If there were a summer produce category called “Most Likely to Disappoint,” I would nominate heirloom tomatoes. Their bright colors, quirky shapes, and eccentric names make them easy to fall for, but those features distract little from the fact that tomatoes make poor ambassadors for the traditional strains of plants known as heirlooms. Usually picked underripe, so they can do what they weren’t bred to do—travel—they too often fail to deliver the flavor promised by their price and reputation. In their stead, I might suggest a 19th-century French heirloom turnip called Vertus Marteau.
Mild, softly peppery, and recognizable in a general way, yet different from how I expected a turnip to taste, the vegetable enchanted me with its flavor, and forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about turnips. The Vertus Marteau was one of many heirloom vegetables—like French “Griselle” shallots and purple-and-white-speckled Dragon Tongue beans from Italy—introduced to me by Craig Lindquist, a home gardener with a passion for unappreciated produce. Part of a burgeoning movement of seed preservationists, Lindquist saves, trades, and propagates the seeds of older varieties of fruits and vegetables that have little or no presence in commercial markets. In doing so, he’s not only helping to preserve agricultural diversity, but also expanding the palette of flavors that local cooks like me have to work with.
The practice of chefs’ buying directly from farmers is a familiar one, especially in the Bay Area. Alice Waters has persuasively advocated the farm-to-table aesthetic since the early 1970s, and her success has encouraged a heightened level of chef-farmer connection here. For a long time, that relationship was simple: the farmer would grow, and the chef would buy. The two always met in the middle, but neither entered into nor entirely understood the other’s domain.
But that relationship is changing. As chefs learn more about the science of cooking, and as new technologies expand our ability to distill flavor, we’ve become increasingly aware that all of our cutting-edge techniques and gadgets can’t extract flavor that’s not present in an ingredient in the first place. There’s simply no way to make a supermarket carrot taste like a well-grown heirloom variety. At the same time, many chefs are realizing that there’s more to heirlooms than just tomatoes; that onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and almost every other vegetable available in commercial markets have numerous delicious and distinctive antecedents. As chefs look for novel and more vibrant flavors in forgotten vegetables, they’re seeking out like-minded farmers to grow them. And farmers, increasingly interested in seed preservation, are looking to chefs to provide a market for what they grow. As this new collaboration evolves, it’s becoming clear that the future of California cuisine isn’t just in the kitchen—it’s also in the field.
When Lindquistplanted his two-acre home garden in Kenwood six years ago, his goal was more than growing food to eat—he wanted a place where he could cultivate what he whimsically calls “vegetables of interest.” He was looking for strains that, as he puts it, “represent a felicitous match between one plant’s unique attributes and the alert sensibilities of past generations of farmers and cooks.” He’s troubled, he says, by a farming culture being pushed out by monolithic crops and residential developments. “My grandfather, who farmed in Iowa, grew up in a time when farmers saved and planted their own seeds. Farmers then weren’t interested in diversity; they preserved seeds out of necessity, because commercial seeds were too expensive. What’s new is the awareness that diversity needs to be preserved.”
Lindquist, who, when he’s not gardening, works as the medical director of a clinic in Marin, drops by my restaurant occasionally with fruits and vegetables, still warm from the Sonoma sun, usually with a note attached with brown twine, relating their history, genealogy, and culinary use. “Friggitello, Friariello, and Napoleatano sound like they might be characters in a Marx Brothers skit about a law firm,” one note read. “They are, however, several names for a unique frying pepper grown in southern Italy.” His stories, often laced with recipes, evoke Makah Indians growing Ozette potatoes in Washington in the 1700s; and Santa Rosa at the end of the 19th century, when Luther Burbank developed the Satsuma plum.
