Residents barter garden surplus with top chefs and food producers
Continuing our year-long series about relationships between local farms and restaurants
BY SARAH HENRY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN JOLIN
For Christine Hwang and Tim Drew, it started with an abundance of honey. Then they moved on to herbs and root vegetables, which they bike down to barter for meals at a beloved neighborhood restaurant, Camino in Oakland. Urban farmer Novella Carpenter trades the Mexican herb epazote for her favorite fish tacos at Cosecha, also in Oakland. Berkeley preserver June Taylor has long-standing trade relationships with local fruit tree growers who swap their surplus citrus and stone fruit for her luscious jams.
Others trade eggs. This writer has bartered her homegrown Meyer lemons with chefs at Juhu Beach Club, Cosecha, The Cook and Her Farmer, and Phoenix Pastificio. Preeti Mistry at Juhu juices them for her signature lemonade or makes preserves, as does Dominica Rice at Cosecha. Chef Nani Steele at The Cook and Her Farmer slices them to garnish oyster platters; Eric Sartenaer at Phoenix uses them for pasta.
In places like Berkeley and Oakland, these kinds of transactions are becoming commonplace as many backyard growers simply enjoy seeing the fruits of their labor put to good use. In this stellar growing area, residents often find themselves with a glut of greens, heaps of herbs, or a prolific persimmon tree. Sharing the excess with local chefs and food producers makes sense. It enhances menu options and cuts down on food waste. It’s not about making a buck, though the barter is a nice perk. These growers welcome the chance to contribute to a hyper-local harvest and appreciate the sense of connectedness they feel in the simple act of sharing.
It’s a goodwill garden trade where no money—just pounds of produce—changes hands. A delicious dinner or beautiful bottle of preserves in exchange for the bounty is a bonus.
Beyond a hobby: Garden barter creates community
Back in 2007, Hwang and Drew realized they had a major oversupply of honey from productive hives at their home on the Oakland/Piedmont border. Why not share the golden nectar with their favorite local restaurant, Camino on Grand Avenue? The couple, who don’t own a car, love that they can walk there. At this restaurant, with its communal tables, wood-burning oven, and wide-open kitchen, former longtime Chez Panisse café chef Russell Moore and his wife, Allison Hopelain, have blazed a trail for this city’s dining boom with produce-centric, open-fire-cooked food that’s beloved by critics and locals alike.
Hopelain and Moore, who live in Richmond, sampled the honey, dubbed it divine, and promptly found a home for it on their drinks and desserts menus. In conversation with Hwang and Drew, Moore learned that the two have serious green thumbs. The chef talked to the couple about his fondness for herbs and rattled off a fantasy list he’d welcome having in his kitchen on a regular basis. Anise hyssop, lovage, borage, summer savory, fenugreek, chervil, and Persian mint were in the mix. So was nepitella, an Italian herb, which Moore calls “a really weird one that tastes like poison mixed with oregano. It adds an interesting intensity.”
Fast-forward about six months and Hwang showed up at the restaurant with Moore’s wish-list herbs, a small bunch of each. “It blew my mind,” says Moore, who had forgotten about his request. “I knew right then I had to go see where they live, so Allison and I took a little field trip. They have this crazy, messy garden out back. It’s not a vanity project, it’s an actual farm and they work their asses off. It’s just awesome.”
Hwang says Moore nibbled his way through the garden, asking questions along the way. Hopelain, who likes borage, spotted some and excitedly asked how much they had. “[Hopelain] came up with a cocktail with sparkling wine and borage leaves,” Hwang says. “She has some seriously great taste buds.”
Moore, who was a produce buyer when he cooked upstairs at Chez Panisse, politely quizzed the backyard growers to see if they were in sync with his philosophy around growing greens. They are: The couple uses no chemical inputs, such as pesticides or fertilizers. Their garden is an all-organic operation.
So began a seven-year relationship that has evolved into a more formal barter arrangement. Hwang and Drew now grow a thriving and esoteric list of herbs for Moore, as well as weighty root vegetables such as sunchokes. In return, the couple receives credit, based on poundage, which they apply to meals at Camino.
