a food pairing featuring some local products. This would exemplify Ellen’s philosophy of “what grows together goes together.” I went home and wrote up our ideas and passed them onto the team. They were all in! The director and producer decided we would shoot the pairing on the second day of the two day shoot at a communal table beautifully set up in the orchard of one of Tilted Shed’s growers.
When that second day of shooting arrived, I woke up invigorated. The conversation between Garrett, our host, and Ellen couldn’t have gone better the day before. So now it was all about a bit more conversation, a stroll through the orchard, and then the pairing. At my house, lunches were made, dinner was in the slow-cooker, and there was a new batch of homemade play dough ready for my daughter and her sitter for the day. Dare I say, I was feeling a bit cocky. As my family worked our way through the morning routine, things went south and I ended up leaving my very upset three-year-old daughter sobbing at the front door. She was in very capable hands, but I was conflicted as I drove west.
By the time I pulled into the preapproved crew parking spot on Facendini Lane a text revealed my girl was playing happily at home. Things were looking up, and I walked up the lane back on track. Pretty soon after I arrived, I met Laura the owner who had graciously agreed to share her orchard with us for the better part of the day. Apparently, Ellen had told her my Skip connection and Laura was very interested in knowing more about the history of her property and Facendini Lane. I didn’t know much, but I told her about Skip and his wife, and promised if I found out more I would pass it along.
Shooting began very well, but the unfamiliar sight in a drought-stricken California, of rain clouds overhead loomed. Are you kidding me? Rain? I know we need rain, but today of all days! The first bottle of cider was opened and the pairing was perfect. But, there was no question the rain was coming and the decision was made to cut the rest of the pairing segment short. (I would be remiss to not give a rundown of what had been planned. It follows this story.)
I drove home content and was met in the garage by my smiling girl. After dinner we pulled up chairs and visited with Skip in his driveway. I told him about my day on Facendini Lane and described the houses and properties I saw. When I told him about Laura’s orchard he told me, “That was always an orchard. In the 1950’s it was cherries, but the trees ended up diseased and they all came out." Skip was pretty sure that his friend Dino probably planted the majority of the apples on Laura’s property, some in the 50’s and some later. He said, “Old Dino use to make the holes for the trees with dynamite. We nicknamed him short fuse because he always ended up with stuff all over his face, and probably damn near blew himself up more than once.”
I love Skip’s old stories, and loved even more that once my daughter was in bed, I would email Laura to share with her. Just like balance, being connected is something we need to work at every day. Staying connected to our neighbors, our families, and our land takes work, but helps with balance and gives back ten fold when you let it.
The Rained out Pairing
Ellen and Scott have a wonderful network of local purveyors and friends. So it was a given that we highlight some of them in our pairing.
Gravival Semidry Cider
“The Gravenstein [apple] sparkles in this bright, crisp cider. The refreshing acidity is balanced with a touch of sweetness and barnyard funk… This is Sonoma County heritage in a bottle.”
This is the sweetest of Tilted Shed’s ciders, but is far from sweet. It pairs well with just about anything, from cheeses, to oysters, to Indian Food.
Cured salmon with fresh locally grown dill and black bread
Weirauch Farm & Creamery’s sheep’s milk cheese plate; Saint Rose, Mi-Ewe, and Primo Fresco
Inclinado Sidra-Style Cider
“California twist on a Basque sidra… bottle conditioned using fresh juice… to approximate the spritz made by the traditional long pour… dry, deliciously tangy yet restrained.”
This cider has a definite saline hit and pairs well with salty.
Pan seared padron peppers with Maldon salt
Zazu’s assorted charcuterie plate; Sardegna, Sanguinacio, and Proscuito
Zazu’s Rodeo Jax, bacon caramel popcorn
January Barbecue Smoked Cider
“… smoked… apples from our farm over oak, pear, and apple wood, then fermented and aged them with a base blend of fresh-pressed Sonoma County-grown traditional cider and heirloom apples… dry, astringent, slightly austere cider with a mellow smoky finish.”
Don’t let smoked in this fool you. Like all of Tilted Shed’s ciders, the flavors are definitely present, but balanced and subtle.
Homemade pickles by Joanna Badano (who also set the beautiful table) and Zazu
Gypsy Rose’s washed rind raw goat cheese
Barred Rock Barrel-Aged Cider
“A savory sipper… aged… in Tennessee bourbon barrels. Heady butterscotch on the nose… clove, amaretto, and vanilla notes.”
This cider is the perfect finish to a meal all on its own, but it pairs well with a variety of fruit desserts.
Assorted fresh fruits
* All descriptions written by Ellen Cavalli and appear on their website.