Welcome to our first Heirloom Chat – a new series of conversations with the Warriors of Heirloom Flavors: Seed savers, farmers, artisans, chefs, brewers and food producers, who enthusiastically embrace and promote heirloom varieties and their flavorful, often quirky characteristics within their daily work.
First up is Sara Gasbarra (pictured on the right), founder of Verdura, a Chicago-based company who works with restaurants and hotels, such as Palmer House Hilton, Floriole and Farmhouse, to design, install and tend onsite culinary gardens. Knowledgeable and enthusiastic, with deep relationships to farmers and chefs cultivated during her tenure as Founder/Chair of Green City Market’s Junior Board, as well as Project Manager of The Edible Gardens, she offers restaurants the opportunity to engage their green thumb through an onsite garden that bring the harvest home, making the trip from ground to plate a short one. These interests led her to Slow Food Chicago where she currently serves as a board member. Follow her work on Instagram (@SaraGasbarra).
Make sure to read our conversations with other “Warriors of Flavors” and their work with heirlooms in our other blogposts!
LEE: Sara, it sounds as if the interest in real food was injected into us by the same culture. For me, it was my experience living and working in Italy for five years. You grew up with an Italian father that instilled in you the love of gardening.
SARA: Growing up in the suburbs, it was unusual to have a garden, at least in my neighborhood. And in my family’s garden, we were growing pretty straightforward, traditional crops common to an Italian kitchen—tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet peppers, eggplant – all things that my father used often in cooking. Some of them were probably heirlooms, I’m certain. I recall growing sungold tomatoes, which are considered heirloom, but at the time, I really didn’t know that.
LEE: That is the most perfect description of what an heirloom is: an everyday item that we cherish, that is connected to our family and the generations before us. One that inspires happy memories. Gardening with your father must be a great memory in itself.
SARA: I really became excited about gardening when I was in high school. It really began with my first subscription to Martha Stewart Living magazine, which always had really great features on all sorts of gardening topics, especially vegetable gardening. It was then that I discovered there was more out there beyond the traditional things that my family had been growing; cauliflower, unusual melons, winter squash. So that’s when I began experimenting with new varieties. With Verdura, I really enjoy getting my clients excited about growing something unique in their restaurant garden. For example, this season I grew an heirloom Purple Coban Tomatillo for Palmer House Hilton with seeds sourced from Baker Creek Seed Company. Palmer House, one of my largest projects, is fantastic to work with because we have the space to experiment with lots of fun and unusual stuff, including some rare heirloom varieties.
LEE: Baker Creek is a great heirloom seed source. They actually travel the world to build their collection of heirloom seeds. I personally love the Seed Savers Exchange, every seed they have in their catalog has a story and was given to them by someone who wanted to share their family history. Then there are smaller companies like Terroir Seeds or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Or Franchi – their catalog includes many Italian heirloom seeds. Catalogs aside, you’ve just touched on the most difficult topic when it comes to propagating heirloom varieties: they are more difficult to grow than their modern counterparts. The loss of flavor aside, there are reasons hybrids were invented in the first place, such as ease of cultivation, better yield. For a farmer that has to make a living, that is important stuff. Our signature heirloom variety is the Beaver Dam Pepper. Our farmers have been growing it for five years now and we’re still learning how to grow it. Every year is different. If you’re growing on a rooftop in the middle of Chicago with limited space and restaurants are looking for their ingredients, crop failure is not really an option, I assume.
SARA: Chefs want to grow something that is beautiful, unique, hard to find and super flavorful. They aren’t necessarily thinking “heirloom” when we sit down to meet and develop their crop lists, but it’s often the varieties grown from heirloom seeds that can deliver on those demands.
LEE: Thankfully so! People follow tastemakers. Therefore, chefs are the most important ambassadors for heirloom fruits and vegetables. They have the unique advantage that their customers come to the restaurant looking for new experiences – it’s a great chance to create awareness. How do you support your chefs in their decision making as to which crops they are planting?