While these tales are fascinating, their impact would be diminished in the absence of equally intriguing flavor. Happily, the produce from Lindquist’s garden is stunning, even in a region known for the quality of its fruit and vegetables. Deeply perfumed Red Haven peaches; firm, nutty bintje potatoes; flowering cilantro, celerylike lovage, and borage covered with tiny blue blossoms; sweet, intensely flavored della Cascine fava beans; those beautiful Vertus Marteau turnips. Once Lindquist gave me three mature heirloom garlics—Red Toch from Russia; Inchelium, the oldest native American garlic; and Germinador, from France—each, according to his notes, with a different flavor profile. I had always thought of garlic as, well, garlic, so the chance to taste three distinct varieties, all grown in the same field by the same gardener, was one I couldn’t pass up.
Tasted raw, the Germinador was mellow and almost palatable, while the Inchelium was spicier and the Red Toch powerful, nearly overwhelming. When the garlic was cooked briefly in olive oil, the results were inverted: the flavor of the Germinador almost disappeared, while the Inchelium’s spiciness turned complex and full, and the aroma of the Red Toch became sweet, round, and enticing. Each type of garlic clearly had cooking applications for which it would be best suited; the dramatic variations of flavor in so basic an ingredient were revelatory.
Lindquist’s visits are part of a larger promotional strategy: by giving out samples of what he grows to chefs, he hopes to whet our appetites for produce grown from traditional seeds. “Chefs can leverage the market in a way that consumers can’t,” he says. “They can in turn go to farmers and influence what they grow.” As I unpack the day’s delivery, he tells me about the plant’s history, provenance, and culinary usages, his stories linking the pleasure of eating distinctively flavored produce to its cultural importance. “Brillat-Savarin [a famous 19th-century French culinary writer] once said that you first taste a dish with your eyes,” Lindquist tells me. “I would say that you first taste with what you know about something. Raising the literacy of a diner can powerfully influence what they taste.”
If this sounds like a familiar refrain, it is: the seed-saving movement, like the organic movement, grew out of a reaction to the post–World War II rise of industrial agriculture. Proponents of the two ideologies share a strong belief that they’re making the world a safer, healthier, tastier place. For Lindquist, like others who save seeds, preserving genetic diversity has implications that go far beyond flavor. As the climate continues to change, a diminishing gene pool means that we could lose the ability to breed plants that can adapt to the new conditions. Diversity also helps protect our food supply from the invasion of pathogens. When a crop becomes too genetically homogeneous, pests or an outbreak of disease can destroy the entire harvest, as famously happened in the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.
Still, in a culture increasingly interested in food, it seems more likely that the salvation of heirloom seeds lies in the distinctive flavors that traditional plants can express. Consider the story of the Vallarta bean, a legume from South America once on the verge of extinction. It was grown one year by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo in Napa, who farms heirloom beans from the Americas. Eric Ziebold, then chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, discovered Sando’s Vallartas at the Yountville farmers’ market and brought them back to the restaurant. “They’re now Thomas Keller’s favorite bean,” Sando tells me, “so I’ll always grow them.”
Sando, one of the most locally prominent of these new-generation farmers, came of age during the Bay Area food revolution and combines an understanding of the cultural importance of ingredients with a sophisticated appreciation of cuisine. Seeds are to farmers what vegetables are to chefs: ingredients, raw materials waiting to be transformed. On farms, as in kitchens, talent is not uniformly distributed, and many a good seed has been turned into bland, flavorless produce over the years. Sando, like Lindquist, is a very good grower, and makes a strong qualitative argument that, while the seeds matter, the imagination and skill of the grower are just as important. For chefs, this new breed of farmer—tied to tradition, but not set in his ways—might be the ideal partner.
