Hills Of Plenty


Hills Of Plenty

Until 1847, “Yerba Buena” was the common name given to the dense cluster of ramshackle timber houses, wharfs and warehouses that existed way before downtown San Francisco took its place. Named for the creeping Californian herb that had blanketed the Bay Area hills for centuries, Yerba Buena, or “good herb”, had been used by Native Americans and Spanish missionaries as a cure for tooth pain, headache and indigestion.


It’s no accident that a complex and creative food community prospered around this bay: three hundred days of sunshine and 59 inches of water a year soak in to the land from Pacific fog (in comparison, London receives a modest 33 inches from rainfall). The sandy, mineral-rich earth of the Santa Clara and San Jose valleys sees fruit and nut trees grow to full size in just a few years. During its agricultural heyday at the start of the twentieth century, the Santa Clara Valley was home to nearly 100,000 acres of apricot and plum groves.


Agriculture is still very important to San Franciscans and the city has one of the highest concentrations of urban farms in the country; there are several in every neighbourhood. Back in 1971, chef Alice Waters fuelled the farm-to-table phenomenon with the opening of restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which put ingredients before technique. In 2013, the City threw a tax break bone to those intending to develop empty lots into microfarms. The success (and even the existence) of San Francisco and the Bay Area owes much to this agricultural patchwork.

John Muir

If anyone should be recognised for their contribution to understanding the wildlife of California, it’s John Muir. The young Scotsman came to America with his family in the mid 1800s, and made the West Coast both his home and his mission, exploring many trails of the Californian West. A self-proclaimed botany student at the “university of the wilderness”, he first encountered the Yosemite Valley at thirty, and subsequently explored nearly every crest, crown, ridge and pass of the Sierras.


Muir’s love for the Californian wilderness manifested itself in writings, essays and diaries, and by the turn of the twentieth century his near-spiritual descriptions of nature had made him a leading literary figure. He became a significant agent in early environmental preservation movements, and campaigned for decades from his San Francisco home to ensure areas of California were declared protected wilderness.


Muir Woods, over the Golden Gate in Marin County, is one of the most significant. The Muirs bought the land as a tree-lovers’ monument and a contemplative wilderness. Drive 40 minutes north from downtown and marvel at the ferns and giant redwoods.

18 Reasons

18 Reasons seeks to promote a dialogue between the neighbourhood and the people who create food and art there. In their words, they “provide a space where ideas are exchanged and relationships are forged”. This is a new type of community centre: one where local residents can learn how to make jam, or carve ham. Or those with less active sensibilities can turn up for community Soup for Supper events.


The narrow storefront has existed in its current incarnation since 2007, when its original founders (a duo of local residents) offered the space to the food-loving folks at Bi¬Rite Market. The aim was to connect their neighbours with food and drink producers, while also enriching an understanding of food provenance. Its success is built on breaking away from the mass-produced food practices of the second half of the twentieth century, and returning instead to a whole-food ethic. Going from strength to strength, in 2012 they launched a programme teaming up local schools with urban farms, and they also offer classes teaching people how to grow their own greens.

The Botanical Garden at Berkeley

The Berkeley Botanical Garden made headlines in July 2015 when the sinister-sounding Corpse Flower bloomed; it was the first time it had done so in six years. The spectacularly smelly flower is one of the largest and rarest on earth, and just one of 12,000 species occupying this 34-acre sliver in the Berkeley Hills. The botanical garden is overwhelmingly beautiful, and educational, too. Walk up past the craftsmen’s cottages behind the world-famous University of California, Berkley, and you step back in time. Established in 1890, the garden has winding paths that form a living index, or archive, of greenery on our planet, categorised by area names such as ‘high desert of the Andes’ and ‘Canary Island plants’. One of the most interesting sections is the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden, where an everyday pharmacopeia is arranged by ailment and cure.

Namu Gaji

This special little restaurant is named after the felled cypress tree that was salvaged from Golden Gate Park and used to form its bar: “namu gaji” means “tree branch” in Korean. What sets this place apart is that all ingredients are produced specially for the menu at Namu Gaji’s one-acre farm in Sunol, just beyond the city boundaries. Here at Namu Farm, Korean herbs, leaves and aromatics are grown following organic, biodynamic and permaculture practices. The farm is carbon neutral, and Kristyn Leach, who runs it, has integrated her methods with the natural cycles of the land, respecting both modern and traditional Korean farming practices.


Founded by the three Lee brothers in 2012, the farm extends their ethical practices beyond the restaurant; anything surplus is donated to the Korean Community Center of the East Bay where it is given out at food banks.

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