A flavorful taste of what’s local
By CORIN HIRSCH, Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009 11:21 PM
When Robert Dean, innkeeper at Juniper Hill Inn in Windsor, and Sara Poisson, owner of Thyme and Ewe Farm in Claremont, signed up for the annual “Flavors of the Valley” event in Hartford, they had no idea they would end up next to each other.
But fortunately, they did. On one end of the table, Poisson arranged jars of Thyme & Ewe’s jellies and preserves and spread some on crackers that she offered to visitors. To her left, Dean and chef Lyda Lemire were serving cheddar-and-ale soup (Cabot cheddar, Harpoon IPA) and sautéed beef tenderloin (Black Watch Farms) wrapped around local chevre.
The Juniper Hill folks eagerly sampled Thyme & Ewe’s jelly and it is now slated to appear on the inn’s breakfast menu.
Such is the serendipity that can happen at Flavors of the Valley, the annual meet-your-local-food-producer event that has taken place in Hartford every spring for the last eight years.
The 60 vendors that filled the Hartford High School gym Tuesday hailed from every agricultural corner — farmers, cheesemakers, gardeners, chefs, meat curers, picklers, even a sauerkraut maker. Most of their tables were full of free samples as well as produce for sale, like meat, cheese and herb and vegetable seedlings.
“This is their chance to meet the farmers face to face,” said Lisa Johnson, director of Valley Food & Farm, the event’s sponsor and a nonprofit organization that aims to connect people with local agriculture. Valley Food & Farm in itself is a program of White River Junction-based nonprofit Vital Communities.
“Until you meet a farmer face to face, sometimes it doesn’t click. You get the story behind the food,” she said.
Dave Westover, a partner in Walpole Creamery, echoed this. “When you’re a small business, you basically build your customer base one at a time. This is an opportunity to show what we make and tell our story.”
Several farms were selling shares in their CSAs, or community-supported agriculture programs — typically a box of food that participants can pick up from farms weekly throughout the growing season.
“Once you know the farmers, you can’t wait to sign up for their share,” said Johnson, adding that the agricultural booty can be diverse even in spring and fall. “There’s lamb, eggs, milk, cheese, poultry and spring greens. You can buy locally-grown food 365 days a year.”
An hour into the event, the gym was shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people gnashing their way through jams, jellies, sausage, cheese, vegetables, bacon, teas, pickles, chili, horseradish, sauerkraut — even lamb ragu (from the Hanover Inn) and flint corn seeds. The line for organic ice cream was 10 deep, many of the faces expectant — in years past, the ice cream has run out long before the end of the event.
Johnson said that after eight years, “People learn to come early, because the samples last only as long as they last.”
The last lavender cookie disappeared from the table of Windsor’s Cider Hill Gardens around 3:15 p.m., but co-owner Sara Milek refilled a jug of lemon verbena peppermint tea with help from her stepdaughter, Chloe Milek.
The Mileks grow herbs and vegetables on a farm on Windsor’s Hunt Road and Sarah Milek loves the “Flavors of the Valley” event because of the chance to let people know about their “out of the way” garden.
“We love for people to find out about our herbs because we’re off the beaten path — you really have to look for us,” she said. Various potted herbs adorned the table and Milek encouraged visitors to rub and smell the velvety leaves of a fruit sage, an unusual type of salvia that she grows at the farm.
A few tables down, chef Jason Tostrup of the Inn at Weathersfield served up sliders from Black Watch Farms, a producer of grass-fed beef in Weathersfield.
Black Watch Farms’ co-owner Frank Manafort said their meat comes from Highland cattle, which is leaner than regular beef and can be purchased at coops in Springfield and Middlebury as well as Boccelli’s in Bellows Falls.
It is also a favorite of Tostrup’s, who slathered the burgers with a ramp aioli — a kind of mayonnaise infused with the pungent wild onions that start springing up in the woods in early spring.
Tostrup found the ramps himself that morning and loves them so much he serves them on the Inn’s menu throughout the year — he takes their green tops and purees them into a pesto that he can freeze and use whenever he wants.
This was the fourth “Flavors of the Valley” event for Tostrup, who despite his gourmet pedigree said he decided to serve up hamburgers and hot dogs this year to show people that they could eat local without dropping a fortune.
“You can eat local without spending a lot of money. These are things you can serve a family,” he said, as a steady stream of visitors picked up the burgers as soon as they hit the plate.
Two hours in, the soup, tenderloin and crackers-and-jam were still flowing at Thyme & Ewe-Juniper Hill table. Sara Poisson said that Thyme & Ewe’s proceeds go toward supporting the growing coterie of rescued farm animals that live at the farm.
“We have draft horses, 17 sheep, a cow, a pig, seven goats, roosters, geese, you name it,” said Sarah Poisson’s husband, Paul Poisson. “Once they’re here, they’re here for life.”