Moore’s ingredient-driven menu is a perfect fit for spontaneous inclusion of quirky, super-fresh herbs. A meal might begin with wood oven–baked oysters with absinthe, bread crumbs, and fennel salad, or grilled asparagus with sheep’s milk cheese and fresh turmeric. His skill as a cook, natural curiosity, and palate honed from more than three decades as a chef, make him an ideal participant in this edible experiment.
|Russell Moore’s Favorite Locally Grown HerbsAnise hyssop: An aromatic herb with a minty, lightly bitter taste. Used by beekeepers in honey. Used in salad dressings at Camino and to lightly perfume a whole petrale sole with its delicate, slightly licorice scent.
Borage: An annual with pretty blue flowers that have a sweet, honey-like flavor. Edible leaves offer a cucumber-like flavor. Used in salads, as a garnish, and in cocktails.
Chervil: A delicate annual that pairs well with seafood and salad such as Camino’s butter lettuce salad with radishes.
Lovage: A tall perennial often used in salads and soups, lovage is similar in flavor and scent to celery. Camino adds it to a tequila cocktail with lemon, gum syrup, and dry vermouth, or their almond-lovage gremolata that accompanies grilled squid with smoky eggplant and beets.
Summer savory: An annual used in salads and soups, to dress poultry, and mix with ground pork in sausages. It’s one of the characteristic ingredients in the dried blend herbes de Provence. At Camino, summer savory is used with beans, tomatoes, fresh garbanzos, and fish that’s been marinated and grilled.
“Russ is unique. Not every restaurant owner is up for something like this,” says Hwang. “You have to trust each other and you have to be pretty talented to work with what you get on a moment’s notice. He’s open, willing to explore weird stuff. He’s very creative.”
Hwang likes to learn about and try growing obscure plants. For Moore, this is one of the pleasures of partnering with Hwang and Drew, since these discoveries can elevate a dish, cocktail, or dessert on his menu. For instance, yacón, a sweet and juicy South American tuber similar to jicama, finds its way from Hwang and Drew’s garden into the regular rotation of Camino salads. On the other hand, mashua, a South American tuber with edible leaves and flowers, gives off a funky flavor that Moore has—yet—to find a home for. Hwang, who originally hails from Singapore but mostly grew up in Southern California, is curious about odd things like blue fenugreek, papalo, and epazote, which she says “happens to be about the hippest herb to grow right now.”
The informal arrangement with Hwang and Drew has become more structured over the years. Moore wanted to feel okay about asking for specific herbs, and he wanted these urban farmers to invoice for their effort so they would receive a little perk in exchange for their work. They have day jobs; this is a therapeutic side interest. She’s a program evaluation administrator for First 5 Alameda County. He’s a regulatory analyst for the California Public Utilities Commission. For the record, these government employees declare their barter relationship on their tax forms.
At the height of the growing season, Hwang might pedal down twice a week to deliver to Camino; during winter the drop-offs are less frequent. Of course, Moore sources the bulk of his produce from seasoned local farmers, and he frequents four farmers’ markets.
Hwang and Drew don’t just grow for Camino: On their quarter-acre plot they raise food for themselves. (It’s the home Drew grew up in that he now shares with his partner and mother.) They rarely need to buy greens, and they have 300 strawberry plants in the ground. A wander through their garden reveals a celery plant here, an asparagus patch there. “When I go to the grocery store I buy yogurt, a six pack of beer, eggs, and meat,” jokes Drew, who worked as a dishwasher at Chez Panisse in the 1980s and toyed with a culinary career. He credits his mom for sparking his interest in gardening. As a kid he used to help pick weeds and collect snails.
The pair also garden on a neighbor’s land, with the owner’s blessing. A formerly overgrown mass of weeds with a different microclimate from their backyard, it’s now a jumble of herbs, greens, and other edibles—and a home for beehives. “I like the idea of a smaller radius for what we eat both at home and in our restaurants,” says Hwang. “You can grow a lot of food in a small space.”
