July/August 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Matt Salvo
California corn is the cream of the crop
More online: Watch this story on California Bountiful TV.
The sweet corn grown on Brentwood-based G&S Farms is sold in grocery stores in several states and served at many California restaurants, including Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito, where Executive Chef Ben Balesteri pairs it with basil to complement fish dishes. (Photos courtesy of Poggio Trattoria)
The crunch. The sweetness. The melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.
That's what chef Ben Balesteri and restaurateur Cindy Caprio say people love about the California-grown corn they serve.
Balesteri is executive chef of Poggio Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in Sausalito, and Caprio and her family own Orwood Resort in Brentwood. More than 70 miles apart, both have dramatically different menus and different types of customers, but they share a key commonality: corn fresh from the fields of Brentwood-based G&S Farms.
"We love corn," Balesteri said. "We use it all over our menu. It's sweet—almost like a dessert—but it still pairs well with savory dishes."
One of Poggio's signature corn dishes is sformatino, a savory custard made with morel mushrooms, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and arugula. Balesteri also pairs the vegetable with trout and salmon dishes, for a sweet side.
"We love corn in a dish with earthy mushrooms like our sformatino, but also on the grill, cut off the cob, served with farm-raised trout," Balesteri said. "Corn works really well in our dishes and is great with basil."
At Orwood Resort, corn is served on the cob as part of a steak and lobster dinner special. The resort introduced the special about five years ago to attract more customers during the offseason. It was a hit—especially the corn—so every Wednesday from early summer through mid-fall, Caprio jumps in her car, drives five minutes down the road to G&S Farms and loads four or five cases of fresh-picked white corn.
"The customers just rave about it. It's fresh, it's affordable, and when we get it, it's usually only a few minutes old," she said. "The corn is so sweet, you don't even need butter. That's what we're known for in this area."
The Ghiggeri-Stonebarger family continues the 70-year legacy of growing corn started by Emilio Ghiggeri. Pictured from left are Emilio's grandson Joseph Ghiggeri, son Roy Ghiggeri, and daughter Jeannie Stonebarger with her husband Glenn and their sons Michael and Paul.
On the map—and the grill
The corn from Brentwood certainly has developed a following and is one of several regions that have helped put California on the map for sweet corn production.
Though many may associate corn with the Midwest, sweet corn is a different crop, grown in states outside the traditional Corn Belt. Much of the corn grown in the U.S. is for livestock feed; however, sweet corn is the type of corn predominantly found on backyard grills this time of year.
Farmers in the Golden State grew 17 percent of the nation's sweet corn in 2014-15, according to the most recent figures available from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, making the state the second-largest producer of sweet corn behind Florida. Imperial, Fresno, San Joaquin, Riverside and Contra Costa counties are some of California's top growing areas for the crop.
About 34,000 tons of sweet corn are harvested in Contra Costa County a year—some from the fields of G&S Farms. Family-run for four generations, the business grows crops in Contra Costa County, as well as the Central and Coachella valleys.
Emilio Ghiggeri started the family farm in 1935 after emigrating from Italy, planting the region's first sweet corn in 1945. The farm became G&S (Ghiggeri and Stonebarger) Farms in the 1980s when third-generation Brentwood farmer Glenn Stonebarger married Emilio's daughter Jeannie. Jeannie's brother Roy Ghiggeri is a valuable part of the farm as well, as are Emilio's grandchildren.
From that first planting more than 70 years ago, the names Ghiggeri and Stonebarger have now become synonymous with sweet corn.
"We're a diversified farm," Ghiggeri said. "We grow cherries, tomatoes and green beans, but it's the corn that people know us for."
G&S sells fresh corn to major grocery chains such as Safeway and Albertsons, approximately 20 California restaurants—including Poggio and Orwood Resort—and at a number of farmers markets.
Roberto Padilla handpicks corn at G&S Farms, where it is harvested six days a week, six months of the year.
An ear to their customers
During the past seven decades, Ghiggeri said there has been a rise in both the demand for and quality of California sweet corn.
"There are big improvements with the corn today," Ghiggeri said. "It's much tastier than when my dad grew corn. It's become very sweet and very popular."
That sweetness and popularity is something Stonebarger said growers around the state have been cultivating for years. G&S has tested more than 200 varieties of sweet corn, with an eye on the attributes today's customers seek most.
"Twenty years ago, you just had the same corn that everyone planted. Now, we're able to grow corn for different qualities that people are looking for," Stonebarger said. "(For example,) customers want high sugar in corn, but we need to make sure that sugar is long-lasting and doesn't turn into starch. When you take a bite of sweet corn, you want it crunchy but still very tender, and you don't want it to get in your teeth. With innovation, we've been able to achieve this and have the skin of the kernel so tender it feels like it melts in your mouth."
Growing corn also has become a year-round endeavor for Stonebarger, who said G&S Farms is planting much of the year to meet the demand. Sweet corn grows from 80 to 120 days until it is ready to harvest, depending on the region.
"Our season used to be very small, from mid-June to Sept. 1. Now, we're looking at the end of April to the end of October. Our first crops start planting Jan. 1, and we are harvesting six days a week for six months out of the year," Stonebarger said.
Sweet corn is highly perishable and requires constant cooling. The boxes are hydrocooled and injected with a slurry of ice and water, left. This helps maintain the optimum temperature during transportation, right.
Simple and sweet
Every growing region is different, Stonebarger said, but one constant for great-tasting corn is freshness. G&S strives to ship its corn the same day it is harvested, with the goal being that customers would eat an ear of sweet corn for dinner that was picked from a California field that morning.
Though corn is a hearty vegetable, known for its leathery ears, the sweetness of its kernels can be fickle, dependent on the temperature.
G&S handpicks corn in the early morning hours, often starting before sunrise. It is then sorted, washed, packed in boxes and chilled as quickly as possible to maintain quality and, above all else, sweetness. If the corn isn't chilled or sits too long in a warm place, the sugar starts to turn to starch, compromising the vegetable's sweet and tender characteristics.
And it's that juicy sweetness that makes California-grown sweet corn the cream of the crop.
From backyard grills to high-end restaurants, California sweet corn can be a subtle side or the star of the dish. For Stonebarger, it doesn't get much better than an ear straight from the field.
"I eat corn every single day," he said. "I try it in the field daily. Sweet corn is good enough to eat just like that."
Where you live in the United States may have an impact on the color of sweet corn you see in your neighborhood grocery store or favorite restaurant. But Contra Costa County farmer Glenn Stonebarger said color has little to do with the corn's flavor or texture. Instead, the variety of corn determines those attributes and each variety can come in any color, with any taste differences nearly imperceptible. Still, people do have regional preferences based on color.
White: The Golden State doesn't necessarily prefer the golden color of corn. More than 90 percent of the corn sold to California consumers is white, Stonebarger said.
Bicolor: The East Coast likes the best of both worlds. Consumers there primarily purchase bicolor corn, although Stonebarger said it's also popular with people in the Northwest and California (himself included).
Yellow: Most people in the Northwest, including Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, are fans of traditional yellow corn. Stonebarger said about 60 percent of the corn sold to this region is yellow.