Jeff Dawson, a wine country–based garden consultant who was one of the first to sell heirloom tomatoes in the late 1980s, fits that description perfectly. In the plot he oversees at Round Pond Estate in Rutherford, I tasted extraordinary yellow wax beans, a variant of Early Girl tomatoes grown from seeds he inherited from his father, and some delicious tomatoes that he bred himself. I was also delighted to find flowering cilantro. Over the years, I’ve asked many farmers to let the plants bolt, at which point their leaves become feathery and dill-like in appearance, they sprout tiny white flowers, and soon thereafter they set green seeds that taste like a cross between cilantro and their dried form, coriander. In this state, the herb is at its most exciting, its culinary possibilities extensive. But farmers, like chefs, can be stubborn, and they declined my request, preferring to harvest the clearly defined “market standard” that they were familiar with. Dawson, who lets his herbs flower before turning them under, thinks that as a plant transitions from its earth phase to its astral phase, reaching from the ground toward the sky, its flavor changes accordingly. This may sound a little mystical, but it’s true that cilantro’s leaf and its aroma become more delicate and ethereal as the plant reaches the end of its life.
Some local chefs who are obsessed with the quality of their ingredients have begun to work with growers like Dawson, who balance respect for traditional gardening practices with an understanding of the culinary value of the plant across its entire growing cycle. Thomas Keller’s skill as a cook is a common topic of conversation among food lovers and restaurant critics, yet few seem to know about the garden just across the street from his restaurant, where Dawson grows 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, or that Keller has a network of farmers who grow to his precise specifications. My friend David Kinch, chef-owner of Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, has a biodynamic garden where he works alongside his gardener, Cynthia Sandberg, cultivating unusual vegetables like ficoïde glaciale (also called ice plant), a crunchy succulent. Kinch uses it in a dish he calls In the Vegetable Garden…, which includes more than 40 kinds of raw and cooked leaves, flowers, and stems.
You’re paying not only for impeccable kitchen technique at these restaurants, but also for innovation that begins in the garden. A few years ago, Kinch cooked a meal at Le Bernardin in New York. For dessert, he made a black-tea gelée with eight kinds of mandarin oranges he procured from a specialty citrus grower. “The New Yorkers snickered at first,” he tells me, “thinking this was quaint California cuisine—fruit salad. But they were blown away by the distinct flavors and textures of each kind of mandarin, and the way they interacted with the taste of the tea. Seed preservation offers another way to give a dish complexity.”
In other restaurants, the search for authentic flavors often leads back to a plant’s ancestral roots, a trend that’s helping expand the spectrum of locally available produce. Nate Appleman’s menu at A16 includes Friariello peppers, the same variety that Lindquist wrote so vividly about, grown for him by Andy Griffin at Mariquita Farm from seeds brought back from Italy by Appleman’s business partner. The peppers are showing up at farmers’ markets, joining a growing array of traditional strains of eggplant, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables.
Unfortunately, heirlooms haven’t made much of a dent in mainstream grocery stores. Many traditional varieties of vegetables are harder to ship, have lower yields, and are more expensive to grow, especially organically. A rethinking of large-scale agribusiness operations doesn’t seem imminent. But I continue to hope for a day when, thanks to the work of growers like Lindquist, Sando, and Dawson, the carrot bin at my local supermarket will include slots for varieties like Nantes, Chantenais, and Thumbelina; when traditional garlics like Red Toch, Inchelium, and Germinador will supplant the harsh, one-dimensional commercial strains now offered. Maybe someday, we’ll even see Vallarta beans on the shelves.
Living and cooking in the city, it’s easy to forget that the emotional value of food lies not only in its cultural traditions, but also in its connection to nature. When I visited Dawson at his garden, I was reminded of the visceral joy of snapping green beans from the vine and pulling carrots from the dirt. I brought some of Sando’s beans that I’d cooked the night before, and combined them in a salad with vegetables I picked from the garden. We ate at a picnic table and talked about gardening, vegetables, and food. It was as satisfying a meal as I’ve had in some time, and as I savored the flavors, I had an idea for a dish that might capture the moment. A salad of just-picked raw Dragon Tongue beans, ripe piquillo peppers, and tiny squash, all thinly sliced, covered with a translucent sheet of tomato gelée and flowering cilantro. I imagined the taste of the soft gel enlivening the crisp vegetables, the gentle whisper of cilantro flowers, and the pop of the seeds: traditional ingredients combined with modern technique, moving toward the future by digging into the past.