To get to Windrose Farm, travel a winding road through San Luis Obispo County, down a long lane buttressed by oak trees, a field dotted with sheep, and you'll find an arrangement of farm buildings and a broad one-story house behind the tallest oak tree of them all. Foothills rise in the back of the house like a staircase. Apple trees fill out the middle distance. A stone Buddha's head the size of a stove sits beneath the enormous tree in front of the house.
In the kitchen, Barbara Spencer is cutting vegetables. She's 72, white hair in a short pixie cut, a thick wool sweater the color of earth, jeans, tall rubber boots. The house she shares with her husband, Bill, 69, is the gateway to their 50-acre farm, and the kitchen is its center, both spiritually and physically. It's a high-ceilinged space filled with an old butcher's block and a 1920s-era Magic Chef stove. On a wooden counter, a small mountain of produce spills against a stack of cookbooks, many written by the Los Angeles chefs who've been coming to the Spencers' farm and Santa Monica market stand for over a decade.
When your farm is steps away from your kitchen and your dinner table, cooking a holiday meal is a matter of collection. The squash and chard that go into the vegetable gratin were grown here, as were the apples that will layer the dessert apple crisp. The winter greens for the salad were just in the field. The lamb chops that are the centerpiece of the meal were only a few weeks ago part of Bill's flock of sheep.
"It's simple stuff, just comfort food," says Barbara of their holiday meals, which for years they cooked on Boxing Day instead of Christmas Eve or Christmas. It's a slower day than some on the farm, and friends are coming over later, wine in tow, for a seasonal dinner. "Having this month as a downtime means we can cook, and cook for other people," she says of December, when the seasonal cycle of the farm means less work than many of the other months of the year. Less work, it must be said, is a relative term on a farm. The lambs, which Bill sells whole to a few Los Angeles restaurants, including Gjelina, Salt's Cure and Mélisse, do not take the month off, nor does Barbara, who drives one of the farm's trucks down to L.A. every week for the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers markets.
"Because we eat our own food, we don't even think about it. After a while you take it for granted," says Barbara as she cores and slices heritage Northern Spy apples, eating a few as she goes. "We joke about going to Alpha Beta" for ingredients, she says, referencing a now-defunct supermarket chain. "But really we went to cooler No. 3, or just went out and picked stuff."
The Spencers came to farming, and to each other, relatively late in life. Barbara was a cellist in her 40s, having spent a career as a studio musician in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York, when she met Bill on a blind date. "Our second date was going to Costco and buying matching KitchenAid mixers." She points at the white mixer on the counter. "Eleven days after we met, we cooked a dinner for 30 people."
They bought the Paso Robles land in 1990 and got married a year later. The house where Barbara is now standing, filling an enormous salad bowl with red chickory, chard and minutina from the garden, "came down the road in two pieces." They stitched together their home, adding beams from Bill's parents' ranch in Templeton, a Lopi wood stove and a clawfoot bathtub, a back deck with a wood bench like a church pew.
Bill comes into the kitchen, trailing almond wood smoke from the outdoor smoker where baskets of the farm's tomatoes, chiles and garlic have been curing. He fiddles with the stereo equipment and soon Elvis Presley is singing Christmas carols on Pandora. "There's your friend," he says to his wife, who many years ago played cello for Presley shows in Las Vegas. (Also Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.)
Bill adjusts the straw cowboy hat on his head, locates a bowl and heads out again to gather herbs for the lamb marinade. He picks rosemary, mint, sage and bay leaves from bushes, pots and beds around the house and barn, then pauses to feed the sheep. This activity unfolds like a Monty Python skit, as Bill loads a golf cart with squash and takes a short ride down the lane, stopping to lob pumpkins into the field. "I make them run as far as I can throw," he says, as his flock zigzags across the grass. The other inhabitants of the field — a lone horse, two turkeys, three geese and three white Anatolian shepherd dogs — watch complacently.
Back in the kitchen, spiced cider (pressed on the farm from Windrose apples) bubbles in a yellow Le Creuset pot on the antique stove. Bill slices his own sourdough bread (baked in another Le Creuset) and plates it with a goat cheese dip that Barbara has made with their own smoked tomatoes and garlic. Bill grills the lamb chops on the stove-top, the kitchen filling with an intense, herb-laden perfume.
"The modern world has really messed up the natural rhythm," says the former studio musician as she pulls gratin dishes from an oven that's almost 100 years old. And when she talks about rhythm, you get a sense that she's talking about music, the farm and the life she's experienced for the last seven decades, all at the same time. Another holiday song comes over the speakers. The dog moves in her sleep on the hardwood floor. Outside, there's the sound of a car pulling up, then voices of the first guests arriving for dinner. And there is a beautiful natural rhythm to that.