It All Starts from the Seed

Georgeanne Brennan started Le Marché Seeds, a specialty seed company, with Charlotte Glenn in 1982. Brennan was a high school teacher who had lived in Provence in the 1970s, and Glenn was a fourth-generation Californian and agriculture teacher. Le Marché Seeds imported seed from Europe and marketed their stock to small-scale organic growers in California. These growers, and the restaurants they supplied, defined what we have come to think of as California cuisine. Though Le Marché Seeds is not as widely known as the restaurants that served produce grown from Le Marché Seeds, my conversation with Brennan was a reminder that it all starts from the seed. —Miriam Bale

Miriam Bale: What are some of the vegetables that Le Marché first introduced to California? Is it true that you helped introduce mesclun greens?

Georgeanne Brennan: Le Marché Seeds was the first regional company selling imported, open-pollinated, European seed varieties. At that time, the big push, both in the United States and around the world, was for patented seeds from hybrids. And since you can’t save the seeds from those, and because I was interested in the flavors and tastes that I had come to love living in Provence, Le Marché only sold older varieties. We had the good fortune to meet with European seedmen who understood our interests and helped us make selections.

Mesclun certainly was one of the popular seeds we imported, as well as haricot vert [French green bean], frisée, and escaroles with superfine hearts. We were the first to import the Charentais melon [French cantaloupe]. All of this sounds very common, but it wasn’t then.

MB: You mostly sold through catalogs?

GB: Yes, Le Marché Seeds catalog. We sold to individuals, but we also very quickly developed a large customer base with market growers. The market growers interested in our seeds were essentially the pioneer organic growers across the country.

Our marketing ploy was that we sent our catalog to food writers at newspapers and magazines nationwide. And we were written up in Vogue magazine by Barbara Kafka, also in the Chicago Tribune, Metropolitan Home, Family Circle, and all kinds of places.

MB: What was the company’s connection to Chez Panisse?

GB:  Sibella Kraus, who was working at Chez Panisse, was very interested in sourcing unusual and organic produce for the restaurant. Virtually every farmer that’s grown for Chez Panisse over the last twenty-five years bought seeds from us at one point or another.

MB: We hear a lot about Chez Panisse’s successes, but it sounds like your seeds made some of that possible.

GB: Yes, that’s absolutely right. We would travel to Europe and when we returned, the farmers would call us and ask what’s new. Farmers grew the seeds we imported and took that produce straight to Chez Panisse, and other places.

As Le Marché continued, we started visiting countries besides France. In Italy, we toured the gardens of an Italian seed company. One of the seedmen pulled a beet out of the ground and called it the Chioggia beet. It was an old Italian seed, only known in parts of Italy. We imported the seed and introduced it to the US market. The Chioggia beet is now commonly available, sometimes with the market name Candy Stripe. The same with Italian Lacinato kale. We saw it in Italy, and I trialled the seed at my small farm in Northern California. And of course now it’s widely known as Dino Kale and other market names. Le Marché was really responsible for introducing some of the varieties that have become mainstream today . . . at least mainstream in Northern California.

MB: Are there other vegetables with the same potential as Chioggia beets or Lacinato Kale—things that are easy to grow in California and should be more common?

GB: Europe is more familiar and creative with frisées and escaroles. Here we pretty much only see them in higher-end restaurants. Also, all of the wonderful Italian chicories, the puntarelles . . .There’s so much in that chicory family that’s yet to be explored.

There’s lots of potential for parsnips, too. Parsnips are available here, but not top quality—the same with celery root. Europeans do incredibly wonderful things with celery root. We see celery roots in markets sometimes, but produce handlers here don’t know much about the vegetable. They can’t tell when it’s started to deteriorate and gone fuzzy and hollow inside.

MB: How do you like to prepare parsnips and celery root?

GB: I like to roast parsnips. They have a high sugar content, so they caramelize.

MB: How about celery root? We know about celery root rémoulade…

GB: Celery root can be eaten alone, or in combination with potatoes, perhaps mashed. It can also be thinly sliced and poached to tenderize it a bit, in something like chicken broth, and then served in a light vinaigrette.

MB: That sounds delicious.

GB: It’s very good.

MB: What’s the connection between Le Marché Seeds and your work as a cookbook writer?                 

After we published the Le Marché catalog, one of our seed friends in England suggested we write a newspaper column, so we pitched a cooking and gardening column to the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time, the idea of those two things being connected was a totally new thought, as hard as that is to believe. You had the gardening section or the cooking section. But the editor agreed to give it a try. So we wrote a gardening/cooking column about what’s in season now and how to cook it, with a recipe or two. That’s where it started.

MB: Why do you think the Bay Area has such a rich culinary history?

GB: I was talking to [chef, restaurateur, cookbook author] Joyce Goldstein about this—she’s writing a culinary history of California. Why here? One factor, I think, was international travel. The baby boomer generation was among the first to have widespread access to world travel. Prior to that, it was really only an opportunity for the wealthy upper classes. In the sixties in Berkeley, many young people spent some time abroad, or pursued education opportunities abroad, like Alice [Waters], for instance. They experienced other kinds of food and came back and wanted the same thing at home.

The Bay Area seismic shift was driven not by professional chefs, but by people trained in other fields—PhDs in architecture and neuroscience and all kinds of things—who had a personal interest in food, as well as a sense of adventure and entrepreneurialism. It was a time that welcomed new ideas and different kinds of people doing different kinds of things.

MB: So Bay Area food culture was the result not just of interest in food, but intellectual curiosity?

GB: Absolutely. It wasn’t just about cooking. At Le Marché, all of our catalog copy was full of historical information­—how the food was used here or there, what the traditional dishes were. It was information that really drove the culinary revolution. It wasn’t enough to have something on a plate. You had to know where it came from, who grew it, and how it was grown. It was a whole different way of looking at food.

