Romney Steele’s new book, Plum Gorgeous: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard, showcases the romance and beauty of fruit.
Steele, an occasional contributor to Berkeleyside, is a writer, cook, artist and food stylist. She is the granddaughter of Bill and Lolly Fassett, creators of Nepenthe Restaurant at Big Sur, the subject of Steele’s previous book, My Nepenthe. She lives in Oakland with her two children, Trevor and Nicoya.
Steele will be reading from Plum Gorgeous at Mrs Dalloway’s book store at 2904 College Ave. in Berkeley on Friday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m.
Berkeleyside: What inspired you to write the book?
I lived in a particularly prolific orchard more than a dozen years ago, and was fishing around for a new book idea when I came across an old notebook from that time. It was basically a blueprint to this book – with my drawings, recipes, and the idea pretty much in print. I hadn’t remembered that I wanted to do this so long ago. Interesting how dreams come true when you put them down on paper, and you create the space to allow them to happen.
Berkeleyside: Tell us about working in orchards? What did you learn about fruit?
I have lived in several orchards at various times in my life, and you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of nature… and to respect it too. It can be the smallest thing, like noticing the budding flower on a pomegranate fruit and realizing, oh..it’s late spring or nearly summer, and in a few months there will be fruit.
It teaches you patience, that’s for sure. I learned that even though in general fruits may have particular seasons, there is flexibility within that. My friend Kate’s orchard, for example, produces oranges almost year around, but they are especially good in the early winter – that is January and February on the mountaintop. This year, though, they hadn’t ripened yet, and it was going to be closer to April – hence I didn’t make marmalade from her fruit as I had hoped too, as by then I was onto something else.
Berkeleyside: Do you have a favorite season for fruit and/or a favorite fruit?
Hmm. I really do love making marmalade, and mixing oranges with kumquats is particularly lovely. I also adore Blenheim apricots, which have been hard to come by this year – as the season is late. I think it is hard not to love summer for all the glorious stone fruit – a dream for the person who loves to cook.
Berkeleyside: Are there any fruits that you believe are under-appreciated and due for a renaissance?
Tropical fruits. They are what I want to explore next. Also quince. I fell in love with the quince when living at Henry Miller’s house in Big Sur, again many moons ago — I write about it in my book — and, even though quince paste is pretty common these days, people still don’t know what to do with the quince, and have a hard time recognizing it. It’s a divine fruit, very ethereal in nature, I think.
Berkeleyside: Do you think people are buying and eating more seasonally generally? Or is it limited to places like Bay Area foodie communities?
I do think people are paying more attention to seasonality and the growth of farmers markets around the country are a testament to that. But here in the Bay Area we are so spoiled, it’s so easy not to be in the dark about these kind of things and just believe, blindly, that everyone is following suit.
Berkeleyside: Are there any aspects of fruit cultivation or distribution that bother you? (I’m thinking of Barry Estabrook’s new book Tomatoland.)
Well, I’ve been following Barry’s blog and writing for several years, and for a while was avidly sending letters to Florida to get them to protect their workers and to pay them more. But, even here, in the progressive coastal California lands, we don’t treat our workers with the respect they deserve, nor do we pay them a living wage.
I mean come on – we still import workers from Mexico, in some cases legally, to pick apples in areas of Washington, then send those same apples back to Mexico, for the same folks to buy them at twice, if not triple, the price.
On top of this, we are losing our family farms – like the Blenheim apricot farms both east of here, and south of San Jose, due to encroaching cities, housing developments, and evidently, a growing Turkish trade.
Berkeleyside: Where do you buy your fruit?
My son tells me I’m a number one fruit shopper, and I do think I’m pretty good at it! I buy at the farmers’ market fairly often, as well as Berkeley Bowl (the original). When I want something really special, or unblemished, I shop at Market Hall produce — they have an outstanding selection, and often receive produce direct from the farmer on market days. Lately I’ve been getting cases of delicious, ripe, organic stone fruit from Blossom Bluff – look for them at the Berkeley farmers market.
Berkeleyside: The book is also about place. Do you associate some fruits with certain places you have lived/worked?
I think of oranges and my friend Kate and Partington Ridge. Apricots, I do think of rural San Jose, and the Hollister area, where I first picked the fruit as a teenager and put them up the old fashioned way. In Bolinas, where I lived for a summer, there was an ancient greengage plum tree, so today, for instance, when I saw a bushel of this fruit, my mind went there.
So, yes, place for me is also personal and there are memories attached to fruits in relation to specific moments in my life, but we do know that some fruit does better in particular places – like apples, for example. I always want to buy local apples that come from Sabastapol. And Meyer lemons – well, why not Berkeley? They are everywhere.
Romney Steele will also make a Berkeley appearance on Tuesday, August 23, 6-8 pm, at The Cooks’ Book Club of Fourth Street at The Pasta Shop, where she will be talking with Rachel Saunders, author of Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, and Berkeleyside contributing writer Sarah Henry. Conversations, Tastings, Book Signings, and Panel Discussion. No charge except for purchases.