PETAL POWER Peter Lowell's chef Natalie Goble works with pineapple guava blossoms from a backyard grower.
Early this spring, there was a knock at my door. It was Lowell Sheldon, owner of Peter Lowell's restaurant in Sebastopol. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the lemons from my prolific backyard tree for a meal.
Of course I said yes. I couldn't use all the lemons, and there was something cool about sharing them with a local restaurant. While this winter's killer freeze put a big dent in my lemon crop, Sheldon was able to fill two five-gallon buckets. In return, I got a great breakfast. I felt like I played a small role in the lemon-curd tarts the restaurant made.
Turns out Sheldon sources a lot of his produce this way. Once he was out for a run and discovered a pineapple guava tree overloaded with fruit. Now he harvests some of the crop each year. He also barters for neighborhood figs, persimmons, quince, peaches, apples and other fruit.
Restaurants that tout their local and seasonal produce are now the norm. Defining local is a gray area, but not at Peter Lowell's. They are hyperlocal. They don't just serve produce from Sonoma County. The focus is on fruit, vegetables, fish and meat from western Sonoma County. Some of that comes from the numerous small-scale farms that dot the area. Some comes from Two Belly Acres, the restaurant's two-acre farm on Green Valley Road. And some comes from people like me, residents with a tree or bush that overflows with fruit once a year.
"During certain times of the year there is always going to be a glut of something," Sheldon says.
Now that the word is out about restaurant's west-of-101 sourcing, customers and local residents call when they have a surplus crop.
This gleaning started out as an economic necessity. When the restaurant opened in 2008, Sheldon's commitment to locally sourced ingredients proved costly. He grew up in Sebastopol and his family had several fruit trees. Why buy apples when he could harvest a few boxes from his mom's tree? Ditto bay leaves and lemons. In time, that neighborhood sourcing became part of the restaurant's business plan. While food costs are still high, chef Natalie Goble says seeking out neighborhood growers makes economic sense.
"There is a real sense of ownership and they also help us keep the doors open."
Of course there is a culinary benefit, too.
Goble waits for local tomatoes or blueberries to ripen to their "absolute best." The produce doesn't spend time in transit or in a distributor's refrigerated warehouse.
"We're letting the fruit or vegetable really shine," she says.
Fish and meat comes from local sources, too, but those are commercial suppliers. For legal and practical reasons, there aren't any backyard sources for beef or lamb. The restaurant also purchases some of its produce from local distributors, especially during the winter months.
There are challenges to the restaurant's über-local focus. Some diners are miffed when their burger doesn't come with a slice of tomato, even if they are available in warmer climates just a few miles to the east.
"The challenge is usually waiting," Goble says.
But it's food worth waiting for.
Recipe: Cherry Almond Tart with Pineapple Guava Cream
This tart recipe is a little tricky at first but once mastered it is easy and versatile. Substitute cherries for apricots, plums, raspberries, or Asian pears. The wetter the fruit the harder it can be so try to use dry dryer fruit.
2.5 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
3 whole eggs
1 pinch salt
In a food processor, add flour and butter and cut till relatively even. Add sugar and salt and pulse. Add eggs and pulse till evenly distributed but not overly mixed. Remove from food processor and divide into 2 halves shaped in discs. Wrap both tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 1 for 1 hour. Freeze the other for next time (up to 2 weeks)
Once thoroughly chilled remove and grate into flakes on course grater. Gently spread 1/2 in removable bottom tart pan and use plastic wrap to gently press into bottom of pan. Once evenly pressed spread remaining around the edges and press to make walls of tart. Once you are happy with its looks, bake for 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove and gently compress bottom and sides with the back of a spoon without overly working. Let cool.
1 3/4 cup pulverized almonds
1 1/2 cup sugar
3 sticks unsalted, softened butter
Combine butter and sugar in kitchen aid mixer until creamy. Add pulverized almonds and continue to beat adding 1 egg at a time until filling is light and fluffy.
1 lb fresh cherries (pitted with with a pitter or by halving them)
Pat cherries dry and spread in tart shell. Gently spread 1/2 of filling over cherries and bake at 300 for 40 minutes, checking after 25 minutes. Make sure to put foil or a baking sheet under because butter will leek out. Top should be hardened slightly having a light golden brown color. Remove and let cool for at least 1/2 hour. Use second half of tart filling with remaining tart shell within 2 weeks.
Serve seasonally with whip cream. We like to steep different flowers and our cream. In early summer pick Pinapple Guava Flowers, using spongy petals(taste them as they are delicious fresh). Steep 20 picked flours in 1 cup cream for 10 minutes. Let cool, chill and whip with a touch of sugar.
Peter Lowell's, 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. 707.829.1077.