Saturday, August 6, 2011

On the Menu (and in the ground)

[Orchard at Farmstead, St. Helena, CA]
Combining a demonstration farm, edible landscaping and adaptive re-use of a historic barn, Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena, CA is a well-planned farm-to-table restaurant, taking full advantage of its location in the heart of rural wine country. The demonstration farm was what first caught my eye, as it is located along the highway, and announces the restaurant's presence. A curving path leads a visitor past rows of vegetables, flowers and herbs, each labeled with common and scientific names, and a brief narrative. The farm in all is probably about a quarter-acre, and according to the waitress, serves more as a demonstration farm than a source for the kitchen. Open to the public, and adjacent to a small orchard/picnic area, the demonstration farm feels bigger than it is. Wandering the rows of produce, glimpsing the food nestled amongst the leaves brought to mind the Zen gardens designed to slow a visitor down, to put them in the right frame of mind to enjoy the tea ceremony ritual - only in this case it might be the right frame of mind to appreciate the heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes and dandelion greens soon to be served on your plate.

[View of farm gardens to road]

[Detail - labels in the kitchen garden]
The restaurant is located in an old barn, in the shade of a huge oak tree. Espaliered apple trees create an enclosed outdoor dining area next to the barn, and also serve to make 'rooms' within the room. Blocks of rosemary, thyme and lavender edge the rooms, and in the soft blowing breeze, perfumed the air. The herbs and apple trees at the dining room are simple, almost obvious, but reinforce the restaurants theme effectively, creating a bucolic sense of dining at a well-tended gentleman farmer's estate, or within an idealized rural idyll. Overall it is charming, and surprising and completely delightful. The edible landscaping is also brought to a grid of lemon trees marking the entrance at the parking area, and a citrus 'hedge' created with densely planted orange trees. Such experimentation with edible plant material is refreshing, and it will be interesting to see, for example, how the citrus hedge matures. 

[Outdoor dining room, screened with espaliered apple trees]

[Outdoor dining room with 'walls' of espaliered fruit and 'carpets' of herbs]
[Herb borders at outdoor dining area]
The edible landscape at Farmstead operates at varying scales, and it is in the whole that a story of food is told, one that is capable of communicating the wonderful alchemy by which soil, sun and water become our sustenance. This is the importance of studying such built landscapes, to understand how we can better tell a story of one way that we relate to the plants and animals that surround us.

I wasn't able to find out from any of the staff I spoke to who designed the grounds - if you know, please post in the comments. Know of other restaurants with great edible landscaping? I'd love to hear about them too.

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