A golf course in the hills above San Clemente is not the likeliest place to find the front lines of the local food movement, and not a place one would expect to find organically farmed Italian vegetables, but that's exactly what Nic Romano is doing.
Born the grandson of Southern Italian immigrants, Romano wanted a place to recreate a natural, organic farm where he could grow high-quality vegetables without having to resort to additives, pesticides or similar funny business. He got his chance when John Fornaro and Mark Zane, owners of the Bella Colina Golf Club on Avenida La Pata, agreed to let him use water and unimproved land to grow vegetables and fruit.
Perched at the far edge of the club's parking lot, Villa Romano Green Farms is surprisingly compact, taking up a hill on the southeast side of the golf club. Those who show up on a Wednesday, which is volunteer day, will find people of all ages planting, culling, weeding and watering, and may be pressed into service themselves. Saturday mornings find the harvest in full swing and customers headed up to the ornate terrazzi for their baskets of produce.
In addition to selling produce to restaurants, Romano operates as an opt-in CSA on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.: potential customers buy a series of wooden medallions for $25 each, which can be traded for large baskets of whatever is available on a given Saturday morning. The only catch is that baskets must be reserved by the preceding Thursday, so that the harvest can be planned.
Fresh is, of course, the order of the day, with Romano packing baskets full of just-picked fruits and vegetables and a huge loaf of whatever artisanal bread their bakery has produced that week. "Here's a knife," he instructed an elegantly-dressed woman, "go cut some salad greens, as much as you need." Prada shoes or no, she headed with alacrity for the red leaf lettuce.
Three preschool-aged girls, given the run of the farm by their parents, quickly disappeared into the plants. A rustling sound came from behind a large set of bushes, where the girls were seated in the dirt, shucking and peeling fava beans, eating them raw, and giggling madly. VR Green Farms conducts age-appropriate "Farm Chef" classes for both children and adults, to teach them to select and cook what's in season right then.
The produce is of singular quality. While Romano handles the CSA operations at the farm on Saturday mornings, some of his produce makes it to the Irvine farmers' market, where it's sold at Sweredoski Farms, at the far end of the market. Romano and John Sweredoski are consulting partners and share plants and produce, so those who can't make it down to San Clemente can stop halfway through the county for the same produce.
Currently, VR Green Farms has 180 San Marzano tomato plants, brought back from Italy, that are ready to kick into high gear. The first tomatoes from the plants have appeared in Sweredoski's booth at the Saturday market, and they are top-notch. They made an astounding pasta sauce with roasted fresh fennel, and the other was turned into a pot of simmering gumbo, but at least a few of the smaller specimens were simply split in half, salted and eaten out of hand.
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VR Green Farms' arugula is crisp and has a much pepperier taste than commercial arugula, which makes it a great companion to slices of grilled white peach and cubes of ricotta salata, but the real reason to buy the arugula there is for the flowers, which pack an enormous punch into tiny white blossoms that can be tossed into salad or folded into quesadillas. A little goes a very long way.
Beets, which come with perky greens that should be torn off and cooked as soon as possible, come in all shades, from red to yellow to candy-striped. Two enormous artichoke plants stand sentry over the far end of the hill, the unpicked vegetables turning slowly into beautiful purple flowers, while a row of zucchini plants prepare to blossom. A fig tree leans downhill, and rows of new grapevines promise a vendemmia in October.
Visitors to VR Green Farms come away with not only baskets of excellent produce, but recipes and the inspiration to cook from scratch, and that's the first step toward culinary independence.
Villa Romano Green Farms, 200 Avenida La Pata, San Clemente; (949) 697-0032.