As I noted in my last post, I’m fresh off a three week tour of California. Over that run I’ve put some 2,000 miles on a (borrowed) Chevy Volt all while visiting sustainable farms and food producers along the way. And what an honor it was. I spent time with some really amazing people including Sondra Bernstein and her crew from the girl & the fig, the fig cafe and ESTATE, all located in Sonoma Valley.
Sondra and her business partner Chef John Toulze have been defining Sonoma cuisine for over a decade now, and from the looks of it, they aren’t planning to slow down anytime soon. This is probably best punctuated by their latest cookbook, Plats du Jour— though calling it simply a cookbook is a gross understatement. Sure, the book is filled with out-of-this-world recipes and mouth-watering photos but…it’s the details about their journey creating a biodynamic farm that’s truly fascinating. And this isn’t just some vanity project, their plot shares land with Imagery Estate Winery–a biodynamic vineyard located in Glen Ellen–and the little sister of Benziger Family Winery, this country’s first certified biodynamic vineyard and winery. The Benziger family isn’t just serious about biodynamics, they’ve pretty much defined it for generations to come. Patriarch Mike Benziger is really an agricultural genius.
Pictured below are Sondra and Chef John at the Imagery Estate farm. The beets that Sondra is holding made their way into a very tasty beet and carrot juice cocktail enjoyed by us later that day. But Sondra admits, they haven’t gotten it all figured out just yet. This is a learning process. For example, the farm is booming with leeks at the moment and therefore, so is the menu at all three restaurants (oops!). Next time around they will pace out their plantings to better balance the menu.
Biodynamic farming, in its simplest form, is a holistic approach to agriculture. It’s kinda like extreme organics. The idea is to not just be green and avoid the bad stuff like pesticides and herbicides, but to create a diversified and balanced ecosystem. For that reason, biodynamic farms always grow multiple crops and must include livestock. In fact, preparations are made using such things as fermented manure, minerals and herbs, which are then dispersed throughout the property to balance the farm’s life force. And it’s not just some hippy-dippy form of farming, I swear, these treatments are a true form of recycling of nutrients. A 2011 report on biodynamics found that, while usually resulting in lower yields, these farms had healthier soils and better energy efficiency with respect to production than conventional farms. Yes, and even better than organic farms! Astronomical influences are also of consideration, like the moon’s effect on plant life. That is, the moon’s phase is actually used to determine planting, cultivating and harvesting.
Benziger has a great “food pyramid” type diagram on biodynamics that is worth checking out.
I got to spend the whole day with Sondra and Chef John, farming, cooking, eating and drinking. What a rush! At our stop at the girl & the fig, we made this lovely Lavender Mojito. And you might have noticed, I kind of have a thing for lavender-inspired cocktails. But before you can make the mojito, you have to make some lavender simply syrup.
Lavender Simple Syrup
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 3 tablespoons culinary lavender
- Using a small sauce pot, bring the sugar, water and lavender to a boil.
- Let simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Let cool and strain out the lavender.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Now on to the mojito recipe! We made this cocktail with fresh lavender from the garden. But I do apologize for the background noise in this video. This place is hustling, and the fact that we were able to film there at all was a treat. The place has always been busy but now that Lady Gaga has dined there (at the very bar Sondra and I are sitting at) it’s a complete madhouse. But still so worth a visit, just make a reservation if you can.
Makes: 2 cocktails
- 4 ounces light rum
- 16–20 fresh mint leaves
- Juice of 2 limes
- 2 ounces Lavender Simple Syrup
- Club Soda
- Lavender sprigs, for garnish
- Add torn fresh mint leaves to a pint glass.
- Add lime juice and lavender syrup and muddle the ingredients.
- Add ice, the rum and give it a shake.
- Top it off with the club soda and some fresh lavender.
This is just one of many garden-inspired recipes that Sondra’s restaurants has to offer. Like that beet- and carrot-juice cocktail that’s as beautiful as it is tasty. I also suggest their lavender crème brûlée. Stay tuned for more about Sondra and what she is up to here on Bay Area Bites!