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Local Heroes 2010

Edible East Bay holds its annual Local Hero Awards voting as part of its involvement with Edible Communities, Inc. The announcements of the winners from each of our 70+ regional Edible Communities magazines help to raise broader awareness of the achievements by small to mid-sized businesses in reinvigorating the traditions of local food production.

bakerIn our East Bay voting this year, Sean Baker, head chef at Gather restaurant in Berkeley, took the Chef/Restaurant Award by a landslide. That decision comes on the heels of Esquire magazine’s award to Baker as its Chef of the Year, making one wonder if readers were just hopping on a bandwagon. But we concur that Gather’s food is exceptional, as is the restaurant’s entire execution of the sustainability-focused concept. Click here for the full article on Gather from our Summer 2010 issue.

(Sean Baker. Photo by Travis Smith)

brahm

Nonprofit Organization was another category where there was a clear Local Hero winner. We are very pleased to be giving this award to Brahm Ahmadi for his work with People’s Grocery and the soon-to-be People’s Community Market in West Oakland. Read more about Ahmadi’s work in our article about the Slow Money movement here in this issue.

Photo of Brahm Ahmadi at right by Stacy Ventura.

Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth received votes in several categories, but pulled the highest numbers in the Beverage Artisan category. Here’s a brief story about their beverages:

Three Stone Hearth’s Fountain of Ferment

Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth community-supported kitchen and worker-owned cooperative makes and sells a line of nutritionally dense prepared foods. Among their offerings is an impressive array of beverages, including no less than five flavors of kombucha, a fermented tea drink known for its probiotic content and digestive health benefits. Kombucha flavors include green tea, black tea, hibiscus, the ever-popular ginger-lime, and for the more adventurous drinkers, stinging nettle. There’s also a newer lacto-fermented line of coolers, similar to kombucha, but using honey in place of sugar, cultured with whey (made from Straus yogurt), and hydrosols (aromatic waters made on local farms by distilling flowers or leaves). A third, lesser-known drink brewed here is beet kvass. Made of raw beets, whey, sea salt, and water, kvass is considered a tonic and blood cleanser.

Although still very much on the fringe in the American diet, fermented beverages have, in recent years, gained a niche market. Any Whole Foods Market or other commercial health food store is guaranteed to carry at least one mass-marketed brand of kombucha.

“What’s interesting to me is how many cultures have lacto-fermentation as part of their society,” says Jessica Prentice, a Three Stone Hearth co-founder. She notes that while beer has become the dominant commercial fermented beverage, other more nutrient-dense drinks have a long-established presence in culinary practices throughout the world.

“It’s actual nourishment and calories,” she adds. “People would drink their medicine.”

On a recent visit to the Three Stone Hearth kitchen, I find worker Otto Thorsen in the back room, positioned between two industrial freezers and a long row of empty mason jars, engaged in experiments of the sort that would have made Mr. Wizard proud.

With scientific precision and dedicated focus, the young man mixes, sifts, measures, and closely observes large vats of fermenting liquid. He has just finished a batch of twice-fermented Earl Grey brew and is carefully transferring it from jars into reused glass bottles, which customers will pick up later in the week. Floating at the top of the liquid in each jar is the SCOBY, a large, mushroom-like mass of bacteria and yeast, kombucha’s ethereal key ingredient.

“I’ve been making beverages for the better part of my life,” Thorsen says. With experience as a barista and juicer, he was recently finishing a fine arts degree when the beverage-fermentation craft piqued his interest. The creative process combined with the health benefits, he says, is what drew him in. He now builds upon recipes and practices developed by Larry Wisch, a “mad scientist” and one of Three Stone Hearth’s founders, who devoted countless kitchen hours toward creating the perfect fermented drinks.

“It’s like the original soda,” Thorsen says. “Liquids are just such an integral part of our lives.”

—Matthew Green

The other two winners were chosen by our editorial staff based on a variety of factors, including sheer excellence of their products, the importance of these products to the East Bay foodshed, and the contributions they make as leaders or pioneers in the redevelopment of regional agriculture and food production.

