When trying to reassemble the pieces of the American food story, step back a bit to the unprocessed foods unearthed from the healthy soil of pre-World War II America. That taste. That’s where this begins.
Before I knew much about the care and synergy of organic gardening, before I got in my car and drove outside of Columbia, Missouri, to find this particular plot, before I booked a seat at the table or worried over the state of my work shoes, Craig and Sarah Cyr of The Wine Cellar & Bistro in Columbia were simply people whose cooking and wine choices, respectively, I had always enjoyed.
Many people, in fact, are finding good reasons to drive the short distance outside of Columbia and dig in their dirt. They are drawn by The Wine Cellar Garden Project at the certified-organic, 15-acre farm that is Craig and Sarah’s homeplace. More, they are drawn by the solace of breaking soil with their fingers, sprinkling seeds, witnessing birth and death and season.
Striding up to the 5,625-square-foot main garden, newcomers arrive expectant. But the energy near the beds is steady, unhurried, and no rushing is needed. Snippets of conversation carry over the clear Saturday morning air.
“Some of us are born with pads on our fingers that need to contact dirt,” a gardener says as she sprinkles a palmful of seeds down a row.
“My German roots,” another says and shrugs.
Others, men and women wearing comfortable shoes, notably as worn as my own, are watching the action or tossing straw over just-planted seeds.
“So, this is the beginning of spring,” Sarah says, and the words feel like triumph.
People stand a little straighter and smile.
With 14 Saturday mornings devoted to the Garden Project from March through October this year, visitors have a chance to experience several shifts in season from the ground up. This is how it used to be for many in preprocessed America, and it’s pivotal for the Cyrs.
“We started it to open up a dialogue, to show people how to grow organically and how we use farm-fresh ingredients at the restaurant,” Craig says. “We look forward to seeing the same faces – and new faces – at every class, and the sense of community and connections we make with diners.”
No Ordinary Dirt
It might be rare to truly connect with the seasons for some people, but Craig and Sarah find that relationship fundamental. In 2013, the Cyrs added the Garden Project to their restaurant, The Wine Cellar & Bistro, to supply fresh, local food to its kitchen. Now, guests arrive at the Cyrs’ not-so-secret garden to share their love of good food and connection to the earth.
“This is what we want to do for our lives, for our kids,” Sarah says. There is a conviction to her words and the sense of an evolving goal. Sarah, a sommelier, whose offerings at The Wine Cellar have been recognized by Wine Spectator every year since 2005, and a lawyer by training, now spends more and more of her time with the Garden Project.
“I’m always amazed that 13 rows of garden produced about 2,500 pounds of food [last year],” she says. “There’s such a sense of satisfaction seeing it all get used.”
The Cyrs decided to start the Garden Project over a bottle of wine on the 10th anniversary of their restaurant. “Craig wanted to have more time in the garden, and he wanted to grow the things he wanted to cook, especially these heirloom varieties,” Sarah says. Plus, perhaps stemming from her background in law, Sarah appreciates big ideas.
“We wanted to put more focus on people working to make good, clean, healthy food,” she says. “We wanted to help drive that.”
It’s easy to see the draw once you taste the fruits of the land. After much attention to soil health, planting companion plants to deter pests, learning about compost tea to boost growth, and other changes to the land and their approach, the Cyrs’ farm was certified organic in 2015. There is pleasure, Sarah says, in the flavor of food raised well and in having living, biodynamic soil that supports great-tasting plants.
“It’s not your garden of the ’60s or ’70s,” says Carrie Hargrove, director of urban farming for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA) and Garden Project guest lecturer. “We are starting to realize that reducing tillage can create a healthier ecosystem for soil microorganisms as opposed to constantly tilling your garden. Soil looks like this in nature.”
She’s referring to the garden’s intact crust of earth, not tilled wholesale, and the cover crops that shelter the rows not yet planted for the season.
The Cyrs now partner with the CCUA on the Garden Project classes, which take participants from the beginning to end of an entire growing season. Classes focus on hands-on gardening experience, gardening lectures by experts from the CCUA, organic and biodynamic discussions with Sarah, a farm-inspired lunch prepared by Craig and a seasonal organic wine pairing by Sarah.
“We’ve inspired a lot of people to open community gardens or gardens in town,” Craig says. “It’s definitely helped motivate people to grow their own food.”
There’s an aroma at the Garden Project, too, a sweet compost-and-herb scent that touches at memory. Yes, some small kernel inside you says, this is what I knew.
The Cyrs’ garden plot sits on a hill overlooking a lake. There is an asparagus bed, an elderberry row, and peach, apple and cherry trees branching out in various spots nearby. Sarah plants horseradish, nettles, wild onions, comfrey and borage under the fruit trees to draw away pests. The soil is deep and dark, and the plot looks robust even in early spring.
“The more diverse your garden,” Hargrove says, “the more stable and self-sufficient it is. The basis of growing sustainably is respecting the soil.”
For the Cyrs, this means always looking ahead. “It’s an act of patience,” Sarah says. “There is immediate gratification but not as much as [you get] using a fast-acting fertilizer.”
