When Pauline’s Pizza opened in San Francisco in 1985, owner Sidney Weinstein says small organic farms up and down California were “in their hey day.”
As bigger names came in and started to buy up independent farms, she said, the best produce became harder and harder to find. So Weinstein started to grow more of the restaurant’s produce herself, all in the backyard of her Berkeley home — eventually supplying other Bay Area restaurants, too, with her hyper-local harvest.
Today, Weinstein’s production has grown tremendously. And even as she and her husband oversee a multi-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills of Calaveras County, they are still growing a number of staples among the winding paths of their Berkeley garden.
Herbs, edible flowers, fruits and vegetables all cycle through Weinstein’s beds, which are nestled into two connected properties in northwest Berkeley, starting at 1246 Rose St. and winding around in an L shape to Belvedere Street. Tiny watercress leaves hug the ground next to tall, snaking kiwi vines; flowering lemons and limes play host to bees and other critters; and a greenhouse nurses baby lettuce plants that will soon be transplanted to richly soiled beds outside.
As she walks alongside a patch of miner’s lettuce, Weinstein notes that this plant grows wild in the Berkeley hills in the winter. Here, she grows it year round.
“They’re a little bit unhappy right now,” she says, explaining that the length of the days — not necessarily the temperature — affects plants that prefer certain times of year. (The tiny mache, a lettuce used often in French salads, is also currently “unhappy.”)
As her garden grew over the years, Weinstein began selling the surplus to Berkeley restaurants like Chez Panisse, Citron (now closed) and Oliveto. Her primary clients are now in San Francisco: Boulevard, Prospect, Flour + Water, Maverick, Central Kitchen and The Blue Plate.
“This garden is too big to feed one family,” Weinstein said.
Flanked by her Russian wolfhound, Moiche, Weinstein makes the rounds, scanning the crops that she and her small staff tend by hand.
“I use almost everything in the pizza, including the fruit,” she says. Up at the farm, called Star Canyon Ranch, a host of summer fruits and vegetables are currently ripening: tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, plums, persimmons, figs, eggplant and others. More salad greens grow there as well, along with beets, potatoes, leeks, asparagus, corn — the list goes on.
“The soil tastes like cinnamon,” she said of the ranch, adding that it the fruit grown there “doesn’t look perfect, but it tastes amazing.”
Here in Berkeley, orange bergamot lines one fence next to a bed of red oak lettuces. Weinstein said she picks these lettuces by the individual leaves, which allows them to continue growing full leaves in subsequent cycles. Toward the front of the property, large potted rose geraniums are flowering and will be used in ice cream and sorbet, as will the boysenberries growing in the back.
Pam Mazzola, executive chef at Prospect restaurant in San Francisco, said she uses Weinstein’s unique baby greens in salads and as garnishes.
“Her little micro-greens and baby greens are just not available [from other growers],” Mazzola said. “No one else is growing baby watercress and little amaranth.”
Weinstein said her restaurant clients have also recently taken an interest in the edible flowers she grows, explaining that some high-end chefs are trained as artists and value the aesthetic aspects of their dishes.
“When I go in and deliver and they’re working on composing dishes, they’re almost composing a painting,” Weinstein said. “They’re composing for flavor as well as visuals.”
At Prospect, the season is currently bringing in peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant from Weinstein’s garden and ranch.
“This time of year, her production really steps up,” Mazzola said. ”She does braising greens, which we sauté because they’re very tender and flavorful.”
She added that sourcing produce from a garden so close by means that the plants are uniquely fresh.
“She picks it the day she brings it to us,” Mazzola said. “Everything she grows is delicious.”
With the coming winter, maintenance of the garden will get more and more difficult. Typically, Weinstein said, changing a bed of crops is approximately a month-long process, but this process lengthens in the winter, and production decreases significantly.
“Right now, that arugula bed may be a 10-pound bed,” she said, pointing to a large, lush square of bright green heads. “In the winter time, that might be a one-pound bed.”
In addition to some crops that she grows every season, Weinstein said she and her staff experiment with hybrid varieties and new plants, such as amaranth. Some of these are successful, and others are, according to Weinstein, “a bust.” One of the ways she creates pattern and dependability in the garden is by saving seeds when she harvests.
“The value of saving seeds … is that the genetics adapt to your situation,” she said.
But like all gardeners, Weinstein and her crew always face the unpredictability of nature — crops that grow unevenly, for example, or turn out to be entirely different than she had expected.
“The whole ecosystem goes in its own direction sometimes,” she said.
Camille Baptista was a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She grew up in Berkeley and now studies at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the ‘Columbia Daily Spectator.’