The Spice of Life:
Sawmill Creek Farms in Paradise
Story by Jennifer Jewell and Candace Byrne
Warm, smoky, mouth-watering and full-bodied, these qualities dominated my sensory experience during a walk through Sawmill Creek Farms last year as I interviewed Nancy Heinzel and Brian Marshall for a spot on In a North State Garden, a weekend garden program on Northstate public radio. The heady aroma of Hungarian peppers smoking over hickory chips infused both the garden and my senses.
The Sawmill Creek Farms paprika whose smoky scent engulfed me that day was born like the farm itself was born, by accident. The farm began as a kitchen garden and expanded over time to produce enough vegetables and herbs to sell at farmers’ markets. The couple also grew herbs. “We like spices,” says Nancy, “and when we saw the Boldog variety of Hungarian pepper, we grew it and oven-dried it for our own use.” Just as their garden’s produce became products for the markets, so too did the paprika, and Brian and Nancy graduated from the oven to a smoker, the bigger to accommodate sales production.
The peppers (Capsicum annuum) that produce paprika are indigenous to Latin America, and they made their way to Europe with Spain’s occupation. Hungary, especially, adopted the pepper for its cuisine. Paprika means “red pepper” to Eastern Europeans. While it is used as an anti-bacterial agent and as a stimulant to normalize blood pressure and, in many cultures, as potent discouragement for nail-biting, thumb-sucking, and/or unwanted creatures (think pepper spray for human or rodent intruders), paprika in its dried form is a stalwart in Spanish and Hungarian cuisine. Depending on variety of pepper, the amount of capsaicin, the active element that gives them their heat, varies, and it is proportionally higher in the seeds and membranes of peppers. Paprika releases its flavor when heated, which is why when people add it to the top of deviled eggs or other cold dishes for color, it adds very little spice or flavor.
Paprika was in extensive use in Hungary by the late-18th century. It became a staple of Western European and then American cooks after 1879, when the spice was introduced in France. In 1937, a Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi was awarded a Nobel Prize for his research on (and isolation of) vitamin C—and he found it in paprika pepper pods, which have seven times more vitamin C than citrus. Of course, we don’t eat paprika in the quantity we eat winter citrus; plus, the heat used in smoking or oven drying can leach out the vitamin C, though sun-drying preserves it.
The Boldog (sometimes buldog) variety produces a pepper about five inches long, with a flavor Brian describes as full-bodied or piquant. This is the variety they smoke over hickory chips for their Sawmill Creek Farms Smoked Paprika. They also grow a hotter variety of Hungarian pepper, Leutschauer Paprika, sourced from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which characterizes the pepper as medium-hot, “a lovely drying pepper,” from Matrafured, Hungary, by way of Slovenia. Nancy and Brian use this variety for their Sawmill Creek Farms Hot Paprika.
“You can tell the peppers are ready when they turn a deep, robust red,” says Nancy. Most of us have probably kept paprika in a dusty rectangular red and white tin at the back of the spice cupboard. The Sawmill Creek Farms Smoked Paprika is whole different creature. After the peppers—whole peppers, complete with seeds and membrane—are smoked over the hickory chips and dried completely in a very low oven and then ground, they form a fine powder with oil you can feel as you rub the powder in your fingertips. “Because of the oil content,” says Nancy, “you want to refrigerate our paprikas. They should stay fresh and full-flavored for up to three months.”
Along with the varieties of pepper they use for their paprikas, Nancy and Brian grow herbs, flowers, and vegetables appropriate for the foothill town of Paradise, elevation 2000 feet: lettuce, carrots, melons, squash, tomatoes, beans, basil, apples and stone fruits, figs. They use the organic methods of farming outlined by the USDA in its National Organic Program, although they do not seek certification through the USDA. Rather, they have chosen a member-supported organization for certification, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). One of the founders of CNG, Ron Khosla, who runs Huguenot Street Farm (a.k.a. HUG) in New Paltz, New York, explains the inception of CNG: it emerged from a grassroots farmers’ response to the heavy paperwork and high costs of USDA organic certification—though these farmers found the USDA organic standards themselves laudable. CNG asks for voluntary farmer contributions of $50 to $150 dollars annually, while many small farmers pay $1000-2000 for USDA organic certification, with some paying as much as $10,000 per year per farm, depending on the number of fruits and vegetables grown. CNG keeps its costs low because farmers agree to inspect each other’s farms. And, in contrast to USDA Organic certification requirements, CNG requires just one form certifying farming practices, rather than forms for each crop documenting everything from seed to sale. CNG certification is transparent: on their website is a copy of a pdf form certifying practices for each member farm. CNG views itself as an alternative to USDA Organic certification: same high standards, with costs and record keeping requirements more aligned to the daily work of small family farmers who market many types of crop direct to consumers.
