By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
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So where does Romeo's get cozy with Escopazzo, Baleen slip under the sheets with Bice, and the Ritz get in bed with Azul? In Paradise, of course.
Make that Paradise Farm, the living-a-dream business started by owner Gabriele Marewski last October. This five-acre organic, sustainable farm, which caters only to restaurants, takes its planting orders from about twenty of our local eateries. Marewski then grows to order specialty produce from tongue-of-fire beans to diva cucumber flowers for clients ranging from Pacific Time to Tuscan Steak. She'll even put in atomic catnip for the feline friends of the culinary set -- whatever the chefs want her to cultivate for them.
Like other farmers, though, Marewski has to depend on the seasons, and summer in Homestead is simply too hot for most vegetables to thrive. So the half-moons of raised beds, each labeled with the names of different, high-end restaurants, are currently asleep under warming blankets of black plastic, which heats the soil to such an extent that parasites, pests, and bacteria are killed off without enlisting the aid of chemicals. The trees on the farm, which was an abandoned avocado grove before Marewski took it over, are heavy with harvest, but the crop won't be mature and legally salable until October. School's out, too, which means that her eleven-year-old son, who helps with the accounting on the farm, and the children of the two full-time pickers she employs all have spare time to help out with chores and other manageable tasks.
19801 SW 320th St.
Homestead, FL 33030
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Region: Homestead/Florida City
And still there's no downtime in Paradise.
Part of the reason Marewski, an eminently fit woman with strong, ruddy features and strawberry-blond hair, is eternally busy is because of her nature. "My job description is gopher," she jokes. Which means that she does whatever needs to be accomplished, from building a mist house from a screen she found on I-95 to sterilizing her own soil. She plants, tends, harvests, packs, and even delivers her produce to the restaurants in a van that has been customized with a tile floor and insulation.
Her customers expect her personally for face-time every Tuesday and Friday, which is mainly why she won't ship her products, sell retail, or even go above her cap of 25 restaurant clients. "It's all about the human connection," she muses. "I'm about being local. People ask me to ship, but business-wise and philosophy-wise I can't go there. I do every delivery myself."
Marewski's initiative is another factor contributing to her twelve-hour days. She got her first customers -- chefs such as Michelle Bernstein, then of the Strand, and Frank Randazzo, erstwhile of the Gaucho Room -- simply by walking into their kitchens with samples. In fact she's always looking for, and finding, something new and unusual to sell to them. When her monsteras aren't producing their strange, phallic-symbol fruit that most people tend to view as marital aids, she cuts their remarkable leaves for places like the Loews to use in gigantic centerpieces. As a thank-you, one woman brought her an armful of calabaza flowers from her property. Marewski immediately popped one in her mouth, visually demonstrating the value of an overlooked yet completely edible industry. But she didn't stop there. She arranged to help the woman harvest the flowers and even sells them for her, splitting the proceeds 50-50. The day I visited the farm, she was just cutting up guava brought over by another neighbor, a woman who wraps each one individually with French baguette bags so air but not fruit flies can get in.
She cuts similar trade-for-food deals with other neighbors, almost all of whom farm organically on similar five-acre plots. Oyster mushroom grower Miguel Hernandez outfitted her van; friend Robert Barnes, an architect, designed her herb and vegetable beds. The group of organic farmers in this area, which comprises Homestead, Florida City, and the Redland area, are "not technically a co-op," Marewski explains. "We don't exchange money. We exchange product, which we can sell in full confidence that it's also organic."
An outgrowth of the bond that is particularly strong among six of these growers, Redland Organics is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group they have formed to market its collective produce. And while Marewski herself doesn't sell to retailers, preferring to focus on restaurants only, the Redland Organics Web site (www.redlandorganics.com) can direct consumers on how to buy the group's available crops.
But the real explanation for Marewski's brisk trade is also her raison d'être: micro-greens.
These tiny shoots, harvested with scissors within ten days of their lives and no bigger than your average alfalfa sprout, are a burgeoning ingredient trend in up-market restaurants across the nation. Log onto the Internet, enter "micro-greens," and your Google search will spit up hundreds of recipes that top chefs from Milwaukee to Cincinnati have been developing. Though home cooks have yet to find them in gourmet markets, the micro-green revolution is well under way.
Make no mistake, though -- micro-greens are not in that precious, miniature-vegetable category, which include the kind of carrot, squash, and zucchini specimens that were all the two-bites-and-you're-done-with-it rage in the Eighties. Micro-greens are not "baby" versions of larger plants but rather immature seedlings that are so small they wouldn't even be viable for transplanting into a garden yet. And unlike Lilliputian eggplants and Thumbelina cabbages, which tend to be softer and sweeter than their fully realized counterparts, micro-greens pack a vibrant punch directly opposed to their stature. Eensy-weensy arugula isn't just peppery, it's downright piquant. Mustard shoots can clear the nasal passages. Even broccoli shoots have that telltale flavor and odor that polite society pretends doesn't exist.
Our chefs like them so much, Marewski presently has about 500 trays of micro-greens in the mist house, which is open-air but screened in and shaded over 50 percent, and therefore protected from the fierce sun. That explains why mid-August, we're supping on regionally grown micro-greens while other farmers are turning their wilted plants into compost.
Marewski starts with sterile soil that she has actually heated in an autoclave and patrols the budding seedlings for bug eggs, flicking them off with her fingers when she finds them. That's her pest control. And she waters very carefully, not using a timer system. "You have to watch and be able to change your irrigation. Watering is the most critical thing. It's an art," she claims.
But like other savvy businesspeople who have cornered a particular market, Marewski is suspicious of other micro-green growers who stop by her place unannounced. In fact she simply won't share her secrets. How many seeds does she need to sow in order to get a tray full of greens like the hair on a Chia pet? I'm not allowed to tell you, but suffice to say one tray's worth would probably fill a small fishbowl. How long exactly does it take to get a full crop? Mum's the answer, and I ain't talking about the flower.
But if you want to discuss petals and the like, then yes, there are such things as miniature roses, with blooms the size of a baby's thumbnail, along with eyelash-size begonias and orchids equivalent to a kitten's nose. Fruit-bearing olive trees have been tapered into topiaries, blueberry bushes have been turned into bonsais, and pomegranate, pear, and crabapple trees have all been miniaturized as effectively as Mike TV in Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And if you don't think these items will have any bearing on what we eat in restaurants in the future, then I dare you to a debate over a breakfast of blueberry bonsai pancakes.
Next week: Small food is big nutrition -- as long as you eat it raw.