MB: What advice do you have for teaching kids about seeds, or for someone who’s never grown anything from seed?

GB: Start with radishes, because radishes are quick to grow and it’s instant gratification; just five days later there comes a little sprout. With radishes you don’t have to wait too long to see the concept of “seed to plate.”

Anytime you plant a garden, it’s important to look at it every day, to watch and see the changes. Eating seed to plate is really about day-to day follow through. You’re growing something that you’re going to eat, and you have to nurture it, take care of it, and observe it.

MB: People sometimes seem to have a mental block with starting from seed. More and more people are buying produce from the farmer’s market or even growing from small plants, but there’s still trepidation about planting seed. There’s that time of not seeing anything . . .

GB: I think culturally we’ve lost our sense of faith in the seed. It requires a leap of the imagination to know that a tiny brown thing will become a giant lettuce. We’ve become so disconnected from where things come from­—it almost seems fantastical to really trust that if you plant a seed and water it, it will grow.

The other thing is that our culture is so fast and so busy, it’s just easier to buy a readymade meal at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, or even prepared foods from the farmer’s market. I think easy is our big value.

MB: And what are we missing in that?

GB: Experience.

The following two recipes, for Shepherd’s Pie and Spice Cake, utilize ingredients Brennan suggests should be more commonly known: celery root and parsnip. Both recipes are excerpted from Brennan’s cookbooks Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables (Chronicle Books, 1996), and Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style (Chronicle Books, 2000).

French Shepherd’s Pie with Celery Root and Potato Topping

From Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style (Chronicle Books, 2000).

Shepherd’s pie, a traditional English dish, is meat stew covered with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and then lightly browned in the oven. In this version the topping is a combination of mashed potatoes and pungent celery root. Celery root has a somewhat intimidating appearance. It is not at all obvious to the uninitiated how to use it in the kitchen. When I was a student in Aix-en-Provence, my French roommate taught me that once the whorled and callused skin of the celery root was removed, the flesh could be cooked or eaten raw in any number of different ways. An inexpensive winter root, its strong flavor and interesting texture made it frequent fare in our kitchen and also the inexpensive restaurants we frequented, where it most often appeared as céleri-rave rémoulade.

4 tbls butter

1 ½-2 pounds boneless lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces 

3 fresh bay leaves, or 1 dried bay leaf

1 ½ tsp salt

1 ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper 

1 tbls all-purpose flour 

1 cup beef stock

4 potatoes, peeled and quartered 

2 medium-sized or 1 large celery root, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (see note) 

¼ cup milk 

1 egg

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lamb and brown lightly on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add the bay leaves, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper and the flour, and continue to cook, stirring constantly. The flour will start to brown on the bottom of the pan, but don’t let it burn. Let it become very dark brown, as it is the browning flour that will eventually give the stew its rich, dark color. This will take 6 to 8 minutes. Stirring the meat and scraping the pan bottom, add the stock, a little at a time, until all the bits of browned flour are freed from the pan bottom and mixed into the liquid. Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer until the lamb is very tender and separates with a fork, 1 ½ to 2 hours. The cooking time may vary because the age of meat sold as lamb ranges considerably from very young to almost a yearling.

While the lamb is cooking, boil the potatoes in water to cover until tender, about 30 minutes. At the same time, in a separate pan boil the celery root in water to cover. The celery root will take a little less time to cook—only 15 to 20 minutes—than the potatoes.

Drain the potatoes, reserving ¼ cup of their cooking water, and place them in bowl. Drain the celery root and set aside 1 cup of the cubes to add to the potatoes and mash them together. Add the reserved potato cooking water, the milk, 2 tablespoons of the butter, egg, the thyme. Whisk all the ingredients until well blended and fairly smooth.

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. To assemble the pie, put the stew in an ovenproof casserole and stir in the reserved celery root cubes. Spoon the potato mixture evenly over the top to cover completely. Cut the remaining 1 tablespoon butter into bits and dot the potato topping with the bits. Place the casserole in the preheated oven until the topping is lightly browned and the stew is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6

Note:  Once it is exposed to the air, cut celery root discolors. If you are not going to use celery root immediately, put the cubes into a bowl of cold water to cover and add ¼ cup vinegar or fresh lemon juice to prevent discoloration.


Parsnip Dark Spice Cake

From Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables (Chronicle Books, 1996). 

The parsnips, like carrots in carrot cake, add moisture, texture, and fluffiness. Although not necessary, freshly ground spices bring an intense aroma and exotic taste to the finished product. Sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, spread with a buttercream frosting, or left plain, this is a cake for teatime, family desserts, or to nibble along with ice cream. This recipe was adapted from one that has been handed down in my husband's family through several generations.

7 tbls plus 1 tsp butter [margarine in original recipe]

1 medium-sized parsnip

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup raisins

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

1/4 tsp ground cloves, preferably freshly ground

1 tsp ground cinnamon, preferably freshly ground

1 cup water

Preheat an oven to 325° F. Using the 1 teaspoon margarine or butter, grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

With a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel the parsnip. On the fine holes of a handheld grater, grate the parsnip to measure 1/2 cup. Set aside. Reserve any leftover parsnip for another use.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl and set aside. Put the sugar, raisins, parsnip, 7 tablespoons margarine, salt, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and water in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Boil for just 1 or 2 minutes until the butter/margarine has melted and the raisins are plumped. Remove from the heat and let stand until cooled to lukewarm. Pour the lukewarm parsnip-raisin mixture into the flour mixture and stir just enough to moisten the dry ingredients; do not overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake until the edges of the cake start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let coot in the dish on a rack or countertop for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Cut into 3-by-4-inch pieces to serve.