Moore, whose Camino cookbook is forthcoming this October, introduced the couple to Dominica Rice at Cosecha, who began using their epazote in her moles at the popular Swan’s Market Mexican-California restaurant in Old Oakland. Rice, another Chez Panisse alum, also sources the herb from Novella Carpenter of GhostTown Farm in West Oakland. Carpenter delivers her harvest via bike as well. “Dominica is very flexible, she works with me, she doesn’t expect me to be like a big farm,” says Carpenter, who also barters radishes and onions with Rice. “I just have small quantities of very high-quality product. I love bartering with Cosecha because I love the restaurant: The fish tacos are so good and [daughter] Frannie loves the beans. It’s a win-win.” Rice agrees. “I really appreciate the fact that Novella cares as much as I do about bringing indigenous herbs and vegetables back to California,” she says. “Sometimes she surprises us with something like a hard to find melon that Mexicans make into candy.”
It’s about more than great produce though. “I love the connections, that Russ, Allison, and their staff know us,” says Hwang. “When I bring stuff down I get this gauntlet of hugs from the front to the back of the kitchen.” Drew values the relationship, too. “We’re probably losing money if you factor in the water and the time. But we’re not in this to make money,” he explains. “I appreciating learning about the herbs and using them in our own cooking. I’ve learned from a great chef how to make a salad dressing that approximates one they do at Camino with our herbs like anise hyssop, summer savory, and lovage. We have friends who call it crack salad. It’s really tasty.”
East Bay residents’ excess citrus supply in high demand
June Taylor, the East Bay’s reigning queen of fruit preserves, has an extensive barter network. Some relationships—with both trees and residents—are decades long. Taylor’s exquisite jams, marmalades, and confections often feature unusual fruits that might come via the barter system. One customer trades Rangpur limes from her tree in Palo Alto. This year’s bounty yielded over 50 pounds of fruit. “I used to climb the tree,” notes Taylor, whose Still-Room is located in Berkeley. “Now the fruit is FedExed to me. I make marmalades—this year Rangpur lime and ginger—and candy the peel.”
Taylor has traded quince with a woman for more than 15 years. “The trees are at her late mother’s house. The fruit comes from very old trees that have spawned younger trees,” says Taylor. “We have become friends through our shared love of quince and we trade for the enjoyment of both of our labors.”
She has longtime traders in Berkeley for the ubiquitous Meyer lemon, beloved for its sweetness and smooth skin. Friends harvest herbs such as Sonoma bay, Mediterranean bay, and lemon geranium, and pass them along to Tayor. In return, the preserver gives them items made with their bounty, such as syrups, ketchups, and poached pears.
Last year, through her extensive network of fruit-loving friends, Taylor located an oversupply of the uncommon Ponderosa lemon, whose floral skins are perfect for candied peels. Someone else brought a bunch of limequats; she candies the skins of those, too, so there’s zero waste. Taylor gets encouraging feedback on her final product. “I got 40 pounds of Seville oranges from the back garden tree of a former colleague at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. He called me to thank me for transforming his fruit into something sublime. That makes me happy.” And heads up backyard farmers: She’s always on the lookout and hungry for unusual stone fruits, including Satsuma plums, greengages, and mirabelles.
Anyone who knows Taylor and her products is aware of her work ethic and exacting standards. She won’t take just any old fruit and appreciates that barterers can accommodate requests for certain stages of ripeness or size. Like Chef Moore, Taylor has a conversation about garden practices before she’ll even consider an exchange. A proponent of no chemicals, sprays, insecticides, fungicides, or other artificial inputs, she only works with backyard gardeners whose thinking aligns with her own.
One longtime lemon-trading partner has a sense of humor about the collaboration. “My relationship with June has survived my divorce, my new marriage, and a move to my parents’ house in the lower Berkeley Hills, where the Meyer lemon tree we trade with her for is located,” says the resident, who requested anonymity. The garden now has two Meyer lemon trees that produce year-round. This spring the trees produced more than 97 pounds of fruit that went to Taylor. The relationship offers many tangible benefits. “First, we really like June as a friend. Also, we have found her products are great gifts, which promote local goods,” says her barter partner. “I personally would probably not spend that much for a bottle of ketchup, but since we have credit with her, I do enjoy it. We get to try out her new products, and we could not possibly use up all of our lemons personally, so it’s a great outlet for them.”
It goes beyond sharing and eliminating waste.
“There’s something about an exchange—it’s like gifting each other—that feels very different from a market-based transaction,” explains Hwang. “We profit greatly in other ways: from the joy we experience in the garden and from eating really great meals. What’s not to love about that?”