On a perfect blue-sky summer day, two dozen members of the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America are mingling over coffee and fresh scones in the South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, garden of Eva Sommaripa. It’s almost time for the day’s main event: a talk and tour with their host, who, in these circles, is known simply as “Eva.” She’s a kind of celebrity among foodies and gardeners, famous not just for her garden’s bounty–hundreds of varieties of greens, culinary herbs, and edible flowers–but also for being the chief (and first) herb supplier to Boston’s culinary elite. She’s been an organic gardener for more than 40 years, a pioneer in helping people understand the value of local food. But it’s the quality of her plants that keeps chefs coming back. When you taste Eva’s basil, it’s like learning a new species.
One of her most passionate fans is Didi Emmons, a longtime Boston chef who now devotes her time to writing and working with the city and its schools to make fresh food available to all. “Being in Eva’s garden, immersed in the scents and perfumes, is addicting,” she says. “This place is like a Store 24 for bees.” Didi visited Eva’s garden so often over the years that she eventually teamed up with her to write a book. Equal parts seasonal plant guide and cookbook, Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm was published by Chelsea Green in the fall of 2011.
On this day Didi leads the group with Eva through small raised beds and arched trellises to the long, neat rows of mounded beds and greenhouses beyond. They point out familiar greens such as cilantro, parsley, arugula, and chives, but Eva also grows lesser-known herbs and wild edibles: the purple-flowered African blue basil with its camphor aroma, the sweet and minty anise hyssop, and even stinging nettles, which take on an earthy, vegetal flavor when boiled and pureed for soups. It’s an interactive tour, and the visitors pluck, rub, and taste the herbs, tucking favorites into baskets to garnish the potluck lunch to follow.
“Barely a month goes by where I don’t learn something new,” Eva says, “whether it’s a new plant or a new way to use a familiar plant at different stages of its growth.” She snaps a branch off a nearby shrub. Introduced from Asia in the 1800s and planted along roads and highways to deter soil erosion, the autumn olive has flourished. The tiny, red, tart-sweet fruits dotting the branch are actually berries, and despite their abundance, you rarely find autumn-olive jam or sorbet in your average kitchen–but you will at Eva’s.
A tour of Eva’s Garden reminds you of the full edible spectrum of each plant. Take the humble garden-pea vine. The pods aren’t the only parts worth eating. Tender pea greens–the leaves and tendrils of the young plants–add a rich pea flavor to salads and fresh spring rolls. Or consider the common chive plant, which offers more than just green stalks: The purple flowers pack an intense, sweet onion flavor. In Eva’s world, basil shouldn’t be limited to pasta; when pounded with sugar, it makes the beginning of a knockout summer lemonade. And cream steeped with fresh mint can be whipped into pillowy mounds and spooned on top of your favorite dessert.
Thinking beyond the ordinary is what Eva does best; her ingenuity endears her to both visitors and culinary comrades. It’s a feeling she returns. “I couldn’t do it without the chefs,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll suggest a new herb to me, and then I come right home and look it up. We inspire each other.”