It’s a late-summer morning at the Ivory Silo farmstand in Westport, and already hot enough to make it clear that wearing long pants was a terrible idea. Clad in green cargos and a baseball cap, Chris Cronin makes a beeline for the romaine lettuces, which are mottled with maroon flecks and snuggled into a plastic crate. “That’s called Joker — it’s a summer variety,” says Bill Braun, the farm’s proprietor, who’s weighing small purple Magic Molly potatoes on a repurposed baking scale as his partner, Deanna Levanti, arranges an entire botany poster’s worth of red amaranth, zinnias, strawflowers, and more into bouquets.
“Still got that sweetness, with the bitter finish?” Cronin asks Braun, who nods before taking us through the rest of the farmstand’s bounty, which includes shot put-size Blacktail Mountain watermelons, an entire fleet of heirloom tomatoes, and a large tub filled with slender, gnarled Jimmy Nardello red peppers — “the only pepper that matters,” Braun says. Cronin agrees: “Whatever you don’t sell, we’ll take.” Soon the watermelons will be supplanted by bulbous marrow squashes, tomatoes edged out by Macomber turnips and kohlrabi.
Cronin is living a true farm-to-table fantasy, as the executive chef and a co-owner of the nearby Farm & Coast Market, which opened in July in South Dartmouth’s picturesque Padanaram Village. It is the latest in a string of businesses transforming this stretch of coast into a haven for food lovers — and likely the most ambitious. The project comprises a hand-cut-to-order butcher’s counter (which will soon offer a range of house-made charcuterie), a bakery producing pastries and naturally leavened loaves, a prepared foods counter, a rotisserie, a wine shop with plenty of cheeses to match, and an all-day sit-down cafe. Lest you forget where you are as you shop for turmeric-quinoa bread and slow-roasted porchetta, the ceiling — a mural-size map of Buzzards Bay — will reinforce your sense of place.
The produce from Ivory Silo, and that from several other farms (many, like Ivory Silo, relative newcomers to the region), is sold at Farm & Coast and used throughout the market: The Joker lettuce appears in chopped salads and on BLTs with thick slices of tomato, while the Jimmy Nardello peppers are skewered into kebabs at the butcher counter and pickled and layered into Italian subs with house mortadella and salami cotto in the cafe. Any purple potatoes that don’t sell in the store become part of the cafe’s morning “butcher’s hash,” which makes use of braising cuts — beef shin, lamb shank — that can be a tough sell during warmer weather. An oozy duck egg goes on top.
Steadfast locavorism comes naturally on the South Coast, where you can toss a pebble and graze a farmstand. (The region, also sometimes referred to as the Farm Coast, is not to be confused with the South Shore: This stretch of cities and towns borders Buzzards Bay.) Exceptionally rich soil combines with a unique microclimate bolstered by the Gulf Stream, making fall a long, mild growing season. A slew of land trusts are earmarked for farming. New Bedford remains one of the country’s top fishing ports. It all adds up to a sanctuary for farmers, food producers, and winemakers — as well as anyone who enjoys scenic drives scented with salty air.
The Boston restaurant industry has long been in on the area’s charms — you won’t find a self-respecting chef who doesn’t worship at the herb-strewn altar of legendary farmer Eva Sommaripa, of Eva’s Garden in South Dartmouth.
And yet, with a few exceptions — like Westport’s Back Eddy, opened by Chris Schlesinger (East Coast Grill) in 1999 — the area’s restaurant scene has not mirrored its bounty.
This, however, is starting to change. Two years ago, Steve Johnson, a longtime Westport denizen and Schlesinger cohort, closed Cambridge restaurant Rendezvous to open the Red Dory in Tiverton, R.I., embracing a lifestyle that involves stopping at half a dozen farms on his commute to work, tending to his own raised garden beds at the restaurant, and throwing beach cookouts on his off hours.
“In Boston, there are a certain number of farmers that are willing to put up with deliveries to urban restaurants,” Johnson says. “You’ve got 150 farm-to-table-type restaurants that are all [purchasing from] the same half-dozen farmers. Yet down here, I am able to shop around more and customize it more personally to my restaurant. . . . It makes a difference when you are able to visit the farm versus just placing an order and having it delivered to the restaurant.”
The quality is often better here, too, he says. “A lot of the fish that goes to the Boston market comes out of New Bedford to begin with. . . . With the changing of the hands and the way that the market flows, the skate I serve at Red Dory is two days quicker to market. I think some of the same dishes I cook at the Red Dory taste better than they ever did in Central Square. Same cook, same recipes. But they are better.”
