The latest agritourism trend: Meals in the field
Fresh strawberry tartlette with Vermont mascarpone at the Kingsbury Farmstead Kitchen
On June 8, 2012, the BLT achieved perfection. Chewy crusts bolstered an airy, tangy levain. Between the bread slices, fillings that were excellent alone were even better together. They included sweet, fruity tomatoes; peppery arugula; and bacon from Winding Brook Farm so thick it was more like biting into a slab of well-rendered pork belly. The homemade mayonnaise — viscous, creamy and acidic — tasted as if a chicken had laid its egg directly into a bowl of vinegar.
Perhaps this BLT tasted so fresh because most of its “straight-from-the-farm” ingredients really were. The sandwich was just one of the weekly specials at Kingsbury Farmstead Kitchen, the gourmet market and eatery at Kingsbury Market Garden, located just off Main Street in Warren.
It’s nothing new for farms to sell value-added products, everything from cheese to pickles to bacon. But now some Vermont farmers are becoming their own markets — by serving “meals in the field.” With offerings ranging from on-site stores and cafés to plein-air dinners and cookouts, these foodie farms are warm-weather tourist attractions and, for local families, an alternative to the standard snack bar.
Kingsbury Market Garden is owned by the Vermont Foodbank, which uses the Warren plot as a source of crops to distribute to 10 food shelves and other centers. Chosen by Foodbank leadership to run the farm, Aaron Locker and Suzanne Slomin opened the Farmstead Kitchen as their own business in 2010, their first growing season. As prepared-food purveyors, their secret weapons were Slomin’s degree from the French Culinary Institute and her slowly perfected recipe for French-style levain loaves, fermented and leavened at low temperatures in a 24-hour process.
This year, the Farmstead Kitchen has another valuable asset. After nine years as executive sous-chef at Michael’s on the Hill in Waterbury, Douglas Paine decided he was in the market for “something new,” he says, and became Slomin’s co-chef.
Paine has increased the offerings at the store — and its ambitions. There are more made-to-order foods, and a pair of refrigerated cases is stuffed with prepared foods — everything from composed salads to spinach-ramp-green soup to pâté made from Callahan Farm chicken livers. Before Paine’s arrival, “Maybe I used to make a terrine every six weeks,” remembers Slomin. “Now it’s a constant, stable product.”
Another of Paine’s specialties is garden-fresh soda. Strawberry-rhubarb soda, for instance, has a strawberry flavor so immediate, you almost look for the seeds. Chervil soda is Day-Glo green and licorice flavored, spiked with lemon for extra refreshment. It tastes like an achievement, but it’s actually an experiment. “The chervil patch is on its way out, so we needed to find a use for it,” Paine says.
Garden odds and ends also find their way onto extra-large slices of pizzette, which Locker doles out to customers at room temperature, straight from the bread shelf behind the counter of the high-ceilinged farm store. One late-spring mini-pizza was topped with a tangle of sugar-snap peas, spinach and mint leaves on a base of nutty Spring Brook Farm raclette. Slices of prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa added salt and chewy meatiness. A light dousing of truffle oil gave the whole slice an earthy sophistication.
Not all customers grab and go; some bring their food to the picnic tables that sit in a field, not far from a quartet of greenhouses. There’s a swimming hole out back, too, and Locker says he hopes visitors will make a day of visiting the farm. Once summer is in swing, though, attracting customers is no problem. “After July 4, there’s no turning back in terms of the [Mad River] Valley traffic,” Locker says. “It gets to be really a zoo. We sell piles of mozzarella-basil-and-tomato sandwiches.”
While Kingsbury may be the on-farm-dining hot spot in the Mad River Valley, in Chittenden County, the title belongs to Bread & Butter Farm. Corie Pierce and Adam Wilson own the former Leduc family dairy farm in Shelburne. Pierce says their Friday Burger Nights attract as many as 350 people each week between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Pierce and Wilson kicked off Burger Nights last June, in their third year at the farm, as a way to promote their new grass-fed-beef program. They expected attendance in the low double digits at the first dinner, but ended up serving 150 people. “Well, I guess we tapped into something here,” Pierce remembers thinking. Two weeks ago, the farm added a Monday Burger Night.