The Garden Project was one of eight Missouri farms certified as organic last year by Quality Certification Services (QCS), a national certification organization. In total, there are 372 farms or processing facilities certified as organic in the state.
“Some [applicants] stop for one of two reasons,” says Ramkrishnan Balasubramanian, chief operating officer of QCS. “[The farmer] ends up applying a material that is prohibited because it’s [his or her] first time going through the process. Or, they stop their certification because of economic reasons combined with paperwork.”
While the Garden Project farm was going through its certification process, the Cyrs were not able to officially call anything from their farm organic, though the required practices were already in place. After three years, the farm’s certification was official. This makes The Wine Cellar & Bistro the only Missouri restaurant with its own certified-organic farm, to the best of Balasubramanian’s knowledge.
But it’s the food that makes the Garden Project complete.
“It’s really hard to ignore,” Hargrove says. Rich, tantalizing aromas from the farm kitchen waft out over the Garden Project group as she speaks about compost.
Farm to Fork
In town, the Cyrs’ restaurant creates yet another companionable atmosphere: cozy, relaxed and sophisticated without being formal. Barrel tops, emblazoned with winery names, adorn and warm the walls. Bottles are showcased throughout the space.
At this particular moment in the life of Craig’s kitchen, a large stone mortar and pestle sits on a stainless steel table at the ready. Craig is combining ingredients for a sauce, and it’s easy to be mesmerized by the thick roll of golden honey cascading off his ladle. It’s a deceptively slow pour. Like the activity here, there’s a sense of underlying drive.
“This is pretty calm,” he says. “I mean, it’s Tuesday.” Craig’s eyes are unruffled when he says this. He stops pouring, picks up a spatula and twirls it between his palms. I am reminded that in his younger days Craig played competitive tennis but now channels his energy into synchronizing the kitchen and dining experience.
He turns to finish pouring the beautiful northern Missouri honey into tomato paste, adds kombucha, leans over the concoction and flicks in ground cloves. “I’m messing around with different fermented foods for health benefits,” he says.
This particular day, there are fermented redbud flowers on the restaurant’s seared tuna dish, along with Garden Project chickweed made into salsa verde.
“Not even weeds are safe from my husband,” Sarah had mentioned at the farm.
The Wine Cellar doors swing open.
“OK guys, we have a four, four, a three, a three, a six, a three and two twos,” says a waiter listing off the tables of people now in the restaurant. “Welcome to Tuesday!”
Craig, still quiet and unhurried, turns to his sauce saying, “Who would have thought?”
Back at the Ranch
Word has spread about The Wine Cellar & Bistro and its farm roots. The Cyrs are connecting as much to how Americans ate in the 1940s. Many crave those flavors again.
Sharmini Rogers, a longtime resident of Columbia, has come to the Garden Project’s bimonthly Saturday morning classes three or four times a year since they began in 2013 and started volunteering in the kitchen with Craig this year.
“It’s very much a family affair sort of thing,” Rogers says. “So, if we come early for class, we help bring things out [to the tables].”
At a Saturday morning class, a few volunteers help in the garden while the kitchen begins to hum. “What is nice,” Rogers says, “is that parts of the meal – things like the vinaigrette – are things Craig has pickled and preserved from the garden last summer.”
The Cyrs’ two children, Mae, 6, and Boone, 5, help, as well.
“Boone and Mae helped pick mint leaves, and decorated the dessert,” says Rogers, reflecting on a March Saturday morning.
“At the Garden Project,” Craig says, “I come up with meals from what I can get immediately out of the garden.”
That simple truth is what connects the whole day. The rest of the atmosphere arises directly from the Cyrs.
“There’s nothing pretentious about Craig’s kitchen,” Rogers says. “It’s very striking to me that the things in his kitchen are what even cooks like me are familiar with.”
Craig, who grew up with grandparents who kept a huge garden and served family meals, lets that influence how he and Sarah live today. “They preserved and canned,” he says. “They were doing what that generation was doing, and I was around that growing up.”
Rogers plans to sign up for about six Saturdays this year. “I love, love, love it when they bring out the food for the tables and Sarah stands there with her wine [of choice] overlooking the lake,” Rogers says. “It’s just an experience. And the chickens are a nice touch, too.”
The lunch at the Garden Project on this day started with braised local pork shoulder stew with miso, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, Champagne and apples; roasted spaghetti squash; garlic and rosemary cremini; grilled local bread with smoked trout, redbud pickles and spinach; and kale salad with huckleberry vinaigrette.
For dessert, a fresh and subtly sweet gooseberry-apple-rhubarb crumble was topped with banana semifreddo. The feast is complemented by Sarah’s chosen organic wine, a Sangiovese-Merlot blend.
The Missouri air mingling with the aroma of freshly cooked food; the tables set outside, weather permitting; the Cyrs’ farm dog, Xela, perhaps barking – it’s all sublime and savory and a scene that doesn’t have to be from the past any longer.
The Wine Cellar & Bistro, 505 Cherry St., Columbia, Missouri, 573.442.7281, winecellarbistro.com