To find the king, go to the source.
“Bings are the sweetest of all cherries. That’s why it’s the king. It has higher acid, too.” A Brentwood cherry tutorial from Farmer Al Courchesne–known to many for his regular presence at the Saturday Ferry Building Farmers’ Market–means watching and learning as the tall and ruggedly handsome farmer holds court under sunny skies (with various bees literally a-buzzin’) in his trademark jean overalls. Farmer Al farms some of the best organic stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, cherries and pears) and olive oil our region has to offer at his 120-acre Frog Hollow Farms, which is nestled on the Sacramento River Delta.
The knowledgeable and down-to-earth UC Berkeley alum says he “chose the terroir of Brentwood and got lucky,” as he grew his acreage and business over the years after planting peaches for the first time in 1976. Now, restaurant clients like Chez Panisse, Quince, Cotogna, and Oliveto and Cooks Company and Greenleaf distribute the fruits of his labors. He started farming organically in the late 1980s and proudly pointed out a compost area that is a newer development in the past two to three years, although, “it is very expensive to do it right.”
Remains and pieces of fruit top the compost pile–some even look good enough to eat, but are not high enough in sugar or are otherwise imperfect. “The customer would not come back to us,” Al says of his discerning palate.
Farmer Al says that the housing bust of 2008 and the divorce of nearby neighbors meant he could move from a trailer on the property to a brick-and-mortar home. The move lets him oversee the growing green space but also affords more room for his pastry chef wife and two young daughters (more on how their love story in a bit). Originally, Farmer Al chose Brentwood because it was close to where his parents were living at the time.
It’s tough to pick a favorite in the Rainier-versus-Bing cherry debate. It depends on whether you prefer your cherries on the sweet side, on the sour side. Farmer Al is more scientific, opting for measuring the Brix or sugar content of the fruit. In the upstairs business kitchen, where jars of made-on-the-farm jellies, jams and preserves are stacked neatly, he slices cherries with the intent of getting to the juice. The cutting board he uses is made of wood and the juices pool as he works; a drip coffee sits nearby, which likely comes in handy for when Al’s staff are hand-picking 200 boxes of cherries a day that weigh twelve pounds each.
The higher the Brix, the sweeter (and likely better) the fruit—he says they start tasting really good in the 25 to 26 range. “It’s the one incontrovertible way to actually compare the sweetness of our cherries with others.” The good cherries—dark scarlet red Bings and yellow-red Rainiers—make their way to farmers’ markets (Ferry Building, Berkeley, Danville, San Mateo, Kensington, Lafayette Sunday, Santa Cruz and a six-hour trek each way to Santa Monica) and CSA boxes. Cherries now play a starring role in the squeal-inducing buttery pastries at the Frog Hollow Ferry Building Marketplace outpost (get in line on Saturday mornings, when the sugar scrum is at its peak—the cherry turnovers are worth the wait).
Farmer Al is a native of Northern California, as is his pastry chef wife Becky—the two met and fell in love when he delivered fruit to her at Oliveto Restaurant. He’s been doing the farmers’ market thing for over three decades in the Bay and did not get into farming until he ditched a teaching career in his thirties. As he eyes the boxes of cherries in his packing warehouse, Farmer Al says, “We’re all about taste, texture and sweetness. Every working hour is spent on that around here.”