With a singleton and two sets of twins, life on a cul de sac in Orland felt claustrophobic. The simple country life beckoned and the Wunsch family made the brave decision to follow their dream of raising their five children on the Corning country side, instilling in them the honest values of hard work, fresh air, and wide open spaces.
“It was my husband, Eric’s, idea to plant pomegranates,” Suzanne recollected with an infectiously wonderful personality. I could almost hear her smile through the phone when we spoke the first time.
“It’s very rare to find a person who doesn’t like pomegranates. I think I’ve only ever met two. Most people think, ‘pomegranates – I love pomegranates!’”
With a passion for pomegranates, Eric and Suzanne Wunsch planted their first acre of drought-tolerant pomegranate trees on Halloween Day with their children in 2004. Their intention was to harvest their own estate pomegranates to make jelly for their friends and family every year.
They planted six more acres before 2009. The plan was to sell their fruit to packers, until neighbors and friends growing pomegranates commercially relayed the low prices pomegranates were bringing in at the time. Going into the pomegranate business wasn’t about making heaps of money, but they didn’t necessarily want to just give the fruit away.
What the Wunsch Family wanted was to create a total farm experience: you come out, they point you in the direction of the pomegranates, and you get to explore and pick for yourself. That’s what draws people all the way from the Bay Area. That and they offer two varieties of organic fruit: the common Wonderful and uncommon earlier producing Angel Red.
Once you have these beautiful orbs on your counter top, harvesting the juice-filled gems within is a matter of technique and confidence. I find that the easiest way to reach those ripe treasures inside is by first cutting away the stem-side (opposite the crowned blossom-end) in a way that creates a sort of flat platform with which your pomegranate could stand on its own, crown-side up. Next, I cut a shallow X through the skin of this flat platform, which creates a way to bust the pomegranate into quarters without cutting any of the delicate arils within. If your pomegranate is particularly fierce, another option is to peel the skin away in the quarters that you created when scoring the bottom. You’re in! From here, maneuver the network of white membranes and harvest the arils for immediate consumption or later sprinkling. Fortunately, they store well in an air-tight container in the fridge.
If this sounds like an awful lot of work to you, Hillside Poms has had years of developing a simple, mess-free way of harvesting the juice before you navigate towards home.
In 2011, the Wunsch’s wanted to create an easier juicing situation for their customers who were coming with the intention of making jellies or simply enjoying the juice itself. What started with a hand pump press that took about 90 pumps for the press to come all the way down to press the juice from the pomegranates, they now have a converted wood-splitter that runs like a lawn mower, working to press up to a half gallon of juice within five minutes.
In more ways than one, Hillside Poms is a treasure of a farm. They continue to be excited about pomegranates and being rewarded by their farm work. With two kids still in high school, Eric and Suzanne can see the future of their pomegranate passion. There is excitement in turning trash into treasure and opening lines of healthy skin care products using spent pomegranate skins and seeds from the juiced fruit that are currently feeding compost piles. There is talk of an olive and coconut oil soap with abrasive pomegranate exfoliates for body washing, illuminating face wash also with pomegranate exfoliates, bath palm balm with Epsom salt, lip balm, linen coloring, and all natural blush. Once Suzanne mentioned Dark Pomegranate Beer, I don’t think I heard anything that came afterwards.
To schedule your pomegranate picking, call Suzanne and drive to their orchard at 1271 Capay Road in Corning. With friends and family, you can pick as many pomegranates as you can, with the option of juicing them on location, and taking home freshly pressed pomegranate juice by the gallon.
What does one possibly do with a whole gallon of pomegranate juice? Most everyone will tell you to make pomegranate jelly. I would say, also make your own pomegranate molasses.
This thick, tangy, tart, slightly tannic, and extremely versatile condiment originates in the Middle East and is a great way to put away a lot of pomegranate juice. The basic procedure involves boiling down one gallon of pomegranate juice with honey and lemon juice until you have thick, syrupy pomegranate molasses. You’re left with little less than a quart of drippy, concentrated pomegranate flavor and a little goes a long way (fortunately), as this flavor-packed condiment will last in the fridge for up to a year.
I really mean a little goes a long way, as the flavor is extremely concentrated and sharp, a complex mix of bitter and sweet. I’ve been known to enjoy it atop my morning oatmeal with stewed spiced apples with plenty of crunchy things like almonds or buckwheat granola. It contrasts perfectly with roasted chicken or lamb and is striking against roasted sweet butternut squash, tahini, and a thick dusting of parsley and cilantro. Since it may last you well into the summer season, I thought I might as well tell you that my favorite way to eat homemade pomegranate molasses is with eggplant: burnt on a gas range until the skin is blackened, the charred skin flaked away, and the smoky flesh mixed into yogurt before being plopped onto a nice hunk of sourdough bread with grassy local olive oil.
Get your pomegranates this year and put them up to keep them around once all the fruit has fallen and warmer weather sets in. At Hillside Poms, you’ll certainly be met with a cool concept, passionate pomegranate folks, and farmers who truly love what they do.
Kala Riddle is a nutritionist turned sourdough baker, who enjoys celebrating the seasons through cooking, growing, and sharing our most basic and personal connection: food. Keep up with her at www.untamedbakeshop.com