Essex County farms offer a unique dining experience
NORTH ANDOVER — Here’s a great new way to support local farms: Eat there.
You can shop at farm stands, buy produce at farmers markets, or even join a Community Supported Agriculture program. But an increasingly popular way to enjoy the fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables is to sign up for a farm-to-table dinner, where food from the fields is served right on the spot, in styles from casual to swank.
“It showcases our produce, and the chefs have been unbelievable — I’ve never had such good food in my life,” said Michael Smolak, owner of Smolak Farms in North Andover. “It makes a profit for us, too, so it does help.”
On a recent night, a capacity crowd of 125 gathered under a white tent in a pine grove by a pond on the Smolak property to enjoy a four-course meal prepared by chef Christopher Coombs of Boston restaurants Deuxave and Boston Chops.
As the sun set over the lantern-lit path and nearby fields, guests enjoyed cucumber soup with marinated shrimp and lemon crème fraiche; a two-hour egg over orecchiette pasta with grilled kale and summer squash; sausage with warm potato salad and a peach and sweet-pepper relish; and blueberry cobbler for dessert.
Most of the produce was grown right there. “The tomatoes, the zucchini, the kale, the cucumbers in the first course, the potatoes that came with the sausage, the peaches that came with the sausage, the blueberries in the dessert,” said Coombs. “So every course used produce that came from Smolak Farms.”
The prep was actually done in one of Coombs’ restaurant kitchens. The cost was $69 per person, comparable to many city restaurants, with drinks and tip extra.
“We just really enjoy the atmosphere. We’ve gone every year they’re had it,” said Diane Pierson of North Andover, who was there with her husband, Tom. “We like the farm-to-table aspect, and the access to the chef and the big tent with all the growing things around.”
The Piersons live nearby and found out about what Smolak calls the Whim Dinners — now in their third year — when they stopped in to buy produce. “We love to try new chefs, too, so that’s a real bonus,” said Diane Pierson.
And why does a hot chef from the city want to cook under the trees in Essex County on a Wednesday night?
“I think that our local farms are very important, and I love the venue at Smolak, and [they’re] super people, and it just feels good to help them sell out their farm on a Wednesday night,” Coombs said.
Chefs and farms alike can benefit from simply showing off what they do, attracting suburbanites to the city or fans of the chef to return to the farm.
Back Bay resident Emily Chang had taken her husband, Cliff, to Coombs’s Boston Chops a couple of days earlier for his 31st birthday. Cliff had seen Coombs on the Food Network show “Chopped” and wanted to try it.
“While I was reading up on Chris Coombs to see if he had a cooking class or something more special than just a standard dinner that I could do for Cliff’s birthday, I came upon the pop-up restaurant [at Smolak] and I thought, ‘Oh, looks perfect,’ ” Emily Chang said.
“We loved it,” she said, and not just getting to watch Coombs and his staff at work close up. “We really enjoyed the scenery and the setting and getting to see more of the farm and learning more about what they do with their fall activities and their farm share. We want to try their ice cream, maybe another time when we haven’t already had four courses of food.”
For some farmers, there’s also a sense of a community celebration, a chance to bond with the customers who’ve made CSAs and farmers markets a booming part of the business lately.
“When we did our first one a couple of years ago, what was so incredible was to see 100 people all sitting there at picnic tables enjoying,” said Karen Cook, who has run Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury for 32 years with her husband, Glenn. “We sold our first crops off a picnic table, when we were still both working jobs off the farm, and . . . then to see all those people. Wow.”
Besides the produce, dinners at many farms include eggs, poultry, and meat from the host farm or nearby producers. At Appleton Farms in Ipswich, cheese and milk from the farm’s dairy operation are included in Friday “Appleton Cooks” farm meals, which tend to be casual and family-friendly, said farm kitchen program manager Susan Wood.
Burgers from the farm’s meat herd and lots of children’s activities are on the menu. The meals usually cost $35 for adults and $20 for kids.
Many farm dinners include not only a restaurant chef at the stove — more likely a gas grill — but also input from local brewers, wineries, and other businesses.
Cider Hill’s next dinner will be especially family-centric, as the Cooks’ nephew, Adam Anthony, is maitre’d and wine steward at Amesbury’s Phat Cats Bistro, which is preparing the food, and the Cooks’ son, Chadd, will bring beer from Newburyport Brewing Co., where he is an assistant brewer.
Cook said Cider Hill doesn’t make out financially on their dinners, but some farms do get direct benefits.
“We usually do it as a fund-raiser for a spring project,” said owner Caitlin Kenney of Plough in the Stars Farm in Ipswich, whose annual end-of-season dinners tend to fill up with CSA members and farm regulars. “We purchased a walk-in cooler one year. The next year we put some money toward the well.
“But we don’t make that much money off it,” said Kenney, who usually does the cooking. “It’s more just a celebration for the [CSA] shareholders to get together and have a meal together and be at the farm on a beautiful fall evening. I get to see my customers under different circumstances, in a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Chef Frank McClelland of L’Espalier in the Back Bay owns and operates Apple Street Farm in Essex, which supplies his restaurants and others. The farm, where McClelland has lived since 2008, also hosts summer dinners at $180 per person, which includes three wine pairings, tax, and tip.
“We love sharing the farm with the dinner guests,” McClelland said by e-mail. “They get a chance to stroll the farm, enjoy some cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and then sit down and enjoy a lovely meal highlighting the freshest produce in season, paired with wines, and it’s all capped off with a fire and s’mores.”
Of course, you can’t control everything in the atmosphere at a farm dinner. Around the time dessert was served at Smolak Farms, diners began discreetly slapping at arriving mosquitoes, bringing an announcement on the PA: “There’s plenty of bug spray by the porta-johns.”