The morning was pleasant, sunny and fine, and sitting outside in a courtyard at the YWCA on Bonita Street just could not get better. Then it did.
The women who work at the YWCA’s Café Rio were serving breakfast, which was more than slices of sweet breads and cereal and yogurt, though that would have been great. When one of the women brought out a hot-off-the-burner frittata with vegetables, well, we all breathed in the deliciousness and went to work devouring it. Then Liane Hernandez told us about the mission of the Y – and it is mighty, indeed.
Thus began the final Edible Excursion of the season. The April 2 itinerary included four stops: the YWCA on Tucson’s west side, a pick-it-yourself family farm in Sonoita run by three sisters whose family has been farming in Arizona since 1872, and two wineries in Sonoita and Elgin wine country. And let’s not forget another amazing lunch by Tana Fryer, owner of Blu: A Wine and Cheese Stop, who planned and led the tour.
It turns out the women on staff at the Y work with women who have recently been released from lock up or prison, training them for restaurant work at Café Rio. But that’s just one of the things they do.
There is a program for women who have job interviews and need interview-appropriate clothes but cannot afford them; the Y dresses them. Hernandez said when their clients put on the clothes, they visibly change, taking on confidence and self-esteem.
We learned that among the most shoplifted items stores have reported are women’s care products, according to Hernandez. The Y has a solution for this as well. Called the Project Period, the Y accepts donations of menstrual care products, which they distribute to area shelters.
Lastly, the Y works with the Women’s Business Center, which helps grow food businesses owned by women. We got to taste an example of this work with Chef Cecilia Arosemena, who owns and operates Dish for Dosha. In essence it’s a juicing business but what it does is so much more than just make juice. Arosemena combines her personal chef services with the practice of Ayurveda, an Eastern science of life that includes cleansing with juices made from fresh, organic vegetables and fruit, and spices and herbs. She uses her expertise to help others achieve wellness. I tried an anti-inflammatory mixture made from the juices of carrots and lemons. Turmeric was the anti-inflammatory ingredient, which was amped up by the addition of pepper. It sounds odd but, wow! What flavor.
After breakfast and the juice tasting, we boarded our bus and headed to the next stop.
Once on the road, Visit Tucson’s Vanessa Bechtol helped pass the time by discussing Tucson’s City of Gastronomy the importance of heritage foods grown in Baja Arizona, and how the story of those foods are part of our shared cultural history. One of the inherited food traditions she discussed was the tradition of making tortillas. This had great personal relevance to me: my mother made tortillas, as did her mother and so on back into our family history. During that tortilla-making time as children, we not only learned how to make food, we learned about our family history and the story of our lives. Today I am too busy to make tortillas or teach my children to make them. Now that oral history my mother shared with me and the skill of making tortillas is lost and that is sad, indeed.
Another concept Bechtol discussed was the idea of “eating history.” If you are eating a food made with white Sonoran wheat, for example, you could be said to be eating history, as this heirloom grain is the oldest strain of grain being grown today.
These issues, which are very close to Bechtol’s heart, are being addressed by the work of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, a non-profit group that works to advance the Santa Cruz region’s living heritage. While working there, Bechtol was one of the primary authors of the City of Tucson’s successful application for UNESCO’s designation as a City of Gastronomy. Today Bechtol is a part of the Tucson Visitor Center.
Before I go on, it must be said that the drive from Tucson to Sonoita, our next stop, was a gorgeous one, full of rolling hills and desert landscape.
Since our Excursion took place at the beginning of April, things still looked pretty barren at the Harris Heritage Growers farm. Nevertheless, there was plenty of going on. Things were just starting to get underway for the season, and sisters Mary McKay and Denise Purvis described the variety of crops they expected to plant over the course of the coming year. Among the sights to see: the milking cows, including one jersey getting ready to calve (three days after our visit, new calf “Peaches and Cream” was born); the friendly ancient doggie who joined the tour; the pile of artichoke seed puffs; the wire “barrel” of large round gourds; the multicolored, mostly oval-shaped eggs for sale; the horses grazing off in the distance; the rooster hanging around in some tires lying on the ground; and the blooming fruit trees scattered about the property.
Sisters McKay and Purvis share ownership of the farm with a third sister, Susan Quiroga, who was not at the farm the day we visited. It’s clear they love being farmers; they are the fifth generation of their family to make their living from the land.
They told us that if not washed, eggs can last outside the refrigerator for a few months. If you wash them, then store them, they have to go into the fridge. It turns out the shells are made porous by water and can no longer protect what’s inside from bacteria after being washed. Many attendees took advantage of the opportunity to buy eggs so fresh they were still on the farm at the time of purchase.
After picking up our eggs and boarding the bus, we headed to the next stop: Dos Cabezas WineWorks, run by Todd and Kelly Bostock.
Todd Bostock took us on a tour through the bottling operation, which takes place behind the tasting room in a large garage-like building with rows of casks keeping their contents safe. As with the Harris Heritage Growers, Dos Cabezas is a family operation. Even their two children help out by stomping on grapes during harvest season.
Then the wine flowed. Everyone tasted–and tasted–so you know it was time for lunch.
As on previous Excursions, Tana Fryer outdid herself with the lunch she provided. Besides her signature gherkins, olives, fresh green salad, fava beans, cheese selection and crusty bread, Fryer added a jicama, mango and avocado salad; dried apricots; and a camembert cheese, which I paired with honey. It was better than dessert.
Our last stop was Callaghan Vineyards in Elgin, just a few miles down a back road from Sonoita. Kent Callaghan met us in the parking lot with a couple of bottles in his hands and proceeded to pour out to anyone in our group who happened to have a glass. Turns out nearly everyone did. After that he escorted us to the vineyards.
Another word must be said here about the beauty of the land. The vineyard itself was one aspect worth looking at, even though it had not yet budded, but the golden fields and dark mountains in the background were spectacular.
From talking with Callaghan, we learned two very important things. The indentation at the bottom of the bottle is so that you can pour the bottle without heating its contents with body heat from your hands. Second, the higher the quality of wine, the bigger the dimple and the heavier the glass.
Also of interest was that just a few hundred feet of elevation in the Elgin area makes a difference as to when the vines will bud. Callaghan said that warm weather, like water, runs downhill, so the vineyards that are just down the road but up a few feet in elevation will bud first.
This was the second Edible Excursion I’ve attended, and after what I learned on these trips about the people who produce our local food, my appreciation for Southern Arizona and foods we grow here has grown considerably. I will never be able to look at the wine produced in our region as less than anything California puts out. I cannot see our farmers as people scratching a living out of dirt. These people behind the farms and vineyards of Baja Arizona want to produce the highest quality goods the land and their skills will allow. And that is high, indeed.
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