Girard Gourmet’s slogan “From Our Garden to Your Plate” took on a whole new meaning yesterday. We were treated to a very special tour of ‘Corgi Castle’, the mountainside property where the cafe and deli’s fresh fruit and vegetables are grown.
It’s located just outside Julian, a historical district 60 miles away from La Jolla, up in the hills – I’m sure some of you have probably tried the apple cider or pies, which is worth the hour and twenty minute drive alone. Although getting there doesn’t take all day, it feels like you’re covering a vast distance purely because of how the landscape, roads and weather changes. The parched hills are marked with boulders and pine-oak trees, which is a far stretch from the palmy shores of San Diego. There are definitive seasons, too, which serve as another stark contrast to conditions on the coastline; summer is hot and bright (no June Gloom to speak of), while winter has been known to bring a few inches of snow each year.
Francois Goedhuys, our kind host and the co-owner (with his wife Diana) of Girard Gourmet, met us with a warm smile and a handshake, before leading us inside for preliminary instructions. “Both of you take a hat,” he said, offering Vanessa and I a selection of straw headgear. “It’s very hot out there. You’ll need these.” We did as we were told and followed him on a tour of the house, looking like a trio of tourists on safari. Francois grew up in Belgium and attended pastry school in Antwerp before working in Brussels and Switzerland as a baker, prior to moving to America. Throughout ‘Corgi Castle’ you can see his roots in the artwork and furniture decorating the four rooms.
SEE ALSO: 1 Day Road Trip: Apple Picking In Julian, CA.
Our next order of business was hydrating before the garden tour commenced. Francois and Michel Stroot (our host’s good friend and one of the chefs for the Tomorrow Project) had prepared a plate of cold watermelon slices (from the garden) topped with feta cheese, which we dipped in a bowl of homemade mint pesto. This simple, elegant treat went down singing hymns, leaving a glorious aftertaste in my mouth that stuck around all day.
The Enchanted Garden
Stepping outside ‘Corgi Castle’ is like walking into an enchanted garden; it faces the three peaks of the Cuyamaca Mountains and a stunning meadow, giving the house a storybook quality. There’s no traffic, no car alarms or cellphones going off anywhere. It’s peaceful.
One of the things that really stood out was how Francois picked green plums, black plums, walnuts – anything growing – and taste-tested it. Everything around you is natural, nutritious and delicious. From the apple, pear and plum trees surrounding the house (which offer a natural canopy) to the rows of rhubarb, banana squash, eggplant and round zucchinis down in the sunniest part of the garden, to the shaded chicken coop – everything has a place, a purpose and a time to shine, and it all gets used.
Of course this is not a one-man show, and Francois was quick to point out his incredible support team – Alfredo, Augustine and Bob. Alfredo comes in twice a week to look after everything, while Bob and ‘Augie’ also assist with the gardening and transport process. In addition to this, they supplement Girard Gourmet’s stock levels when all the produce around here isn’t enough – if you can believe that is possible. The camaraderie and collaborative expertise of this crew is the driving force behind the garden’s success, and it was a privilege to see the effort and dedication that goes into making this pocket of paradise a self-sustaining operation.
As we pottered around the garden and listened to Francois talk about his garden (like a proud parent), the taste of mint still lingered. Like any storybook setting, there are a few obstacles to overcome. “We’re in the wild, so wild animals can be expected,” Francois explained, pointing out the electric fence around his egg-laying chickens. Another (less harrowing but more destructive) visitor are the local deer, which treat the garden like a self-service buffet when they get in.
A Conversation Over Quiche
Before lunch, Francois brought out an organic green quiche; perfect for non-meat-eaters who are often left scratching their heads when trying to order at restaurants (this is available at Girard Gourmet, by the way). This was our precursor to lunch, which was being prepared on the grill outside by Michel – an operation that filled the house with some of the amazing smells to grace these nostrils.
La Jolla Blue Book: Why is this called Corgi Castle?
Francois: It’s named because of our dog who sadly passed away and is now buried on the property. The house now doubles as a home base for the fruit and vegetable garden, and a VRBO which I rent out.
La Jolla Blue Book: What was the first thing you planted here?
Francois: The pomegranate tree and another pear tree – I wanted to camouflage the house.
La Jolla Blue Book: How did you know what to plant? Did you have a gardening background?
Francois: Yes, I read up about it. You read growing and gardening magazines, all of that.
La Jolla Blue Book: You mentioned an effort to reduce your carbon footprint and maintain your stance as a low-impact business. What ‘green’ methods does Girard Gourmet utilize on a day to day basis?
Francois: We use the buckets to take all the produce to the restaurant and then bring all the waste back to make compost and feed the chickens. Then we wash the buckets and repeat the process. In that way we eliminate the cardboard box that otherwise goes awry at the shop and creates more trash.
With these little things (Francois picks up the tin container that our pie was placed in), we’d like to create a recycling system. That’s our plan – to make a reward system for customers. If people buy twelve of them and bring the containers back, they can get a free pie.
La Jolla Blue Book: What can be composted?
Francois: Anything that is organic, but not meat. Meat attracts animals and we have plenty that want to come in already. It’s mostly veggies, egg shells, coffee grinds. It was a process getting all the staff on the program, but the system is working. Like the Kale and shards – when they get to the kitchen we rip them off the stems and throw the rest into the stock pot. So in the morning, when the staff arrives to make the soups for the schools and for use, there is already a pot of delicious, vegetarian stock ready.
Everything you see here gets used. Seasonally, we’ll use everything growing. Right now we have a lot of purslane and pears, so we’ll make pies and things to use it all up. In the winter it’s more greens – broccoli, kale.
La Jolla Blue Book: Wait, so you make food for schools, too?
Francois: Yes, the French American School. It’s about 200 kids.
La Jolla Blue Book: Those are some lucky kids. It sounds like there’s a lot going on in that small kitchen.
Francois: Yes, well, it’s busier than you think!
Our afternoon was concluded with a glorious lunch, made purely from the fruits and vegetables found in the garden, which you can read about in our next blog.
On behalf of the La Jolla Blue Book, we’d like say a massive THANK-YOU to Francois and Diana, and his friends for treating us to a fantastic afternoon and some of the most delicious food we’ve ever eaten.