Tastes Like Sunshine

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“If only we could see the miracle of a flower clearly, our whole lives would change”Buddha

ALTHOUGH Copia’s closed doors declare its current state of dormancy, its garden spaces lining First Street are very much alive. They are leased out to local restaurants of Napa, in which Carpe Diem enthusiastically received keys to its own garden plots in late September. With hoes and shovels resting on our shoulders, our crew marched through the gates to play around in the dirt.

Carpe Diem’s Sous Chef, Scott “Isaac” Coles, who grew up on his family’s farm in Virginia, originally planted the idea to utilize a garden space as a benchmark for our menu. “Freshness and quality is a big part of a restaurant that shouldn’t be overlooked, but often is for lack of accessibility” said Isaac.  “The gardens allow the food to speak for itself through its fresh flavors.” It is unfortunate that produce immediately starts to perish the moment it is boxed in a warehouse and distributed days later to restaurants all over the country.  The greens and vegetables we have grown so far are hand-harvested by us and then transferred from the soil to Carpe Diem located only four blocks away.

During this winter, we’ve discovered that gardening is not all daisies and cute caterpillars. As Isaac observes, “It is not necessarily labor intensive, it just takes time and commitment. People don’t know how long it takes for lettuce or a squash to grow anymore. People have lost touch.”  A healthy garden requires that we monitor the changes that occur, along with regular weeding and watering to give the seeds a desirable habitat in which to flourish. We have also mulched three of the garden spaces to nourish the soil for spring time, leaving the fourth plot as our first experiment. So far, we have had great success with beets, cilantro, mustard greens and kale.

It is challenging, however, to predict some of nature’s little tantrums, whether it is frost, flood or fighting off pests. In response, we have seized the opportunity to create and discover new protective techniques. It appears as though we have built a culinary war zone, fully equipped with an army of ladybugs, steep banks, and barbed-wire like barricades of hand-crushed oyster shells surrounding our precious plants. We imagine miniature raised white flags popping up from the soil signifying the surrender of slugs and aphids, as we walk away with armfuls of voluptuous greens, and look back to wink at the ladybugs in victory.

Ultimately, the time spent gardening is filled with serenity and connects us with nature, a refreshing break from the lively restaurant atmosphere. It is invigorating to feel sweat and the dirt beneath our fingertips; even the occasional back-ache feels gratifying when we are able to bring fresh produce to the table.  Working in the garden not only gives us a deeper understanding of how to properly cultivate our produce, but how to cook our food as well. It unites the world of simple, seasonal ingredients with the final product, sophisticated dishes we offer to our guests. There is always something new to learn while we patiently “watch the grass grow,” while dreaming up new dishes that the greens will be a part of.

Just before pruning our first bushel of cilantro, Isaac knelt down and tore off a single leaf. “Mmmm, tastes like sunshine,” he mumbled. His statement holds true, because everyone needs the taste of sunshine as much as the plants do. During these cold months as we shift into spring, Carpe Diem presents to you bites of bloom throughout our menu.

At Your Service,

Marti Parti

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