It's a foggy Saturday at the weekly farmers market in Half Moon Bay, California, and local food lover Melissa Lane is in the middle of the toughest decision of her week.
In one hand, she holds a lush bunch of kale, its dark green leaves looking like giant quill pens. In the other hand, she grasps a small bouquet of arugula, an aromatic salad green she says she likes to put in pasta. Both batches of greens are fresh from the fields at Daylight Farms, a stone's throw away.
"Nobody knows it, but the freshest produce in the world is right here," she says. "If you like fresh vegetables, this is a special place."
That special place, which we call Coastside, is a sleepy farming community on the California coast just 30 miles from San Francisco. It's my home town as well. Since 2001, I've lived here and enjoyed all that the land has to offer. When I play, I hike in the fog-covered hills behind my house, or run on the bluffs that tower over the Pacific Ocean. When I eat, I almost always incorporate fresh goodies from a local farm.
The goodies are everywhere. In the summer, Brussels sprouts outnumber humans by as many as ten to one. In the fall, we have a festival to celebrate pumpkins. Our farmers grow herbs, artichokes, chard, kale, arugula, peas, and more. South of town, in the tiny hamlet of Pescadero, one of our farmers raises Alpine goats so she can make goat cheese.
A majority of these farms have roadside stands; at Lemos Farm, parents and kids can take pony rides, too. My favorite of the farm stands is G. Berta, a nondescript shack near a bend in the road. Here, a stoic farmer named Ray Chiesa sells curly-leaf spinach and cranberry beans grown from seeds his ancestors brought from Italy in the 1920s.
"Because of the sea and the way weather channels through our valleys, farming here is nothing like farming elsewhere," says Chiesa, who notes that movie stars such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bing Crosby, and Shirley Temple used to be regulars in the olden days. "We've got unique products in a unique spot."
Today, restaurateurs in Half Moon Bay craft entire menus around Chiesa's produce. Kim Levin, owner of Pasta Moon, visits Chiesa's farm once or twice a week to walk the fields with him and pick out the produce she'll use. Among her favorites: the spinach, of course, as well as Brentwood tomatoes and Romano beans.
"People drive by that shack and have no idea what's in there," she says. "With all of this wonderful produce right out our door, I can have things cut and on the table in less than four hours."
Other chefs in town have this kind of close-knit relationship with different farmers. At Rogue Chefs restaurant, for instance, chef Kevin Koebel builds dishes such as roasted eggplant napoleons and cherry-chard salad around vegetables from Andreotti's and Swanton Farms. At Navio, chef Aaron Zimmer works with lettuces, fava beans, and herbs from Daylight Farms, the same outfit that sells at the weekly farmer's market.
Among locals, Daylight has serious cachet. The 18-acre farm sits one block east of Main Street, and its owner, John Muller, has been farming it for nearly 30 years. Muller is such a fixture in local politics that in July 2006, the City Council appointed him to a vacant seat. Still, the man they call "Farmer John" is concerned mostly with greens.
"There are so few of us farmers left around this part of California," says Muller, who wears his blue overalls like a uniform. "In a small town like Half Moon Bay, I'm not sure any of us would be here without support from our restaurants and people passing through."
I ruminate on this comment for a while, recognizing that Farmer John's farm, much like Half Moon Bay itself, is largely unknown to those who visit the Bay Area and fail to head west. In our town, as in every town, there are those who would keep these gems under wraps. I, however, tell secrets for a living -- for a rural weekend getaway and bushels of great produce, we'll see you on the Coastside.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.