Since the events started, hordes of families have walked the dusty path past massive silos and mother cows with their calves to loll in the field, listen to music and enjoy a burger. Pierce’s partner, Chris Dorman, schedules musical accompaniment, including his own band, to entertain diners who sit at picnic tables or sprawl on their own blankets.
The grass-fed cattle raised at Bread & Butter Farm spend their final moments at Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Falls, N.Y. After the animals are dispatched, they’re ground and made into uniform patties at the same facility. Hot dogs, a new addition this year, are crafted at Tri-Town from a mix of beef and the farm’s skim-milk-fed pigs.
Cooked on a brand-new custom charcoal grill, the dogs’ casings sizzle and bubble as stripes of char form. Both dogs and burgers are served in square, yeasted homemade buns. They’re a far cry from the hearty, whole-grain Bread & Butter loaves that have earned Wilson a reputation at various local markets and retail outlets.
But the ever-changing salads, all made in-house from ingredients grown on the farm, add a wholesome note. Early in the season, they lean heavily on kale and chard. A beet-and-goat-cheese salad was popular last week, and Pierce says this week she expects to have cucumbers ready for a simple green salad. Even cookies at Burger Night are on the healthy side — the texture of a ginger-rye one suggests a breakfast option.
Just as Burger Night showcases Bread & Butter Farm’s beef, so Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet uses a weekend café to introduce people to its main product: artisan cheese. The 300-acre dairy farm is in its third year of serving food each weekend from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. New York literary agent Angela Miller owns Consider Bardwell with Chris Gray, Rust Glover and cheese maker Peter Dixon. It was Miller’s idea to use the food expertise she accrued working with big-name clients such as Mark Bittman, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Marcus Samuelsson to craft fare that would bring locals to the farm.
The simple, self-serve café offers options such as scones made with Italian Toma-style Pawlet cheese and simple tarts filled with squash, onion and Alpine-style Rupert. Pawletti grilled cheeses can be dressed up with sliced apple, onion, tomato or prosciutto, or enjoyed plain. Leftover bits go into an indulgent macaroni and cheese. Miller says that, starting on July 8, the Consider Bardwell Farm Café will begin hosting Sunday talks, so diners can learn while they eat.
The part-time Vermonter has helped other local businesses jump on the value-added train with the creation of the West Pawlet Community Farmers Market. Each Friday at the West Pawlet Fish and Game Club Building, Miller and other chefs prepare sit-down dinners made from local farmers’ wares.
While some farm dinners are fixtures of the local calendar, others are occasional affairs. At Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro, which hosted its kickoff First Friday dinner on June 1, the goal is a monthly event, says farmer Eric Rozendaal, owner of Eric’s Eggs. He and chef Andrea Todd “banged out the concept together,” he says of the casual dinners where visitors are invited to set out a blanket and enjoy gorditas made from pork and vegetables grown on the farm. In August, a guest chef from Portugal will preside over a traditional clambake with chorizo and corn.
Promoting agritourism is part of the idea, Rozendaal says, but he doesn’t see the dinners primarily in business terms: “Our main goal is to have fun and get some people to the farm. It looks good this year, and it’s nice to show it off.”
For a more formal meal, diners may need to make reservations for events such as the opulent Outstanding in the Field dinner, organized on the national level. (This year, it makes its annual Vermont stop at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, with chef Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill at the helm.) Some local farms also have plans for sit-down dining. Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in East Thetford, which has a café selling pastries and coffee daily, will break out the good china four times this summer for dinners served along the Connecticut River. Kingsbury is planning a wine dinner for July 14, the first of what Slomin says she hopes will be a series of meals.
Some of the entrepreneurs behind these events are relative newcomers to farming. A few years ago, Rozendaal of Rockville Market Farm says, he never expected to add his egg business to the farm, let alone become a dinner destination. “In this business, things are happening so quickly,” he says. “Anything’s possible.”
But one thing’s for certain: As farms reach out, casual diners will get used to eating fresh — and seek out more food straight from the field.