By Carrie Sullivan, our East Bay Epicurator
I start looking forward to fruit-picking season in the fall – about 8 months before any of the fruit I love is ready! Call me obsessed. My favorite go-to area is Brentwood, located about 50 miles east of Oakland and Berkeley in East Contra Costa County. While I don’t exactly relish the drive to Brentwood, I have certainly found ways of making it more pleasurable, like taking the scenic back roads when I have the time, or making a day of it with at least one friend who shares my enthusiasm for fresh-picked (hand-picked and hand-chosen) fruit.
Brentwood has seen some pretty massive (some might call it rampant or unwise) housing development in the last 10 years (witness large tracts of treeless properties with giant subdivisions lining Route 4, many unoccupied since the mortgage crisis), but thankfully there are still more than a handful of u-pick farms in the area, most specializing in fruit. Stone fruit. That means cherries, apricots, nectarines, plums, and peaches (along with apriums, pluots and a host of other hybrids). On the weekends starting in mid-May or so they host carloads (more often minivan-loads) of families from all over the area. I have to say I used to resent the hordes, but nowadays I’m happy to see them in the orchards, continuing the cross-cultural tradition of driving to “the country” to climb ladders and gather baskets, buckets and bushels of fruit still warm from the sun. I’m very thankful the tradition survives, in fact, because it makes me sad to contemplate the possibility that these farms won’t make a go of it financially and will have to close. I’ve seen the number shrink in the 14 years I’ve been making my pilgrimages, and so I exhort you to go and check it out for yourself! I’m even sharing my favorite spots, knowing that you may pick the last Utah Giant cherry before I get there.
The best resource for information about u-pick farms in Brentwood is Harvest Time. There you’ll find a list of farms by name and by fruit and vegetable variety, as well as a detailed map of the area. Many of the farms have their own websites, which are referenced on the Harvest Time website as well. Here are a few of my recommendations:
Cherries – my all-time favorite u-pick farm in Brentwood is Pease Ranch. It’s still family run and grows sweet cherries and berries, so they’re only open for about a month and a half at the beginning of fruit season (since cherries are the first stone fruit to ripen and berries ripen early in the hot, sunny Brentwood climate). Pease Ranch has a very pleasant, shaded picnic area on the border of the berry patch, and sells sodas (conventional and natural) and bottled water. The family members and workers are all friendly and helpful – so much so that they will point out the best trees for picking on any given day and sometimes even transport you there in the golf cart they run around in! They are not organic, but on one visit the owner told us his property borders a rather well known organic farm that uses more chemicals than he does (legally allowed, of course).
If you’re in the market for sour cherries, which are more and more difficult to find outside of the Michigan, Bacchini’s Fruit Tree has a small number of sour cherry trees – I’m honestly not sure about the exact variety. I picked some last summer in my zeal to make my own cocktail cherries, but I have to tell you they are very labor-intensive to pick, as they are quite small.
Apricots – I’m so attached to a particular variety of apricots that I usually pass on the opportunity to pick my own. That doesn’t sound right, does it, but the variety I’m obsessed with is so delicate that the few farms that grow them don’t allow u-pick, lest they lose a large percentage of their crop to inefficient or sloppy picking by amateurs. The variety of choice is Blenheim (a.k.a. Royal Blenheim). This is a heritage variety and makes great eating and fantastic jam. If you want to pick your own apricots, I recommend the same orchard from which I order my Blenheims by the case each summer – Wolfe Ranch.
Peaches and Nectarines – Wolfe Ranch has 3 or 4 orchards within a mile of each other. Some are more pleasant than others in terms of ease of access and “services” (some have port-a-potties, most have a mini farm stand with other fruit and vegetables the family grows, including heritage tomatoes). They are well maintained (not the case with all Brentwood orchards) and the family members who run the place are very friendly and helpful. They supply the cutest little wagons which you can load with 10 gallon buckets of fruit to wheel back to the cashier stand, making it very tempting to over-pick the gorgeous, lush, juicy fruit. They grow so many varieties that they’re open from May through September My favorites include Suncrest and Fay Elberta peaches. Just remember – the best way to figure out if peaches or nectarines are ripe is to grasp them firmly but lightly and twist – if they come off the tree easily they’re ready to eat.
There are many other farms to check out, so get out there and start picking – just leave some for me, please!