Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Healdsburg's famous country store

The country store near a 90-degree bend in bucolic Alexander Valley Road looks like something out of the distant past, a relic of days when this stretch of Northern California farmland was little more than prune orchards. But a peek inside the screen door and the whiff of a fully stocked deli case reveals that the epicurean revolution of the past few decades has settled in, making itself very much at home.

Started 20 years ago by Carrie Brown and her late husband, John Werner – one of the original partners in New York’s famous (but now defunct) Silver Palate food shop – the couple completely revamped the original Jimtown store on the outskirts of Healdsburg that had been founded in the 1890s and added on to in fits and starts over the years. “It was a wreck. There was no plumbing. There was a sink that drained on the ground,” Brown laughs.

Owner Carrie Brown
Brown may be the owner of this little piece of history, but it is Jimtown that makes this corner of the Wine Country tick. “There was a real Jim, and he named this country store after himself and he serviced the community.” That was what lured Brown and her husband to set up shop since “we knew it was a way of life.”

After taking almost two years to remodel the store, “people would stop by and say, ‘Oh thank god, you’re reopening our meeting place.’ We knew it was a special place, and it was as much a part of the community – which is what a country store is – as a business.” True to their vision, Jimtown remains a vital part of local lives by offering a morning cup to joe to its regulars, as well as providing the perfect location for everything from book readings to holiday celebrations, like a recent Dia de los Muertos fiesta.

If Jimtown could be summed up in two words, though, it would be good food, and if Brown is famous for anything in particular, it is for The Jimtown Store Cookbook, which ten years ago helped put them on the map with recipes like the one for a PBJ with pepper jelly, bacon and lettuce, resulting in smoky, sweet, spicy and salty flavors that turn childhood memories on their head.

The seasonal menu
Brown explains: “What we tried to do was make favorite homemade things that we love, and if it’s an old recipe, we’re going to tweak it, we’re going to improve it and make it the best it can be, and even better than remembered. We’re going to make it with ingredients that are of today, so we swap out the Crisco and put in the butter.”

While still a child, Brown lived all over the world with her peripatetic parents and came to call such disparate places as South America and the Middle East home. So, much of what she cooks is sparked with the flavors and esthetics of Third World cuisines.

Yes, you can get potato salad here, just like at most country stores, but Brown is also liable to offer you North African “hand pies” or empanadas. “When we opened up,” remembers Brown, “somebody said, ‘What I love about Jimtown is it’s a country store with a Type A personality and a wider world view!’”

Antiques & treats
And it’s true to a certain extent that a driven personality must be behind Jimtown because Brown runs a popular catering service out of the back kitchen, operates a busy café and general store in the front and supplies far-flung gourmet food shops with a wide variety of condiments, like her signature Fig & Olive Spread and Romesco Sauce. And if that wasn’t enough to keep Brown and her staff more than busy, she also offers quirky antiques for sale in the store, as well as in the barn out back.

Aside from Jimtown, the venture closest to Brown’s heart is the work she does through her local Slow Foods chapter. Started over 15 years ago, the men and women in this local group are committed to worthy projects as school gardens, gleaning, and “a special, near-and-dear project” with AMIDI Guatemala. Personally active here as well, Brown works with other dedicated people to better the lives of impoverished Mayan women living in Pachay Las Lomas in the Guatemalan highlands, a commitment that for Brown includes setting aside a place in her shop for their beautiful weavings.

It’s a full life, and as with much of food-obsessed Northern California, the people in Alexander Valley are taking the slow food movement seriously by getting back to the land. “It’s kind of full circle,” says Brown. “Now we have chickens in the backyard and a big garden and make our own preserves and smoke our meats.” And with Jimtown on the map, good food is close by even if you don’t manage to make everything yourself.

Sometimes, just like in the movies, when you build it, they will come.

A big handful of the dishes in this book are so simple and good that they are a bit startling. Take this recipe, for example, which is nothing more than dried figs quickly baked with a bit of oil and salt. (And thanks to Carrie Brown for her kind permission to reprint.)

Stephanie’s Roasted Black Mission Figs
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound best-quality dried unsulfured Black  Mission figs (the smaller the better), stemmed
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

1.  Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper. [Note: I used a toaster oven, which worked perfectly.]
Easy and delicious

2.  In a bowl, toss the figs with the oil and salt to coat. Spread them in a single layer on the prepared half sheet pan.

3.  Roast the figs until they begin to sizzle and plump, about 10 minutes.

4.  Cool the figs on the pan on a rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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