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Patti Bess: Felix Gillet Catalog to be released

Patti Bess

On a warm October afternoon the madrone trees scattered throughout the valleys and meadows of North San Juan cast a reddened glow to ancient oaks, pines and undergrowth. Creative homesteads and small farms are hidden away on the back roads of this beautiful part of our county. The variety of plant life here seems to mirror the diversity of innovators, thinkers, artists and farmers that have, for so many years, been drawn to this area.

I’m visiting Amigo Bob Cantisano at Heaven and Earth Farm. With his bushy mustache, hip length dread locks, and tie-dyed shirts; he continues to be a relentless trailblazer. For more than forty years, Cantisano has been one of the forerunners bringing the science of organic farming from its beginnings into the mainstream of thinking — a walking, (always) talking encyclopedia of knowledge and organic growing techniques. As a broadcaster for KVMR’s Organic Matters for 20 years, he continues to answer listeners’ every question. Through his company, Organic Agricultural Advisers, Amigo consults with commercial agricultural producers on how to adopt organic methods and works tirelessly to train interested Northern California grape growers to grow organically. Ironically, Amigo manages to keep up some of these commitments while undergoing treatment for a rare cancer.

Cantisano and his two partners, Jenifer Bliss and Adam Nuber, are celebrating the seventh year of the publication of their Felix Gillet catalog scheduled to publish this week. The goal of the nonprofit, Felix Gillet Institute (FelixGillet.org); is to find, identify and propagate heirloom fruits, nuts and horticultural plants grown in the Sierra and to preserve this genetic heritage. They sell these trees to gardeners and small farmers in Northern California and Oregon. It’s quite a treasure hunt — from Dutch Flat to Graniteville and Goodyears Bar to Camptonville.

These heirloom trees have been growing in (mostly) abandoned homesteads and mining camps for more than a hundred years without pruning, watering or fertilizing. Many are still producing under those conditions. 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.

This year the catalog will offer apples, pears, prunes, plums, chestnuts, walnuts and figs as well as several heritage landscape varieties.

Commercial agriculture focuses primarily on three to five varieties of most fruit and nut trees. Their perspective is to develop fruit for size and ease of shipping qualities. That’s what consumers have available to us. The Felix Gillet Institute wants to preserve the genetic heritage of the best of the heirloom trees focusing on disease resistance and unique flavors.

This year the catalog will offer apples, pears, prunes, plums, chestnuts, walnuts and figs as well as several heritage landscape varieties.

Adam Nuber manages the mother orchard where more than 120 trees of 60 different varieties are currently growing. He takes scions from the grandmother trees; then grafts onto rootstock, plants and cares for them for a couple of years until they’re ready. Only the best are sold in the catalog under the auspices of the Felix Gillet Institute (FGI). The most popular varieties sell out quickly so “the early bird tends to get the worm.”

As we sat talking, Jenifer and Adam brought in samples of some of this year’s crops to taste. It was a difficult challenge, but somebody had to do it. Jenifer, along with several community volunteers, records and catalogs all the trees. She developed an extensive database. Felix Gillet Institute (FGI) also received a grant from the University of Nevada, Reno, to study and save the heirloom fruit trees in that region.

Jenifer took me to the back of the house to a walk in refrigerator. Stepping inside, my senses were overwhelmed by the scent of fresh picked apples. Something we never experience in commercial apples. Reine de Reinette is one of her favorites. It originated in France and the name means Queen of the Pippins. A farm guide from the 1800s describes the Autumn Strawberry apple as a yellow and pink apple with a hint of strawberry and tender flesh, the best dessert apple. Esopus Spitzenburg, another apple that will keep in cold storage for up to three months.

Felix Gillet worked as a barber in downtown Nevada City and opened his first nursery at his home on upper Nevada Street. Beginning in 1871, Gillet imported, bred and introduced most of the plants that comprise the foundation of California and Pacific Northwest perennial fruit, grapes and nuts that we enjoy though he is largely forgotten today.

If you would like to be included on the Felix Gillet mailing list and receive the upcoming catalog, send an email to thefgi@gmail.com or adam@felixgillet.org. Office phone: 530 292-3619. You can also find them on Facebook or the website, http://www.felixgillet.org.

Your tax deductible donations are also appreciated to this 501© Non Profit organization using their paypal link.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author from Grass Valley.

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