Growing their own food in a biodynamic setting, the restaurants of Sondra Bernstein are reminders of what food and service free from manipulation can add to your dining experience.
At the girl & the fig restaurants in Northern California’s wine country, the French passion for gathering around a table and enjoying good wine as part of the resonance of the meal provides a memorable experience. It is also quite fitting, as the sprawling vineyard-dotted hills, small one-family farms, local cheese makers and lavender growers of the region long ago earned the area its billing as a sister city of Provence.
The girl — proprietor and CEO of the girl & the fig and Estate restaurants in Sonoma and the fig café & winebar in Glen Ellen — Sondra Bernstein, describes her restaurants’ fare as “approachable, simple food with a lot of flavor. Food that is not very manipulated and that will give you a sense of place.”
Ironically, this description can also be applied to Bernstein herself, whose friendly, easy-going personality earns her easy friends — patrons leave feeling they have befriended her, a staff member shares. Yet, beneath her unassuming demeanor is a powerhouse constantly generating new projects.
Since leaving nearby Viansa Winery in the mid-90s — she worked in restaurant management in Los Angeles and Philadelphia prior — Bernstein has not only opened three restaurants, but has written two books, the girl & the fig Cookbook and Plats Du Jour: the girl & the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country; opened a catering business; started producing her own wine; established a line of gourmet foods; opened a space called Sweet D, where she and others hold events and gatherings; created a new line of pickling spices; and has struck a deal with the well-known Benziger wine family to share a plot of land and maintain a small farm called Imagery Garden at the family’s Imagery Estate Winery off Sonoma Highway near the tiny town of Glen Ellen.
Of all the projects that keep her life and those of her staff awhirl, learning to farm has been one of the most surprising.
“I now understand the physical aspect of farming,” says Bernstein, “not just the price part.”
The restaurants’ fruit and vegetables have always been sourced locally. Many local farmers are featured in Bernstein’s Plats Du Jour book. Yet tending the vegetables and herbs and the small orchard at Imagery Gardens as well as a half-acre vegetable garden adjacent to one of the restaurants and raised beds at another (about 2 acres total), Bernstein and restaurant staff members have had the opportunity to work the soil and get a true sense of the farm-to-table experience.
Two thousand pounds of tomatoes were harvested last year. This year, 300 tomato plants were planted, including heirloom varieties grown from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company seeds. These include Pineapple, Cherokee Purple and Violet Jasper. Originally from China, Violet Jasper is a prolific producer renowned for its violet-purple fruit and iridescent green stripes. The sweet Pineapple tomato can reach up to 2 pounds and has red marbling within its yellow flesh. Cherokee Purple, a common heirloom gardener’s favorite, dates back to the late 1800s and is loved for its deep, dusky purple-pink color and sweet, old-time tomato flavor.
The girl & the fig’s executive chef John Toulze rolls up his sleeves and works at Imagery Garden as much as he can and plans to save seeds from this year’s tomato crop.
“To me, tomatoes are a fall crop,” says Toulze. The area’s long Indian summer, which can go well into October, makes for continued tomato picking sometimes into November.
Yet, never knowing quite when harvest time will be, one year, Toulze and the rest of the culinary staff found themselves blessed with too much bounty at once. “That year,” says Toulze, “we did real sundried tomatoes and canned tomatoes.”
The year prior, they produced pickled green tomatoes and green tomato jam, the weather not quite providing the robust harvest anticipated.
“The garden has really taught me seasonality,” says Toulze. “Until the farm, I had no idea what it was. It’s a point in time. It’s what is producing (in the garden) versus ‘it’s sour cherry season’.”
Toulze adds that the farm has given the culinary staff a better appreciation for the ingredients they use, their availability, and how seasonality dictates the dishes they create.
In addition to tomatoes, the farm produces lettuces, chard, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, beets, peas, beans, peppers, squash, eggplant, rhubarb, strawberries, apricots, pears, pomegranates, persimmons, and, of course, figs — the restaurants' namesake. Bernstein’s favorite is Brown Turkey, dried or fresh.
There are also several varieties of heirloom radishes — a regular on the menus — including Icicle, a small white radish with a crisp texture and mild peppery flavor; Daikon, a pure white Japanese radish with a mild flavor; and Black Spanish, a good keeper with a black skin and tender white flesh.
Fava beans are also a favorite farm pick. They’re steamed in their pods in a wood- fire oven. Also, fresh-picked padron peppers make for a simple dish, sautéed in a skillet with a little olive oil and sea salt. These can be quite spicy — you just never know from one bunch to the next — and patrons are forewarned, Bernstein shares.
