by Hillary Lindsay
January 18th marked the third in a series of dinners by The Blooming Hill Farm Supper Club, featuring a team from NYC's Lupa Restaurant which has earned the Slow Food Snail of Approval. These dinners, which take place on Blooming Hill Farm in Blooming Grove, New York, evolved from a more rustic predecessor originally conceived by the farm's owner and operator, Guy Jones.
Guy, a forerunner in the sustainable organic farming movement, first started inviting Manhattan chefs up to the farm over ten years ago. He wanted them to cook multi-course all vegetarian meals as a means of cross promotion and as a way to showcase to diners how his produce could be used. The events started small, growing gradually in size and frequency simply by word of mouth.
Austin Jones, Guy's son and a Lupa employee, has started organizing a new kind of farm dinner at the Supper Club events, which features a larger more refined menu — including locally sourced meat and fish. He gathers an experienced restaurant staff and brings them up to the Hudson Valley, to the farm where he grew up. The crew, including Lupa chefs Cruz Goler and Darren Weston, is bringing the New York dining experience directly to the farm while effectively representing each seasonal harvest.
The first dinner in the series was on a Saturday in early August, a perfect summer evening. The long outdoor tables, delicious Italian cooking, and conviviality made it feel as if we were transported to a family dinner form The Godfather. The ambience of the string lights, candles, stunning sunset, sunflowers, music, and the occasional rooster call, elevated the event to seem more like a movie than reality. But, roosters and sunflowers aside, the food was the star of this feature presentation. The chefs' rustic but refined Italian recipes incorporated hyper local ingredients, many of which came from the farm itself.
The unforgettable nine-course meal began with passed brick oven fired pizza made from organic sourdough (continuously fermented for 22 years) topped with summer sweet corn, stracciatella cheese, and basil, or done Carbonara style with guanciale, parmesan, pecorino romano, chives, and egg yolk.
The eight sit down courses in the meal started light with wood-roasted Watch Hill oysters from Chef Goler's native Rhode Island — finished with dill butter and plated on heaping mounds of herb salt. Next was a light grilled salad of baby lettuces and roots with chopped olives dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette followed by the third course of Hudson Valley rabbit roulade with gooseberries and Dijon-infused carrot slaw. At the halfway point, Chef Weston put his heart into a wild summer green risotto with pork sausage, black truffles, basil, chervil, and shallots, stirring furiously over a steaming rondo. The heavy hitters were to come in the two protein courses of grilled Catskill trout with salsa rossa and smoked baby eggplants (my favorite) and hay-roasted, dry-aged strip loin with tomato panzanella and herb ricotta.
The finale was sweet in two parts: hand-churned peach sorbetto with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh basil followed by a return to the brick oven in charred plums and peaches with mascarpone cheese, almond gelato, and crispy riso.
This incredible sampling was unforgettably delicious. Plate after plate titillated the taste buds and wowed us aesthetically with their vibrant visual displays. The mutual enjoyment of all created a shared farm-food experience amongst the hoop houses where many of the herbs and vegetables we'd consumed had been grown and where their counterparts were continuing to grow while we ate.
Aside from getting a direct view of the farm, the diners additionally received a sneak peak into the "behind-the-scenes" of a kitchen. The open-air facility, brick-oven, grill, and plating station were all in plain view of the guests. The visible process broke down the barrier between the front and back of the house, creating one open forum where diners and staff could enjoy the food and drink together. The mutual experience continued post-event around a fire pit with a few more drinks (or maybe more than a few) and great conversation, mostly about the food.
Round two took place in early October on a warm fall day around that same fire pit: this time taking center stage. A whole pig and two whole goats were roasting over its coals, wafting meaty aromas through the vegetable-filled farmer's market in the nearby barn. Some shopping herbivores may have been put off, but the omnivores (leaning then towards carnivore), including myself, couldn't wait to get a taste. And the meat wasn't the only thing roasting in the pit; sweet potatoes, carrots, and an assortment of fall root vegetables were cooking slowly, stuffed deep beneath the coals.
This was the most bountiful time of year for the farm — the height of the harvest — and thus, appropriate to the season, the meal was served family-style. After pizzas (a seemingly indispensable starter at these events), the following was served, mounded high, on rough cut boards: coal-roasted carved pork and goat, sweet potato biscuits, and smoked kale with roasted roots — all accompanied by stone-ground corn polenta shoveled into charred cheese pumpkins, fall mesclun and tall mason jars filled with house made summer pickles. A little something sweet came at the end in the form of a fall fruit crumble with homemade maple gelato.
A shared seasonal feast couldn't have been more true to the Italian experience and the Slow Food Mission. Societies first began to form around the fire and the food it roasted. Meals, such as these, bring people together the way we instinctively are designed to behave. It's our nature. The behavior is as natural as the food.
This most recent Supper Club was set on a picturesque snowy winter day, cozy in the barn. This time we all huddled around the woodstove, or the pizza oven, simply for warmth. We kept our heart rates up by helping out with the chopping, cooking, and setting up, as well as shooting shotguns in the farm's back field (a quality use of prep time). For extra warmth, we were offered a seasonal cocktail in the form of a special hot toddy flowing with bourbon, honey, lemon, cinnamon, clove, and anise. However, the true warmth came, as always, from the food.
We began again with various pizzas from the brick oven, passed around before being seated at the table. The first plated course was a meticulous charcuterie plate featuring trout riette, trout roe, confit duck leg, and Chef Weston's own venison mortadella served with fresh baked pine-juniper bread. The second course was a warm, rich and smoky root vegetable veloute finished with dehydrated sunchoke chips and shaved winter truffles followed close behind by one of the things the Lupa boys do best: pasta. Handmade oriecchette with a cocoa infused wild boar ragu finished with hearty winter farm greens. Fourth and main were lamb short ribs braised in a balsamic reduction with farm polenta, and roasted parsnips glazed with honey and a dash of cumin. Something to write home about... tastiest meat I've ever had! Dessert that night was short and to the point — a farmer's whoopee pie with a touch of molasses filled with ginger crema.
These assorted winter delicacies brought us all comfort in the cold night. It may have been snowy and freezing outside, but inside, with the food, fire, and friends, it was as warm as could be. As the elements become harsh, we are again primitively drawn to the fire and the food its heat transforms.
Working behind-the-scenes, I found that the farm dinner concept introduces an interesting dynamic: negotiating the shift between restaurant and farm as well as space, identity, and control. It becomes a study of cooking in an unfamiliar space and how techniques are reworked in order to adjust. When the setting changes, even by shifting closer to the food source, everything changes with it.
Bringing diners to the food's origin, the Supper Club team was able to provide its guests with a Table To Farm experience — it doesn't get much more local than that. This unique perspective was an eye-opener and an educational tool for the guests, as well as the event staff, deepening their understanding of the food system which has become largely separated from modern life. The role of farm dinners like these is to help reunite the disconnected ends of the food system while sharing an unforgettable dining experience. Efforts like this must continue and grow so we can mend the damaged system. The great success of these first events will hopefully lead to many more to be enjoyed by all.
The Blooming Hill Farm Supper Club has represented three of four seasons since its inception. Spring is next! The tentative date for this dinner is Saturday, May 3rd. You can contact Austin@Bloominghillfarm.com for more details.
Hillary Lindsay is a NYC resident with an anthropology degree who explores culture through food by engaging in work on farms, in restaurants, and in shops, as well as through blogging and social media. Check out her blog at fttdeconstructed.wordpress.com.