5 Courses with Eva Sommaripa of Eva's Garden


Photo: LOUISA KASDON

You may think you don't know Eva Sommaripa. But you do. Ever notice the perky, pungent greens on the chef's menu, described as "greens from Eva's Garden"? That's Eva. This mistress of all things green has been providing New England chefs with fresh herbs for more than 30 years. I spent a day with her on her Dartmouth farm and never got a complete answer to a single question. She was too busy dispensing advice on how to harvest stinging nettles ("with gloves and at the end of the day"), issuing commands ("Taste the sorrel!"), and sharing factoids about purslane, chervil, and African basil, her hands occupied all the while with snipping and plucking. But chef/author Didi Emmons settled in with Eva long enough to write Wild Flavors, a new book that captures some of her vast knowledge about the edibles around us.

Why did it take so long to write a book about you? I don't do much other than hang out in the garden. You have to live here in my garden to write a book about me. Didi did it over a period of years; she stayed here with me on the farm. Not that many people are willing to get that close to their subject! Didi thought long and hard about whether it was going to be a cookbook or a gardening book. The charm of the book is that it is a hybrid, connecting the kitchen with the garden, and the garden with the kitchen. That's what makes it special.

How might the chefs you work with describe you? Wacky and chaotic. Those words come up a lot. And quirky - I hear quirky a lot too. One of the chefs called me an "engine for creativity." I really liked that.

How did you get started growing all these herbs? I'm not a planner. I just started growing this stuff in my backyard. And then I needed a bigger yard. And I started growing more things, and then I would tell somebody what I was doing - with my usual innate enthusiasm. And they would get caught up in it too. I'm not very intentional. I like to share what I love with someone else. And when I have a payroll to meet, I want to sell it to someone.

Where did you get the idea to start selling to chefs? Well, they were the ones who got excited first! We were mutually enthusiastic. I loved sharing my herbs with people who fell in love with them. The chefs shared with me too. Ken Oringer asked me for sassafras root. I had some trees, and I figured I would try. You have to take a saw to the root! . . . Sassafras is a tough underground root with a root-beer taste, and it's contained in some dangerous drug - and the government made an effort to suppress it. It has a wonderful flavor. I make it into a sorbet with rum and maple syrup.

What's been the best part of the book experience? The book party was amazing! Didi set up a tasting table for herbs. I made a sign that said "TASTE ME!" I was amazed: sorrel, cilantro, dill, pea greens, and nasturtium leaves, and no one knew what they were! When I told them, they would say "Ooh!" Pretty food-savvy people, but they really did not know what things taste like in their basic raw state. The flavor of any one herb changes if it is a sunny day or a cloudy day. You get to know the nuances if you are nibbling on these things all day like I do.

Louisa Kasdon can be reached at louisa@louisakasdon.com.