UKIAH – This town, whose name conjures up the mental images of a 19th-century fundamentalist preacher, is small, nestled in the valleys that make up Mendocino County.
There aren’t many food options – a Google search on the subject brings up the Costco food court as one of the highest rated.
But Martha Barra, owner of the eponymous winery in nearby Redwood Valley, might have something to say about it. On a recent Sunday, as Northern California received some well-deserved rain, the 80-year-old winemaker showed off her other passion: canning tuna.
That day, in her house, the one built in 1895 and where she has lived since 1974, she was performing her annual cleaning, roasting and canning ritual. It’s something she’s been doing since 1980. The glass jars that sit on her counter, when filled, will go to her friends and family as well as the employees, vendors and distributors who keep Barra of Mendocino running.
People also read…
Barra, who is of Scottish-Irish descent, married Italian Charlie Barra that year. She says getting to know her husband’s side of the family involved working with his five aunts in the kitchen, learning age-old recipes and techniques. One involved a unique preparation of the deliciously fatty fish seen in children’s lunchboxes since time immemorial.
All five aunts are gone now – as is Charlie, who died three years ago aged 92 – but their legacy lives on.
For this trick, Barra prepares two 20-pound fish, sitting in the sink on her outdoor patio with startlingly large yellow eyes. They were captured that day about 25 miles off Fort Bragg.
At the top of the brick archway near where she prepares to clean the fish with a dangerously sharp butcher’s knife is the word “Garden”. And indeed, the area behind the sign is teeming with, among other vegetables, kale, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes.
“I don’t want my son to come and do this,” Barra says, as she chops the heads off with some effort and sometimes causes the fish pieces to squelch.
She jokes that fishermen who net for a living would probably be horrified at the way she does it, but shrugs and says she’s doing her best.
The next day, a Monday, Barra woke up around 5 a.m. to begin the roasting process. She says this step is the one that makes her tuna stand out. About three hours later, the fish is out of the oven and she begins cleaning while the glass jars the tuna will be packed in are sterilized in the dishwasher.
Barra stands in her kitchen chatting to visitors as she removes the bones and skin – “it’s okay, because they’re so big” – and the dark meat, which she calls “food for cat”. The succulent white meat is then placed in large aluminum trays.
Then the salt and olive oil are placed in a motley crew of glass jars, the fish is portioned and the lids put on. Now the canning process begins.
The pots used for this purpose are large metal cylinders in the shape of overgrown soup pots. The water goes on the bottom and a second metal piece floats on top. The glass jars are neatly stacked to the brim and the outside coated with a thin layer of wax.
The lids have notches with wing nut bolts that seal the chamber and allow the vessel to pressure cook what’s inside. The whole thing – with an old-fashioned pressure gauge – rests on a propane stove. It looks a bit like a prop from a mad scientist’s lab.
“They were bought at an auction Charlie and I went to in 1985,” she said. “Do you know what they were used for? To sterilize dressings. For the military.
If they had even been used for this purpose, asks a visitor, a little anxious. The assembled crew of five here are, after all, expected to sample some of its preserves.
“We bought them new,” she said with a small smile, and firmly, but kindly, asking one of her visitors to keep a close eye on the gauge. “He must be at 15 pounds of pressure. If it drops, increase the heat. If it goes down, increase it.
Barra of Mendocino is an organic winery, boasting on its website that it has been growing organically since 1955, although Martha Barra acknowledges that they haven’t been certified as such for nearly that long. In addition to the Barra brand, it also sells wine under the name Girasole, which means sunflower in Italian.
“Charlie used to say, ‘I’ve been organic for 50 years, but I didn’t know it for the first 30,'” she laughed.
As his guests sat at an al fresco table, drinking his wine and eating open-faced tuna sandwiches sprinkled with capers, pickles and onion bites, and buttery pasta with fresh basil, tomatoes and , of course, tuna, Barra talked about the winemaking process and how things have changed over the years.
While there are a lot more female winemakers now in California and elsewhere, she says, “and really high-end wines made by women,” things are a little different in Mendocino County.
“We’re always behind, there’s no doubt about that,” Barra said.
Despite the slower pace locally, she said, women’s contribution to winemaking makes a huge difference — because of the little things.
“Women have a way of paying attention to detail,” she said. “I’d rather have a woman in the fields pruning than a man.”
When asked if this applied to the retail work of tuna canning and food preparation, Barra laughed.