Next up on my east coast research itinerary (see blog posts Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4) was the mother of all farm-to-table experiences: a day and night at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY. What was once the estate and dairy farm of the Rockefellers is now a breathtaking 80-acre compound of pastures, animals, greenhouses, fields of crops and Dan Barber’s famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, along with a busy farm market, cafe, gift shop, classroom and visitor’s center, set in meticulously restored buildings from the original Rockefeller farm. Some view Stone Barns as the “Disneyland” of the all things local and sustainable, but I totally drank the Kool-Aid and found the place satisfying on every level, if a bit over the top. The mission of the non-profit Stone Barns is to “increase public awareness of healthy, seasonal and sustainable food, train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques and educate children about the sources of their food and prepare them to steward the land that provides it.” It does accomplish all those things from what I could see.
The photo above is of me sampling a tasty morsel (I think it was purslane or maybe an amaranth leaf?) we happened upon during our first activity of the day, which was called “Foraged: A Wild Edibles Walk and Taste.” It was a tour through the often dense woods (I was glad I wore long pants, socks and covered shoes fearing poison ivy, not to mention deer ticks) given by Laura Perkins, the gardener at Stone Barns. The point of all this foraging was to learn about the plants we often dismiss as weeds or exotics, how to spot them where we’d least expect them and how to use them in the kitchen for delicious foods. I feared we’d be eating poison mushrooms (along with the poison ivy), but instead we discovered all sorts of treasures.
Here, for example, are wild blueberries.
We foraged for almost two hours, discovering a long list of wild edibles. (Lamb’s shoulders anyone? Or milkweed? Or perhaps elderberries?) At the end of the tour, Laura took us into the classroom where we were served a delicious soup made from amaranth leaves.
Ok, so it doesn’t look all that great from the photo, but trust me. It was like the best spinach or kale soup, flavored by chicken broth, eggs and sauteed onions.
But there were no second helpings for us because we were on to the second tour of the day: the “Insiders Tour,” during which our knowledgeable tour guide, Barbara, provided us with an up-close-and-personal, two-hour hike through the pastures, fields, barns and everything else that makes the place work.
For example, we learned about the history of the 1930s-era buildings.
Here’s another look.
We met up with a group of very lively (they were pecking at us) laying hens.
We hung out with the meat chickens.
The baby chicks were so cute I didn’t even want to think about having them for dinner when they were older. *shudder*
The turkeys had no idea how many Thanksgivings they’d be attending.
And there were the snoozing pigs. Pork tenderloin? Bacon?
No farm would be complete without sheep and these were happily grazing.
As the skies darkened with rain threatening, we all headed inside where it was time for Michael and me to change into our fancy clothes to dine at Blue Hill. I’d been reading all the raves about Chef Dan Barber’s restaurant both at Stone Barns and at his original Greenwich Village location, along with the reviews of his new book.
So I was primed for a unique experience at dinner. What I didn’t expect was just how unique it was. (No pics coming of the meal, because they frown on it and with good reason.)
We were seated and given little booklets by our waiter, who explained that the booklets contained a month by month journal of the seasonal foods that were being harvested and that our meal, which was to be served in multiple courses, some to be eaten without utensils, would arrive together and separately – a “tasting menu called Grazing, Rooting and Pecking,” he said and added, “It will give you a full look at the season showing you everything the chefs are working on. We’re going to bring multiple dishes together at the same time and sometimes we’ll ask you to use your hands to eat them. It’s a little unconventional in some ways but it’s fun and interesting. So use your hands to start and we’ll bring silverware in a bit.”
All righty then. We strapped ourselves in and prepared for the ride.
What came next was a parade of treats for the eyes and the palate. First was what I think of as salad ingredients on vertical skewers – single items (a cherry tomato, a white radish, a bibb lettuce leaf, etc.) each dressed with some light, citrus-y vinaigrette and served on a piece of hollowed out tree bark. Gimmicky, you say? Maybe so, but every bite was an explosion of flavor from veggies that didn’t taste like anything you’d buy in a store.
I can’t remember every course, but there was a cucumber gazpacho in a martini glass, a milkweed “soda” amuse-bouche in a shot glass, tiny pea burgers, quinoa coated Vichyssoise (our favorite by far, as unlikely as it sounds), elderberries in a tempora batter, egg “carbonara,” sous-vide prepared chicken, sliced goat tenderloin and lots of sweets for dessert. Oh, and I forgot the beyond-delicious bread that came with the beyond-delicious farmer’s cheese and butter. We were stuffed, obviously.
The best part of the meal for me was when the waiter said, mid-way through, “Would you both come with me for a few minutes.” Michael and I had no idea what was going on, but we put our napkins on the table, got up and followed him – into the kitchen, it turned out. We were guided to a small butcher block table for two in the corner of the busy hub where we sat, were served another course, and got to watch the 30+ chefs doing their thing. Fascinating! It was like being on the set of an episode of “Iron Chef” only without the competition. I don’t know if every guest of the restaurant is granted a peek inside the kitchen or if it was because I went through the PR director to make my reservation, citing research for my novel, but I was grateful for it.
The point of the dinner was to experience the creative ways to incorporate what we saw on the farm into food that can soar if in the right hands. Dan Farber’s hands are the right hands. Wow. Just wow.