SARA: My crop list contains all of the common vegetable categories and then within that list are countless varieties. That’s where many heirlooms and rare varieties are listed. Having limited space on rooftops, we grow crops that take up minimal space yet produce high yields. Its also about finding crops that are unique and delicious, such as the wild rocket, Dragon Tongue Arugula, that will make a dish pop visually, yet also delivers a punch of intense flavor in just one single leaf. There are certain varieties of unusual, wild arugula that are so powerful in flavor, a little goes a very long way on a plated dish.
LEE: That is exactly were chefs have so many possibilities to educate their patrons! Showing consumers how they could use heirloom varieties, how to make them shine. Many of the market farmers I know have stopped growing heirlooms because they are so much harder to sell. Consumers are often intimidated by a variety they have not prepared before. In some cases there is really no difference, but in the case of the Dragon Tongue Arugula – it sounds as if the intense flavor could scare some people off, say if they attempted a big bowl of arugula salad. But, I assume that your flavor experiments start long before the kitchen since you can’t really taste a variety on the pages of a seed catalog. Do you have a plot where you grow varieties to test out before pitching them to restaurants?
SARA: At home I grow and play around with different varieties. I’m always interested in the unusual stuff. For example, I recently discovered the Prickly Ash Tree, which produces sansho “peppercorns”. This tree also produces beautiful and petite chartreuse-colored foliage called Kinome, which is harvested in the springtime in Japan. The kinome foliage has a bright, citrusy, peppery quality that’s quite unique. I sourced a tree in May from a grower near San Francisco and potted it up in my back yard. It soon began producing the young leaves, which were really quite spectacular in flavor. Now I can offer this crop option to my clients, which is exciting. That’s what I love about this business. I get to grow some really cool stuff, which has a story behind it and these items are unique and different from the more traditional crops you can find here in Chicago.
LEE: There are also unique items that are native to the U.S. that we’ve forgotten about, such as the American Persimmon or the Chiltepin Pepper, both of which are on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. We use both of these varieties in our Heirloom Hot Sauces. I am pushing Scrumptious Pantry more in the direction of utilizing these native American varieties, especially since most Americans have forgotten this legacy. What is more sustainable than a food that already grows here? So many tasty options. I guess the question is – how can we get heirloom varieties on everyone’s table and in everyone’s kitchen?
SARA: The Beaver Dam Pepper is a great example of how you create awareness. I had never heard of this heirloom pepper prior to last year but last season it seemed to pop up everywhere including the Green City Market and on restaurant menus. It seems like you get a few growers producing it one season and then chefs begin to feature it in their dishes and then it takes off. But there needs to be a consumer market to keep up that momentum as well. Many of these farms have built strong relationships with our restaurants here, so if a farmer stops growing a certain variety then obviously a chef will stop using it if they can’t find another resource.
LEE: Indeed, that is what we saw happening to the Beaver Dam Pepper. Heirlooms are often revived by market farmers who sell to the consumers at markets and to some restaurants. Over the last years some farmers brought the Beaver Dam Pepper to market here in Chicago, but the consumers did not buy them fresh. So eventually the farmers stopped growing them because it’s a big sales effort to get the harvest sold to a chef just in time when the stuff is ready. I am hoping to break that cycle with our Beaver Dam Pepper products by creating awareness for the variety via a pickled pepper, a hot sauce and a pepper jelly, products consumers are more willing to try, even if they do not know the pepper variety itself.
SARA: We are back to the super important topic of education. I find social media is a very important tool to let people know what’s out there and where you can buy your seed to try something new. Or save your own seed!
LEE: Imagine you had to choose one variety to pass on to the following generation. Which one would be your pick?
SARA: Tomato Mountain Farm sells heirloom tomato starts in the spring at Green City Market. My favorite one is called Italian Heirloom. I’m not 100% certain if this is the real name but it’s a beautiful, almost heart shaped large red tomato that is incredibly delicious. I really wish I knew its real name.
LEE: There you go. Why don’t you propagate that heirloom tomato and we will name it after you – the Lady Gasbarra tomato!
At Scrumptious Pantry we preserve the exciting flavors of rare heirloom fruit and vegetables and precious heirloom seeds. Delicious varieties put up in gourmet condiments and artisan preserves for you to enjoy at home! Because Heirloom is much bigger than just Heirloom tomatoes.