In New Bedford, there’s the newly expanded dNB burgers, offering house-ground patties with toppings like egg yolk jam, romesco, smoked ham, and local greens; it opened in 2014. Last June, Bywater came to Warren, R.I., serving natural wines alongside local seafood and produce.
It was yet another restaurant, opened around the same time as Bywater, that led Cronin to give up city life. The longtime chef of Washington Square Tavern in Brookline, he had been looking to open a butcher shop-meets-restaurant in the Boston area when he was connected with Swedish businessman Per Lofberg, executive vice president of CVS Health, who semi-retired in Dartmouth with his wife, a native of the area.
Lofberg’s son and daughter-in-law, John and Lisa, were looking for an experienced chef to help transform their Padanaram Village cafe, the Beach Plum, into a full-fledged restaurant, while Lofberg was seeking a chef to head up the retail project across the street. The two businesses became Little Moss and Farm & Coast. With the market, Lofberg wanted “to create something that was needed in the community here, and that was complementary to Little Moss,” he says. “We felt that it was a nice opportunity to create this hybrid market and cafe.”
Beyond catering to a community of year-round locals and boaters, the market is a deliberate effort to invest in its suppliers. The people behind it “are aware of the value of the local
agricultural region,” says Karen Schwalbe, executive director of the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership. “They don’t just want to offer good food, they want to support agriculture in the Farm Coast region. When you buy directly from farms or the Farm & Coast Market, that money is paying people a living wage, and the purchasing makes the whole community more vibrant.”
The market opens at a fortuitous time, with a USDA slaughterhouse breaking ground next month in Westport, part of the new Livestock Institute of Southern New England. Designed in conjunction with animal expert Temple Grandin’s engineer, it has a planned opening date of April 2017. It could be a game changer for farmers who currently must cart carefully tended animals hours away for slaughter. (Not everyone is so scrupulous. A dire case of animal cruelty was recently discovered at a Westport tenant farm.)
The demand for local meat is strong within the community. When the market had been open just shy of a month, Cronin said, he’d already easily gone through more than 3,000 pounds of it. “We are not competing with a $9.99 strip steak from Omaha feed lots,” Cronin says. “I had a guy come in and say, ‘Not the best prices I’ve seen, and not the worst,’ and I got to educate him about it.” (Not everyone is going to pay $30 a pound for tenderloin, but market staffers are eager to teach consumers about options like a spider cut, or “beef oyster,” for half the price.) Cronin also plans to offer butchery classes at the market during the winter.
Cronin embraced whole-animal butchery at Washington Square Tavern, leading diners along with baby steps — from meatballs, to an expansive charcuterie program, to items like rabbit offal deep-fried and doused in house-made Buffalo sauce. He brought his sensibility to Little Moss, turning bycatch like eel into “McNuggets,” serving chicken from North Dartmouth’s Copicut Farms stuffed with foraged mushrooms, and making tons of homemade pastas to showcase shellfish and local produce. Now, at the market’s cafe, everything from the hot dogs smothered in chili to the steak-and-cheese subs to the Italian grinders are made from scratch, including the buns.
In the butcher case, Sommaripa’s mountain mint flavors sausages, while the prepared foods case is stocked with meatballs (of course), chicken cutlets fried in rendered beef fat, and a slew of simple salads. “You don’t have to hit people over the head with ‘This is Weatherlow Farms beef!’ It’s one of the best damn steak and cheeses they’ve ever had, and that’s all that really matters,” Cronin says.
And offering so much approachable fare at the market allows Little Moss room to experiment. The Ivory Silo lettuces that go into Farm & Coast’s BLTs are lightly charred over coals at Little Moss, topped with shavings of cured egg yolk. The Jimmy Nardello peppers are served with triticale mole.
The kitchen there is now run by Max Hull, previously of Mei Mei Street Kitchen — another city chef lured away by the promise of the Farm Coast. “I thought that it was a great opportunity because Chris [Cronin] and I are very much on the same page in terms of sourcing and developing relationships with farmers,” he says. “Eva [Sommaripa’s farm] is a 10-minute drive away. Bill [Braun], the other farmer we work with a lot, at Ivory Silo, is a 15-minute drive from the restaurant. You could throw a rock into the harbor from the restaurant’s front door, basically,” he says. “We could not be the same restaurant if we were in a city. We could do something very similar, but we couldn’t be as product-obsessed as where we are.”Leah Mennies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @lmennies.