Jennifer Martiné
A crisp leaf of Little Gem
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Big Little Gem

Carolyn Jung / June 2012

What’s small and green and an obsession from Silicon Valley to Calistoga? Carolyn Jung looks at the salad days of a mighty mite lettuce.

What would you call the latest darling lettuce that’s as compact as a softball, with leaves both tender and crunchy, sweet and mineral-like, that’s versatile enough to ride solo in salads, yet sturdy enough to braise or grill, and that’s so prevalent in the San Francisco Bay Area—and not much beyond as of yet—that it’s almost laughable?

A gem, perhaps? You bet.

Move over, mâche. Step aside, spring mix. Make way for Little Gem, an heirloom hybrid of romaine and butter lettuces that’s the latest rock-star produce pick. It’s the little lettuce that could—and does—well, just about anything.

“Little Gem has really reached critical mass in the past couple of years,” says Andy Powning, produce specialist for GreenLeaf, a San Francisco–based distributor of local, sustainable, and organic produce. “It has a perfectly developed head with heft and a lovely blanched white-yellow heart. What’s not to love? Grab some Green Goddess or Gorgonzola and have at it.”

Throngs have done just that, igniting a red-hot lettuce love affair that began albeit with a smolder rather than a sizzle. In 2001, GreenLeaf started peddling organic Little Gem, managing to sell only a couple of cases each week. Nowadays, it sells upwards of 150 cases—three pound boxes for $20 wholesale—a week. About 40 percent of GreenLeaf’s more than 600 restaurant, hotel, and catering clients clamor for it regularly.

The same is true at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Bay Area’s go-to grocery store for high-quality artisanal foods. Sales of Little Gem have jumped 50 percent in the past year. Indeed, the store sold more than 4,000 pounds of it last year, making it one of the more popular produce items despite its $5.99-a-pound retail price tag, says Simon Richard, the store’s head produce buyer. Richard, who’s also a farmer, even started growing it at Bi-Rite’s organic farm in Sonoma four years ago. Each year, he plants more and more. This year, he anticipates harvesting about 5,000 heads from summer through Christmas. “There are certain things you grow, and you wonder if people will actually buy it,” Richard says. “With these, there’s never a question.”

Just ask Bay Area chefs, who are fanatical about Little Gem. These days, it’s far more difficult to find a menu that doesn’t list it than one that does. Like many other aficionados, Melissa Perello of Frances in San Francisco likes to play up the crisp nature of Little Gem in salads, such as one with grilled asparagus, farro, toasted almonds, and mellow Pecorino Lucano. AQ, the San Francisco restaurant that changes not only its menu but its decor with the seasons, welcomed spring with Little Gem dressed with buttermilk, poppy seeds, and cured sardines. At Mustard’s Grill in Napa Valley’s Yountville, chef/owner Cindy Pawlcyn grows Little Gem in the small garden there and favors it over romaine for the restaurant’s signature Caesar salad. At the Mexican eatery Mamacita in San Francisco, Little Gem, rather than humdrum cabbage, gets shredded and tucked into crispy chicken tacos. And at Stuart Brioza’s and Nicole Krasinski’s State Bird Provisions, the recently opened San Francisco restaurant that features dim sum–like service, trolley carts made their maiden voyages around the dining room with glasses of Little Gem leaves poking out of a creamy mixture of salt cod, capers, and beans.

Chefs also are cooking it to coax a more complex flavor from Little Gem. At Étoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Perry Hoffman braises Little Gem hearts in beurre monté, then adds preserved lemon, green garlic, and escargots, before garnishing with fuzzy green almonds and forget-me-not flowers. At San Francisco’s RN74, Little Gem has been a popular salad fixture since the restaurant opened three years ago. But only recently did chef Jason Berthold create his first cooked dish with it—a riff on the classic bistro favorite, petits pois á la française, only he braises Little Gem with English peas and pearl onions before crowning it with grilled pork belly. At Camino in Oakland, chef/owner Russell Moore chars Little Gem halves on the roaring open hearth, serving them alongside grilled New York steak and duck fat–fried potatoes. “On their own, Little Gems are a little sweet and boring,” Moore says. “But grilling adds more depth.”

Far from an overnight sensation, Little Gem is believed to have been developed by French seed producer Vilmorin in 1880. It’s long been adored in France and the United Kingdom. It may or may not be related to sucrine, depending upon which grower or gardener you ask. One thing’s for sure, though: Its appeal has definitely taken root here. The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, the specialty produce farm that supplies top restaurants around the country, has grown Little Gem for 30 years. But last winter, after heeding its chef advisors, it decided to more than double its plantings of Little Gem. “We identified it as one of those things that’s really going to take off in 2012,” says farm co-owner Lee Jones, who has sold it recently to such acclaimed New York City restaurants as Eleven Madison Park. “It’s a rising star. It’s not a fad.”

Jones, who believes that most food affectations start in California and then spread eastward, is not surprised by Little Gem’s popularity in the Bay Area. Just how did Northern California become the epicenter of Little Gem love? Much like the genesis of California cuisine itself, the phenomenon may owe its vanguard to the venerable Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In fact, Moore, a former chef at Chez Panisse, grew so tired of composing endless Little Gem salads during his 20 year tenure there that he could only bring himself to start using it again at his own restaurant two years ago.

Little Gem got its storied start at Chez Panisse when proprietor Alice Waters says she longed to find “a crisp head of lettuce that we could cut into wedges and drizzle a vinaigrette over the top.” Warren Weber, owner of Star Route Farms, came knocking on her door in the late 1980s with a specimen he thought might do the trick. Weber, who was experimenting with a lot of lettuce varieties back then, believes he may have been the first farmer to grow Little Gem locally. Chez Panisse was the only willing taker, too. Back then, without more farms growing a steady supply of it, the price of the lettuce remained out of reach of most restaurants. Now, though, the Little Gem supply is larger and slightly more affordable because other California farms have devoted acreage to it, including Mariquita Farm in Watsonville; Happy Boy Farms in Soquel; Blue Heron Farms in Watsonville; and County Line Harvest, which grows in both Marin and Riverside counties.

Weber now grows it year-round in Bolinas in northern Marin County and in the Coachella Valley in the southern half of the state. He sells about 2,000 cases a week to far more restaurants than just Chez Panisse, where it still remains one of the most popular salads served in the cafe. Most of Weber’s 80 restaurant clients now purchase it regularly, including such San Francisco stalwarts as One Market, Greens, Jardinière, Boulevard, Delfina, and Tartine Bakery.

Did he ever imagine Little Gem would dazzle like this?

“I never thought arugula would become so popular, and we were one of the first growers of that, too,” he says with a laugh. “No, you just never know. When chefs like it, people eat it, and they ask about it. It becomes popular until something else takes over. I think this will be around for a while. It’s a good lettuce. It’s nice to see it everywhere in the Bay Area now.”