By Susan Audrey
It makes perfect sense that Mimi Chiang-Brown and her husband, Ed Brown, grow heirloom vegetables and herbs on their 1.5-acre organic farm to star in the dishes they serve at their inn and café. The unique colors and shapes and nutrition-rich nature of organic heirloom produce are fitting parallels to Mimi’s passion for creating beautiful things that also nourish.
A visit to the couple’s Napa Farmhouse Inn in Northern California’s famous Napa Valley wine country or to their French-inspired Flower Flour Bakery and Café in San Jose, south of San Francisco, offers a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and flavors, the presentation of both sweet and savory dishes expressing epicurean artistry that pleases the eye as well as the palate.
I arrived at the inn just in time to enjoy the day’s bountiful and artful breakfast. In addition to an open-faced omelet, garnished with fresh dill from the garden, and a roasted potato, onion and bacon side, organic zebra-like Chioggia beets were served steamed and sliced in half, revealing their unique burgundy and luminous pink striping. Tossed with local olives and fresh lemon slices, drizzled with Caesar dressing and a touch of locally-made balsamic and olive oil, and elegantly displayed on a glass platter, they were a beautiful, mouth-watering and healthful showstopper.
“I like to showcase the true flavor of the vegetable itself,” says Mimi. “We cook vegetables in many ways … grilled, steamed, blanched.”
Mimi also values the versatility of a single vegetable and uses her crops in as many ways as possible. Onions, for example, are chopped and tossed in salads, creamed in soups, minced to add to dips and sour cream, as well as roasted or caramelized.
Her crudités are simple. These traditional French appetizers featuring vegetables in the raw can be daunting to some, she says, especially if there are a lot of veggies. Mimi keeps it basic: thinly sliced yellow squash, fresh, just-picked radishes, and a little salad dressing and fresh-squeezed lemon on the side.
For those with a sweet tooth, the day’s breakfast features the perfect blueberry scone from the couple’s bakery and café: a buttery scone flavor but lighter-than-traditional texture. The morning buns, with their light texture, melt in your mouth. An artful fruit tray features thinly sliced melon, pineapple and sumptuous locally grown strawberries. Only organic coffees are served.
You have to get up early in the morning to keep up with Mimi and Ed. The couple does most of the farming and gardening at the Inn with the help of only one full-time gardener. The property is comprised of about 3 acres that all need tending, including the farming plot, which did not exist when the couple bought the Inn four years ago. Now, the seasons bring a revolving abundance of fresh, organic produce that finds its way into the Inn’s seasonally dictated breakfast offerings as well as all the way to Mimi and Ed’s Flower Flour Bakery and Café more than an hour’s drive away — a journey the two take turns making. Produce is picked in the cool morning time to ensure that fresh fruits and vegetables are available for café patrons that day.
Depending on the time of year, there are several varieties of tomatoes, squash, beets, turnips, onions, radishes, fingerling potatoes, fava beans, corn, lettuces, string beans, shelling beans, artichokes or melons. Autumn favorites include squash, pumpkins, kale, chard, dried beans and sunflowers, from which the seeds are used for salads and in baked goods.
A favorite of Inn guests this time of year is Mimi’s squash pancakes served with harvest chutney. At the bakery and café, baby kale, chard, onions, a variety of squash, fingerling potatoes, and dried beans are favorite ingredients, much of which are used in hardy country-style soups served with handcrafted breads.
Favorite heirloom offerings from the Napa Farmhouse Inn’s mini-farm include Baker Creek’s European mesclun lettuce mix, which is used in the flavorful salads served at the café; the deep, reddish-purple and very sweet ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet; the also very sweet golden-yellow ‘Golden’ beet that features quite tasty greens; the pre-1885 ‘French Breakfast’ red radish, with its mild spicy flavor and red top and white bottom; ‘Zucchini Golden,’ the bright yellow, straight-necked squash that tastes great sliced straight from the garden (a great crudité offering); and ‘Costata Romanesco’ squash, the famous Italian/Roman ribbed zucchini that has a rich and flavorful taste, and which makes for artful scalloped slices when cut (also a great crudité offering). New to the couple’s farm plot this year was ‘Red Orach,’ a tall, fuchsia-red heirloom lettuce that was a tasty, bright addition to their café salads.
Making the Best of Everything
July through October, Mimi and Ed grow lots of melons. A favorite heirloom variety is Baker Creek’s ‘Charentais,’ a French cantaloupe that originated in the western Poitou-Charentes region. These are so wonderfully sweet and easy to serve, says Mimi, who likes to scoop the melon from its husk like gelato and serve with plain organic yogurt and just-picked blackberries.
Melons and other heat-loving produce thrive in the area’s warm Mediterranean-like weather. Yet, the sometimes 90- to 100-degree days, beneficial to grape-growers and the surrounding vineyards, can cause a bit of havoc in the couple’s gardens.
“Everything tends to bolt,” says Mimi. For the onions, this means they begin to flower. But Mimi, who worked as a professional floral designer for several years, designing arrangements for weddings and businesses, makes the best of everything her gardens offer. The onion flowers, as well as flowering, ornamental cherry tree branches, dried sunflowers, extra lettuce leaves, and striking minty-green kale leaves, to name a few, are incorporated into floral arrangements at the inn, bakery, and café. The result is a blend of nature’s edible and decorative bounty and a look that has become synonymous with Napa-style interiors. In the fall and winter, simple, dried sunflower bouquets hint of seasons past.
Stone Fruits & Berries
In addition to the heat, the valley’s dense clay soil can pose some challenges. The couple does a lot of soil amending, adding compost from their own compost bins and trucking in the rest.
Mimi and Ed grow their own table grapes as well as figs, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, and persimmons, some of which are used in jams and chutneys. Inn guests, who have fled city life, like picking the wild blackberries that grow on the property, says Mimi. It’s a hands-on novelty they don’t routinely enjoy.
Many of the fresh fruits grown on the property are incorporated into the Inn’s breakfast offerings and used in bakery and café recipes. Mimi, who baked professionally and designed wedding cakes for 10 years, prides herself in offering unique cakes and bakery goods that cannot easily be made by home chefs. As with all her creations, she strives for beautiful as well as delicious results. The day I visited the Inn, there was the opportunity to taste several of her treats, including a mini Citronelle cake with citrus mousse and raspberry filling, and perhaps most stunning, her “Ravishing Raspberry Chocolate Cake”… light chocolate mousse, raspberry mousse and devil’s food cake with a raspberry jam glaze and wrapped in a chocolate band.
Sharing the Lifestyle
Ed, who retired from IBM several years ago to manage the bakery and café’s onsite commercial kitchen, is a gifted chocolatier, Mimi reveals. In fact, she adds, quite often, she’s the artist behind an endeavor and he’s the worker bee. Ed added that he likes to fix things — and that there is always something to fix. The couple has become accustomed to working 12-hour days.
Currently the Inn offers lodging in four private suites elegantly decorated in a French country-style motif. All look out onto gardens and the flourishing property. It’s a good idea to make reservations a few months in advance, says Mimi, but don’t hesitate to call and check on availability.
Also in the works for this year, Mimi comments, are plans to raise chickens and farm-fresh eggs.
Mimi, an avid gardener for decades, views gardening as therapeutic and a way to keep a person young. She also sees it as a lifestyle. “I feel privileged to be here in St. Helena and Napa county. The land, the beauty in the everyday, that’s my lifestyle, and it’s a joy to be able to share it with others.”
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