Twenty-one years in New England, and I still feel like an upstart, being neither thrifty nor flinty enough to fit the Yankee stereotype. I’m not crafty enough, either, though I certainly try. But come each autumn, when the trees brazenly display their reds, oranges, and golds, I like to claim New England as my own. This year, my sense of ownership felt especially keen as I headed for Old Chatham, New York, to attend a dinner put on by Outstanding in the Field. Organized by Jim Denevan, chef at Santa Cruz’s Gabriella Café, these organic farm dinners have been highlighting local produce and celebrating the beauty of California since 1999. Now Denevan has taken his show on the road, traveling from a sea cave in Pescadero, California, through Colorado and Illinois to New York’s wine regions in the Finger Lakes and Long Island. I tasted the Berkshires’ bounty at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Farm, site of the 2004 season’s penultimate farm meal.
Jim Denevan and his staff pair small organic farms with celebrated chefs who turn the native produce into a multicourse feast. With the season’s brilliant leaves lending a gorgeous backdrop to the Shaker barns on Tom and Nancy Clark’s farm, Old Chatham seemed a perfect expression of New England—and a perfect occasion to revel in local agriculture.
The Clarks began raising sheep only ten years ago, in a region where goat’s milk cheese still reigns supreme. From six hundred sheep their herd has grown to over one thousand, mainly East Friesian, and they can now produce extraordinary sheep’s milk cheeses year round.
Our afternoon began leisurely as we toured the milking room and the barns, champagne in hand. We visited the maternity ward where we were able to cuddle some timid newborn lambs. Then, as the sun dipped behind the barns, we sat down at a long, communal farm table. Each diner had brought a special plate as a way to share stories and create instant community. The woman across from me dined—rather anxiously—on her grandmother’s antique Staffordshire china, while the cheerful group to my left seemed well paired with their bright yellow stoneware plates from Pottery Barn.
The chef for this event was J. Bryce Whittlesey, from Wheatleigh, an Italianate villa built in 1893 as one of the Berkshire “cottages.” Bryce’s wizardry in the kitchen, along with that of his talented pastry chef, Tim Brown, has made Wheatleigh a destination for connoisseurs of refined French food. But his haute cuisine in the field was equally brilliant, especially given the technical limitations. Bryce and his team had ordered an oven to finish preparing the meal’s main course, slow-cooked breast of veal. But instead of an oven the rental company delivered a grill, and a moment of panic set in. How could they possibly glaze the veal and keep it moist and reduce the sauce on a grill? The team improvised by placing sheet trays directly on the coals, as if in a wood-burning oven. The meat turned out succulent and—accelerated heart rate notwithstanding—Bryce was happy that he had prepared it in keeping with the afternoon’s rustic theme.
Until this event Outstanding in the Field had focused on vegetable farms. Old Chatham Sheepherding Farm was the first dairy farm showcased. Bryce decided to design the meal around the Clarks’ various cheeses as integral ingredients in each of the courses. And so we enjoyed marinated Feta with pink peppercorns served over shaved baby fennel and lemon; warm Hudson Valley Camembert wrapped in brick paper and accompanied by locally foraged mushrooms; braised veal breast with caramelized Belgian endive and crisp delicata chips, punctuated with melted Ewe’s Blue Cheese. Dinner ended with silky Old Chatham Ricotta cheese, golden raspberries, and vanilla bean and star anise sablés. Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, New York, provided the evocative wines.
The meal was extraordinary, celebrating as it did the earthy colors and flavors of autumn. As we ate, the air grew progressively chill, but apart from cold fingers we didn’t much mind. And maybe we felt in tune with the rhythms of nature by eating so close to the earth.
Speaking of outstanding in the field, this issue marks the beginning of Gastronomica‘s fifth year of publication. In the bottom-line world of magazine publishing, that’s something to celebrate. Not only have we survived, we are thriving, with readers flung widely throughout the world and with more, and better, submissions than ever. The accolades keep coming, too, so I’d like to issue some of my own: we have great writers, great readers. Thank you all for your support! Keep your letters coming, and your ideas. I look forward to the next five years.