Local Hero Award: Farmer/Farm

Lily Schneider and Matthew Mccue
Shooting Star CSA

shootingstarLast spring I learned about two young people, Lily Schneider and Matthew Mccue, who were starting an organic vegetable farm in the Suisun Valley. Impressed with the bravery of starting a farm from scratch right in the middle of a recession, I signed up with their Shooting Star CSA (community-supported agriculture) program to see what they could do.

What ensued was six months of healthy eating. Each time I picked up that box it was bursting with lettuce, eggplants, tomatoes, corn, beans, Swiss chard, broccoli, herbs, potatoes, beets, and you name it. It was like opening a birthday gift. I was reminded of what every CSA member learns again and again: that nature is bountiful (especially when coaxed along with loving hands) and that when we eat directly from that bounty, we are likely to enjoy much more variety than when we simply shop for ourselves.

My favorites among the Shooting Star vegetables were the alliums, which started with green garlic and spring onions in June, followed by mature garlic through the rest of the season, along with scallions, red onions (both round and torpedo-shaped), white onions, yellow onions, and finally leeks in November. When I asked Matt and Lily “Why all the alliums?” I was told, “they are the most fun to grow.” But clearly, the two love everything they grow on their 10 organic acres.

Matt and Lily rent their land and did not grow up farming. Lily, who was raised in Berkeley, says she always enjoyed gardening with her parents and upon graduating from the UC Santa Cruz Environmental Planning and Sustainable Agriculture program made a commitment to herself that she would “grow lots of food for lots of people.” Matt became interested in farming while serving military duty in Iraq and Korea, where he “saw people trying to survive and thrive” off the land. “Power comes from the soil,” he states.

They searched all over Northern California for a good site, and were wandering around the countryside just northwest of Fairfield when they had the idea to simply knock on the door at a former walnut farm. The landowners were pleased at the possibility of their land going back into production, and so Matt and Lily landed very close by Lily’s childhood home. In the 2010 season, they served 150 families in Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Fairfield, Benicia, Vacaville, and San Francisco, plus more when you count patrons at their farmers market stands. In 2011 they will be expanding from 10 to 15 acres and hope to reach 225 families through the CSA program.

“A lot of kids are getting to eat good food from this farm,” Matt says proudly.

When asked if they sensed that any of the well-established CSA farms felt threatened by their entrance into that arena, Lily and Matt said that it has been the opposite, and that they felt welcomed and encouraged. They too hope more young people will join them in the movement to produce good organic food within easy reach of our urban area.

“If you see a good piece of land, just knock on the door and ask if you can farm it,” says Matt.

—Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Local Hero Award: Food Artisan

John Fiscalini of Fiscalini Cheese Company

Photo of John Fiscalini by Juliana Uruburufiscalini

The East Bay is not a dairy region, but we are blessed to have the producers of some excellent cheeses very close by. Fiscalini Cheese Company, located just beyond our East Bay borders in Modesto, is a favorite with Juliana Uruburu, cheese program director at the Pasta Shop.

Juliana: I always have a selection of Fiscalini cheeses at my cheese counter. Their 18-month Bandage Wrapped Cheddar, San Joaquin Gold, and Scamorza [smoked farmstead mozzarella] are some of the best cheeses being made in California. John Fiscalini is a fifth-generation California dairyman with Swiss-Italian ancestry. It’s clear that he’s been looking back to his past to make cheese this good. His master cheese-maker, Mariano Gonzalez, brings his dreams to life.

Edible East Bay: Has the family always made cheese?

Juliana: No. They began making cheese just a decade ago. Before that they sold fluid milk. The quality of the milk from their family-operated dairy is exceptional and delicious. It has to do with the breed, but also with what they feed the cows and the way they treat them. It’s a “certified humane” operation. They fluff the cows’ beds twice a day. I had the pleasure of visiting the farm several times this year, so I could see for myself.

Edible East Bay: But why is Fiscalini a hero?

Juliana: John has stepped up to green his operation with a methane digester that produces all the electricity they need to run the farm. He gives his time as president of the California Cheese and Butter Association in support of the California dairy community. He gets involved and walks the talk.

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