Over the last ten years as subscriptions to our CSA — the backbone of our farm — dwindled, we began to grow more produce for restaurants, distributors, and food service. This was not easy. Households who subscribe to CSAs do not use the same produce as Michelin-starred restaurant chefs or corporate cafeterias. So we found ourselves growing a wider variety of items in an effort to keep our completely different customer bases happy.
A recent email from a TFF subscriber offers a good example. He asked that next year, we grow more Sugar Snap Peas and fewer English Peas (actually he requested that we grow none). In reality, we don’t usually put that many English Peas in the CSA boxes — we grow them because they are a favorite item of chefs. And we wouldn’t grow Snap Peas if we didn’t have a CSA, because English Peas cost the same amount to grow but fetch a higher price from restaurants.
But when Pea harvest began this year, Covid 19 had shut down most of our restaurant and food service customers. Meanwhile, we had seen a big jump in demand as CSA customers chose to “Size Up” their boxes. We didn’t have enough Snap Peas planted to accommodate those changes, but we did have fields of English Peas with no buyers. We rotated those into your CSA boxes, at the same price as the Snap Peas. Maybe this phenomenon will go down in history as a “Covid Substitution”, like buying napkins because there is no toilet paper.
Garlic is one crop that is a staple both for our CSA and for restaurants, as well as retailers and distributors. Terra Firma has been growing garlic since our beginnings, and we grow a lot of it.
Our single biggest customer for our garlic crop is you — our CSA. But our second biggest customer is a single restaurant, Chez Panisse. In addition to being their primary supplier for everyday garlic, we also provide them with a truckload of braids, made exactly to their specifications each year. They use the braids to decorate the restaurant for their annual Bastille Day celebration, draping them over the archways, doors and windows and hanging them on the walls. We have made braids as long as 20 feet for the event; each one carefully spiraled onto its own pallet for delivery to the restaurant.
We have been making braids — we call them “trenzas” around here — for Chez Panisse since the mid 1990s. Originally, Hector’s mother Genoveva made all the braids herself. Later, she trained her daughter-in-law, Hector’s wife Elena to make them, and eventually Elena trained several other TFF staffers to help out.
The trenzas must be made while the garlic is still pliable and partially green. We harvest part of the field specially for this project, and then store it in the cooler to keep it moist. There is a short window to do it before the leaves become to dry and brittle.
This year, Chez Panisse was uncertain whether they would have the Bastille Day celebration, or what it might look like if they did. We ended up deciding to make a smaller number of braids than usual but thought that perhaps some TFF subscribers might like an opportunity to purchase them in the CSA store. These are more normal-sized braids, roughly 2 1/2 feet long and weighing around 7 lbs. They are perfect for hanging on your kitchen wall.
Obviously whether or not you buy a garlic braid, you will still receive plenty of garlic in your TFF boxes. But the braid is a culinary ornament that is both useful and beautiful. Braiding the garlic preserves it for much longer than regular garlic; you can start using it right away, but the heads that remain braided will keep until mid-winter.
And as far as Snap vs. Shelling Peas goes, I still have 5 months before I plant the first seeds in the ground. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that our restaurant customers are able to weather this crisis and be back buying English Peas next spring. And I promise to plant more Snap Peas for CSA subscribers.