The fruits and vegetables Brian and Nancy grow on Sawmill Creek Farms are laid out according to an aesthetic true to the land’s typography and to Nancy’s background as an artist. The creek meanders along below the garden. In the garden, behind deer fencing, crops scramble up trellises in neat rows. To one side of the garden is an orchard with apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and nectarines that produce depending on the weather (in 2008, not much, due to a hard April frost; 2009, better); on the other side is a small vineyard that produces enough Barbera grapes for home wine production. Beyond the garden, on a slope, an incredibly tidy berm of composting manure stretches down a long pathway. Beyond the pathway lie three structures, a greenhouse, a poly tunnel, and a high tunnel.
The heated greenhouse houses seeds to germinate and start. Six to eight weeks later, the starts move into four-inch pots in cold
frames in the poly tunnel; and when these are sold or transplanted in the spring, the plastic is replaced with shade cloth, and basil, greens and plants that appreciate a bit
of shade through the summer grow in the tunnel. The high tunnel is another version of a plastic-coated cold frame, but with a much higher roof and sides that roll up for summer ventilation. Inside it Nancy and Brian are experimenting with overwintering tomatoes and peppers, which are technically not annuals but tender perennials, in the hopes of being able to keep the same plants going from year to year and thereby extend their growing season.
Along with increasing the square footage of their cold frames and adding the high tunnel, Brian and Nancy have recently expanded their farm. They approached the Nielsen family, owners of fallow land adjacent to theirs, about leasing some portion of this land to plant more peppers for paprika. Though they have moved from the area, the Nielsen family is an old Paradise fruit-packing/orchard/cider mill family, one of a handful on the ridge in the 1930s and 1940s. Two descendants, siblings Ralph and Alura, now own the land, and as luck would have it, Ralph is married to a woman of Hungarian decent. That fact, combined with the idea that their family land would once again be part of a farming continuum, led the Nielsens to lease an acre and a half to Sawmill Creek Farms, thereby allowing Nancy and Brian to double their production. Now by design rather than by accident, next year Nancy and Brian will expand their spice business to meet demand and start their efforts in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
CSA is perhaps the most direct-market option a farmer or a consumer could desire: subscribers each receive a weekly share of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs ripe that week on a specific farm. Communicating with such commitment and regularity translates into the closest of farm to table relationships. Nancy plans to work with subscribers to develop which vegetables and what quantities might suit them and what delivery options they favor—a collaborative effort working towards the success of the CSA. She’s also looking forward to offering information on the crops on offer, including recipes.
When I walked around Sawmill Creek Farms that day, Paradise had already had a first light frost and the fragrance of the smoking peppers went to some primal point in my brain hard-wired for “Winter Preparation,” conjuring images of and desire for warm kitchens. To warm those kitchens, Nancy and Brian recommend using their Smoked Paprika for everything from chocolate chip cookies to soup to stews to rubs. Chocolate chip cookies? “That little kick adds warmth and depth to chocolate’s sweet taste,” explains Nancy, whose inspiration came from Dagoba’s xocolatl bar. She recommends experimenting with quantity of paprika in a batch of cookies, starting with one teaspoon per batch (though she herself admits to a distinct fondness for more). “You don’t want to overwhelm the chocolate, just get a hint of paprika.” She also offers the recipes on page 24 in answer to those primal winter needs.
Jennifer Jewell is the host and creator of In a North State Garden, a Northstate Public Radio and web-based weekly program celebrating the art, craft and science of gardening in the North State. For more information: jewellgarden.com.
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.