Growing their own produce at the farm has an impact on what needs to be purchased to round out the menus, she adds, but it is still only 10 percent of the total ingredients needed to accommodate the three restaurants.
Plans to plant more fruits and vegetables and additional varieties are in the works, says Toulze, yet the restaurants will continue to support local farmers, purchasing directly, at farmers’ markets and from local farm-to-kitchen-door distributors.
Bernstein, Toulze, the rest of the culinary staff, a local landscape business, and a number of farm helpers tend Imagery Garden in collaboration with Imagery Estate Winery, which uses a biodynamic approach to farming. As Toulze describes it, he and the girl & the fig are “a spoke in the wheel” of this holistic form of agriculture.
The Benziger-owned winery’s commitment to biodynamic agriculture, which includes the girl & the fig Imagery Garden, is strong. The property is Demeter Certified, a certification provided by the world’s only certifier of biodynamic agriculture practices.
Biodynamic agriculture is the highest level of organic farming, according to the girl & the fig blog, going way beyond just refraining from the use of pesticides. It incorporates an understanding of “dynamic forces” in nature, not yet fully understood by science. By working with these subtle energies, farmers are able to significantly enhance the health of their farms and the quality and flavor of food.
Some of these “forces,” the Demeter Association website explains, “include climate, inherent wildlife of the earth (above and below the ground), the light and warmth from the sun, and the more distant astronomical influences. Biodynamic agriculture attempts to harmonize all of these factors within a holistic, living-farm system. The food that results is very pure and true to its essence and provides deeply penetrating nutrition that is essential to an increasingly unhealthy human population.”
Biodynamic practices at Imagery Garden are carefully illustrated in the girl & the fig blog and include nourishing the soil with organic fertilizers, attracting beneficial insects by planting nearby companion gardens, and drawing helpful rodent-hunting birds, such as owls, by providing shelter.
One example of biodynamic practice at Imagery Garden is the use of nitrogen and oyster shell lime to boost the soil’s water solubility, promote healthy root growth, and create an optimal calcium and pH balance.
The soil’s fertility is also enhanced with the use of compost, sometimes in the form of compost teas, as well as careful crop rotation, and green manure (a cover crop that provides nutrients and organic matter), adds Toulze.
Insectary gardens have also been planted along the borders of Imagery Garden, attracting 10 times more beneficial insects including bees, beneficial species of soldier beetles, ladybugs, hover flies, caterpillars, and parasitic wasps.
These gardens include lavender, butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii), several varieties of roses, rosemary, lemon balm, and thyme, yet the particular plants are not as important, according to the girl & the fig blog, as having an assortment of plants of different heights and blossom sizes from spring to fall to provide ideal living conditions for the most beneficial insect species.
Fall at Imagery Garden brings potatoes: Yukon Gold, German Butterball, and French fingerlings, to name a few; as well as a variety of heirloom squash, including Delicata, with its striped skin and buttery taste that surpasses acorn and butternut in flavor; Kabocha, sometimes called a “Japanese pumpkin,” which has a hard, deep green skin yet succulent, naturally sweet flesh likened in flavor and texture to a cross between a sweet potato and a pumpkin; and Sugar Pie Pumpkin, the traditional orange, sweet and fine-grained pumpkin best for roasting and cooking.
“As a chef,” says Toulze, “you take this (food fresh from the farm) so for granted. You just order what you want. I now have a respect for how hard farming truly is and how rewarding it is. (Having the farm) has made us better purchasers. I also have so much more respect for what farmers do.”
Other fall favorites at Imagery Garden are pears — Syrah Poached Pears are a girl & the fig favorite — persimmons, and pomegranates. Whole pomegranate seeds are tossed into salads and their juice is used to create cocktail syrups. To eliminate the tannic taste in fresh-pressed pomegranate juice, Toulze puts pomegranate seeds in a vacuum-sealed bag in the freezer before pressing. After frozen, the bag of seeds is set out to defrost; they are then pressed to get the juice out. Last year’s crop yielded 80 pounds of pomegranates, Toulze adds.
Tomatoes, of course, are also a favorite fall crop at Imagery Garden. The Jersey Tomato Bernstein remembers from her childhood back East is what she craves each tomato season, she says. But she’s finding some new favorites among the California-grown heirlooms. “Like the Plats Du Jour cookbook, which shows the evolution of the girl & the fig since 2003, we are constantly learning and being passionate about other things.”
Susan Audrey is a Northern California writer, editor, and photographer specializing in articles about gardening, farming and sustainability. Her articles frequently appear on the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company website at www.rareseeds.com
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