HEN SUMMER TURNED TO autumn, most of the flower children returned to university or settled down in conventional jobs. But not everyone was ready to give up their newfound alternative lifestyles. Bob Bernstein was one of those who ended up on a commune in the Californian countryside. ‘They picked me up when I was hitchhiking and I’ve been there ever since,’ says Bob of Porno Tierra, a collective north of San Francisco which he joined in 1971. ‘It was pretty wild. No-one had ever farmed before. We just knew we wanted out of the city.’ Nowadays Bob and his apples, juices and cider vinegars are a regular fixture at the Berkeley farmers’ markets, where he is known to many as ‘Bernie’, thanks to his resemblance to the senator Bernie Sanders.
Just across the water from San Francisco, on the east side of the bay, Berkeley remains a bastion of counter-culture. During the ’60s, the university was at the heart of the anti-Vietnam-War protest movements, and many students never left town after graduating. There must be a higher percentage of proudly grey, longhaired citizens here than anywhere else in America. This is a place where holistic centres abut biofuel garages, bars serving kombucha fermented health drinks are more numerous than Starbucks, and grocery shopping is carried out conspicuously with canvas bags at the tri-weekly farmers’ markets.
At the Thursday market on Shattuck Avenue, locals are joined by out-of-towners, drawn by the promise of produce so good that North Berkeley has acquired the nickname ‘the Gourmet Ghetto’. Wiggly-shaped baby squashes, corn with the husks still on and peppers popping in reds, yellows, greens and purples form a tableau that is almost psychedelic in its explosion of colour and pattern. Still-warm loaves of spelt bread, Bernie’s apple juices and a stall selling raspberry-basil sorbet and bran died cherry ice-cream tempt shoppers. Baskets of plump peaches are so fragrant that they demand to be eaten right there and then.
Given that so many hippies stayed in Berkeley, it’s not surprising this became the crucible of the organic food revolution. ‘Living in Berkeley in the ’60s, there was this sense that we could change the world. Everyone knew someone who’d dropped out to join a commune and you just absorbed the understanding that we had to care for the land,’ says Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse. Since opening on Shattuck Avenue in 1971, the restaurant has been one of the earliest champions of local and sustainable food, pioneering now widespread practices, such as changing dishes daily according to what’s in season and naming producers on the menu. Gourmands from around the world continue to make the pilgrimage here, passing under the vine-trellised entrance into the small serving room, where warm wood and brass finishing give the appearance of a homely French-style brasserie. Dishes are seemingly simple – a wild salmon carpaccio, roasted lamb with green garlic – but when the provenance is this good, it’s best left unadorned.
Opposite Chez Panisse stands another Berkeley institution: the Cheese Board Collective. Founded the same year as the Summer of Love, the deli is a veritable library of cheddars, goudas, American jacks and goat’s cheeses. Inside, chalked blackboards announce seasonal specials, and a cow statue, clothed in multi-coloured crochet knit, stands guard. Next door, a pizzeria serves thin pies with toppings that change daily, but are always vegetarian, and a live jazz band keeps customers tapping their feet as they wait. What makes this place unique is the way it is run, as a co-op. All staff earn the same hourly wage, no matter how long they’ve been there, and decisions are made by the consensus of all 54 employees. ‘For customers who remember the ’60s, we’re a touchstone to that period of political action,’ says worker Cathy Goldsmith, as she carefully slices a wedge of gruyere.
Social consciousness is woven throughout the fabric of Berkeley. Its farmers’ markets, which would be the envy of wealthy communities everywhere, are accessible to those on lower incomes, thanks to food stamp programmes. In the poorer southwest area of town, the Spiral Gardens Community Farm is another example of trying to bring Eden to everyone. Kanchan Dawn Hunter is just visible among the luxuriant jungle of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. A scrum of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are proof of the chemical-free policy here. ‘When my husband founded the gardens 14 years ago, this was a vacant lot surrounded by liquor stores. It was difficult for the neighbourhood to access fresh food,’ recalls Kanchan. Now, the project teaches locals to grow their own and distributes free produce to those in need. Visitors support the gardens by buying seeds, fruit and vegetables, while learning about native plants and sustainable growing practices from the volunteers. ‘It’s environmental justice in action,’ says Kanchan, looking the picture of an eco warrior with her straw hat and dreads braided with cowrie shells.