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Patti Bess: Heirloom treasures? Nevada County heirlooms available in Fall?

Patti Bess
Amigo Bob Cantisano has dedicated his life to preserving agriculture in Nevada County.
Submitted photo to The Union |

For more information

Felix Gillet Institute (FGI)


Fax: 530-292-3688


P.O. Box 942

North San Juan, CA 95960 USA


Amigo Bob Cantisano is a true Nevada County agricultural heirloom. Self-educated, he is a walking, talking organic gardening encyclopedia and a man with a mission.

Through his consulting company, Organic Ag Advisers, he has worked with more than 600 farmers and 400,000 acres of crops over the last 30 years and helped to bring safer foods to our plates.

As the host of a monthly radio show, Organic Matters on KVMR-FM, he answers the many questions from frustrated (and successful) gardeners/farmers. He is the owner of Heaven and Earth Farm and a co-founder of the Eco Farm Conference, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

In 2003, Cantisano and partners, Jennifer Bliss and Adam Nuber, began the process of turning another dream into reality. They created a nonprofit corporation called the Felix Gillet Institute (http://www.felixgillet.org) dedicated to preserving the legacy of Felix Gillet by identifying, propagating and preserving edible and ornamental heirloom perennials that were planted in the Sierra foothills during and after the Gold Rush days.

In 1866 Felix Gillet, a French immigrant, opened his Barren Hill Nursery to the public on 16 acres of logged property at the top of Nevada Street.

During Gillet’s lifetime, he imported and bred thousands of varieties of old world fruits, nuts and ornamental plants from as many as 35 countries. Much of California’s success in perennial crop agriculture can be traced back to this Nevada City nurseryman. He could be called the father of California agriculture, yet rarely does he get any credit. In addition, Gillet was active in Nevada City civic affairs and contributed to various scientific journals.

“Gillet was a plant maniac,” says Cantisano. “If you drink wine, you are indebted to Felix Gillet. He cataloged 241 types of grapes.”

Though Gillet’s name has nearly slipped from history’s memory, the Institute and a loyal crew of folks are on a search-and-rescue mission to locate surviving plants. They take scions from the grandmother trees and graft them onto rootstock, plant and care for them for a couple of years, then sell them in a catalog under the auspices of the Felix Gillet Institute.

Currently, they have two mother orchards in North San Juan and Sonoma Counties where the trees are grown as well as scouting for new orchard land.

Think this sounds pretty far out? The last three years, Felix Gillet catalog sold out of trees.

Buyers are generally Sierra foothills gardeners and small farmers who want to preserve a bit of our past and are willing to experiment with them, but this past year, more commercial farmers ordered trees. If a new heirloom variety takes hold with consumers, it can bring higher profits for a farmer.

But why preserve these old varieties of fruit and nut trees? Cantisano had a quick answer. “We preserve old buildings; why not save some of Nevada County’s agricultural history? They are a cultural bridge to our past.”

Preserving the trees of our forbearers has a certain romanticism to it, but also practical applications. If, as projected by most scientists, we continue to have harsher weather conditions in the future, these hardier trees may indeed be better suited to survive and thrive.

They have been growing in abandoned homesteads and mining camps for more than a hundred years without pruning, watering or fertilizing. Most are still producing under those conditions.

“If we can figure out how to take the characteristics of these old varieties and meld them into modern agriculture, we’re going to have more sustainable agriculture in the future,” Cantisano said.

There is also the culinary benefit. Commercial agriculture develops trees for size and ease of shipping qualities. The Felix Gillet Institute is focusing on disease resistance and unique flavors.

One example: Two particularly beautiful walnut trees they are currently growing and testing seem to have more dynamic flavor than commercial walnuts, and the skins are less stringent.

The Institute is also preserving some old varieties of almonds. A few years ago, the almond growers weren’t at all interested in the heirlooms, but with the decline of bees, that is changing. The Institute is finding that a couple of the old varieties are actually more productive and are self-pollinating — meaning, perhaps, less dependence on bees in the future. Trials are in progress to learn more.

Amigo and his partners, along with some of their longtime customers, are building a database of hundreds of trees to study their hardiness and disease resistance over a long period of time. They also offer a new service: custom growing of trees. If there is a special variety of tree that a family wants, the Institute will grow it for them until it is ready to be re-planted.

This year’s catalog will be available in October. See their website and Facebook for more information.

Ironicallly, after more than 40 years of helping eliminate chemicals on our farms and putting safer food on our plates, Cantisano is in need of our community’s support.

This extraordinary character, food lover and friend to farmers is now facing the grim reality of stage four cancer.

Several of his longtime friends and business associates put together a fund raising account to help with the family’s ongoing expenses and cost of alternative therapies. You can go to this site to leave a message for Amigo or donate if you choose: http://www.youcaring.com/amigo-bob-cantisano-580174.


Fresh walnuts are a luxury in the fall. Though we generally think of them as a staple in our cupboards, their flavor and freshness is best after harvest and stored in their shells. Toasting them will eliminate the astringency of the skins and enhance the flavor.

Curried Chicken and Toasted Walnut Salad

One cup plain yogurt

Two tablespoons honey

One and half teaspoons curry powder


Fresh ground pepper

Two-thirds cup chopped walnuts

Two cooked boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

One apple, in bite-size pieces

Three small celery ribs, sliced thin

Three green onions, sliced thin


In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, honey, curry powder, salt and pepper to taste. Toast the walnuts in a small fry pan on a low flame. Stir continuously for 2-3 minutes.

Cut chicken to bite-size pieces. Add the chicken, apple, celery, green onions and walnuts. Toss with the yogurt sauce to coat well and add additional salt and pepper if needed.

Line four plates with the lettuce leaves. Top with scoops of salad and enjoy.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She lives in Grass Valley. For questions or suggestions, she can be reached at bess.pattia@gmail.com


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