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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | TIDBITS

Vintner Taps Into Local Supply of Strawberries

Ed Pagor of Rolling Hills Vineyard is ready to test-market his new specialty, a distilled fruit brandy.

December 12, 1996|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, everyone, time for a pop quiz.

How many strawberries does it take to make a half-bottle of strawberry eau de vie, a distilled fruit brandy?

Twenty-four pounds. That's according to Ed Pagor, owner and winemaker of Rolling Hills Vineyard in Camarillo. Pagor bottled his first 36 half-bottles of strawberry eau de vie last week and is ready to test-market the fairly rare alcoholic fruit beverage.

"We are not in wine country, we are in strawberry country out here," said Pagor, who produces about 2,000 bottles of wine each year. "We always had the idea of doing something with strawberries."

Strawberry wine, he said, is particularly difficult to produce because the color is unstable and the sugar level is about half that of grapes. It is the sugar that turns into alcohol, so a large quantity of strawberries is needed for a marketable level of alcohol.

Pagor's eau de vie, which he shipped up to Alameda in the Bay Area to be distilled, is 43% alcohol. He is selling it at his winery for $28 per half-bottle.

"Eau de vie is a real specialty item, made out of pears and raspberries mostly," Pagor said. "Traditionally, strawberries used for an eau de vie were wild strawberries, hand picked in the woods, and that was a laborious task.

"Up to now, the commercial strawberry people felt that their strawberries wouldn't produce a quality product. We gave it a try and it came out pretty good."

Pagor, who has operated his winery since 1981, said he is anxious to check out customer demand for his new brandy.

"We want to basically see if there's an interest in Ventura County for a product like this," he said. "Needless to say, we have an ample supply of strawberries here."

The winery is at 126 Wood Road, Camarillo.

*

While some folks try to squeeze a few more candied oddities into the homemade fruit cake, others are celebrating the holiday in another traditional--and edible--manner by preparing tamales.

This Mexican Christmas custom is celebrated annually at the original Joannafina's Mexican Cafe in Ventura, where restaurateurs Joanna and Delfino Lopez-Rojas offer holiday tamale-making classes.

The next class will be at 5 p.m. Friday at the restaurant, 1127 Seaward Ave. The couple held a similar class last Friday at their restaurant on Main Street in downtown Ventura.

"We sort of help people explore the tamale mystique," said Joanna Lopez-Rojas. "We provide the corn husks and the masa (corn dough) and we have all the ingredients laid out. People come in and the cooks show them, start-to-finish, how to make them."

Last year, she said, a number of participants gave it their best shot, but ended up purchasing the already-made tamales from the restaurant.

Then again, that's all in a day's work at Joannafina's this time of year.

"Last year we sold 7,500 tamales from December through Jan. 1, and this year we already have a lot of orders," said Joanna Lopez-Rojas. "In the past we've had orders of up to 20 dozen by people who are giving really huge parties."

Joannafina's has its share of tamale customers who keep returning every Christmas, she said.

"We have one regular customer who comes down from Alaska. Every year he visits his family in San Diego. He always calls us when he's leaving and tells us how many he wants," Lopez-Rojas said. "He picks up the tamales and brings them back home with him."

The man orders about 10 dozen tamales, she said, which he freezes and apparently makes last to the next holiday season.

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