Chefs Aid Effort to Save State Farms

It was a scene vaguely reminiscent of Brigadoon: a cluster of brilliant white tents, set in the middle of a verdant sheep field at the end of a remote dirt driveway in Lyme, that for just one day teemed with people.

Maybe they had come to rub elbows with honorary chairperson Meryl Streep, or listen to master chef Jacques Pepin muse about his boyhood and the roots of his culinary talent.

Or maybe they had driven hours in fickle weather to sample the work of dozens of the state's finest chefs and vintners, or bid on paintings by local artists.

Peggy Vitali and Bob Lewis of Foxglove Farm in Lyme drive a horse-drawn wagon at the fund-raiser, adding to the country ambiance.

Or maybe they were there because they believe in the cause of preserving farmland in Connecticut, a state losing about 9,000 acres of it every year.

Regardless of their motives in attending the "2003 Celebration of Connecticut Farms" last month, 800 people paid $85 each to attend the fund-raiser on a day that began with torrential rain and ended up boasting the bluest skies in weeks.

The Working Lands Alliance will receive one-third of the almost $110,000 net profit, and the Connecticut Farmland Trust will get the remainder. Both groups are devoted the preserving the state's farmlands through advocacy, education, and helping farmers shield their land from development.

Guests made a dent in the fresh organic mozzarella salad from Calabro Cheese Corp., in East Haven by the time this photo was taken.

"It was fantastic," said Mark Winne, executive director of Hartford Food System, the organization that coordinated the event. "It exceeded our expectations both in terms of raising money and increasing public awareness."

Chefs and restaurateurs from across the state came equipped with everything from Viking gas grills that cost more than many people's first cars to a restored 1946 truck souped up to accommodate a portable wood-fired brick pizza oven.

Daniel Chong-Jimenez of The Spa at Norwich Inn, above, offered his gourmet strawberry shortcakes. Six wines, left, made from fruit grown at White Silo Farm and Winery in Sherman were served by Ralph and Eric Gorman.

And the food... Oh, the food!

From haute cuisine to completely unpretentious (such as the basket full of tiny sunburst tomatoes freshly picked from the gardens of Yale Organic Farm), there was something for everyone, regardless of his or her culinary predilections.

Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho, who owns Roomba in New Haven, grilled Latino Clams Casino and Corn Arepas – both as colorfully presented as the chef himself in his bright blue chef's coat and multi-colored pants.

Franco-Camacho's 84-seat Nuevo Latino eatery in a basement of a Chapel Street building has been featured on the Food Network and voted Best Overall Restaurant Statewide by Connecticut magazine.

He said he classifies much of his food as eclectic Latino and draws inspiration from the cooking of his native Mexico, as well as Cuba and Brazil, and all "27 niches of Latin America," then elaborates on those concepts to create "a more honed version" of the authentic dishes.

Next to Roomba, executive chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez of The Spa at Norwich Inn doled out strawberry shortcakes – made with buttermilk biscuits, fresh strawberries, and ricotta flavored with vanilla bean (see recipe) – and Oysters Creole.

Six wines, left, made from fruit grown at White Silo Farm and Winery in Sherman were served by Ralph and Eric Gorman.

Chong-Jimenez, who is part Chinese and part Mexican, said there is a strong French influence in his cooking, with hints of Asian and Latino cuisine.

Growing up in southern California, with farmland and irrigation ditches in his back yard, the chef became aware of the importance of fresh food, referring to it as the "cornerstone of our quality of life."

Since becoming a chef, that awareness has only heightened, as has his appreciation for the land on which food is grown.

"Farmland preservation is an important issue that needs to be considered, because while growth is important for the economical well-being of our communities, preservation is important for the well-being of our children and grandchildren," he said.

"Our objective should be balance."

Jose "Pepe" Feijoo, co-owner of Costa del Sol in the south end of Hartford, said he grew up on a farm in Galicia, in the northwest part of Spain.

When he came to the United States in 1966, he was amazed at the number of farms that were even then being developed.

"In the future, we may need that land to grow food on," he said. "There is plenty of land for development without touching the fertile farming lands."

Feijoo and his younger brother, Javier, the restaurant's chef, were serving Spanish tortillas (a potato-and-egg omelet) and Escalibada (see recipe).

"The tortilla is a very popular dish in Spain," Javier explained. "It's kind of soul food. Everybody serves it all the time at bars and cafes."

Preservation-minded vintners, brew masters and distillers from around the state offered a wide selection of table and dessert wines, ales and brandies to complement the food.

Ralph Gorman of White Silo Farm & Winery in Sherman, accompanied by his son, Eric, served three dessert wines and three table wines, each made from fruits grown on his farm.

Almost three years ago, Gorman and his wife, Anita, converted a dairy barn on their property into a winery where they make rhubarb, blackberry, raspberry and sour cherry wine.

This was Gorman's second year at the farmland fund-raiser.

"People come from all over the state, and everyone – the participants and the guests – have so much fun," he said. "We all get to experience great cheese-makers and bakers, and wonderful chefs showing off what they made."

Morgen McLaughlin of McLaughlin Vineyards in Newtown served a selection of white wines. Despite being only days from her third child's due date, she made the almost two-hour drive to support the effort.

"Farmland preservation is not only critical to our livelihood, but to the whole state," she said. "We will do anything we can do to bring awareness to the people of Connecticut."

The setting of the event – a lush 175-acre sheep farm in the Pleasant Valley section of Lyme – accentuated the significance of preservation.

The Sankow family began dairy farming on the property in 1917, and introduced two sheep to the farm in 1984. They now raise more than 600 sheep – something of an anomaly in Connecticut – and sell products ranging from wool sweaters to sheep's milk cheeses and fresh lamb.

The participants' rectangular tables lined the perimeter of the tents, with round, white-clothed tables in the center.

Diners moved from station to station, sampling dishes including made-to-order Sicilian-style pizzas, grass-fed beef hamburgers and steaks, stuffed vegetable hors d'oeuvres, numerous kinds of salads, tamales, grilled vegetables on Johnny cakes, seafood dishes, desserts, and even ice cream from the Dairy Bar at the University of Connecticut.

Many of the ingredients used came from in-state farms.

In another tent, folding chairs were arranged for those who wished to attend a live auction of 20 pieces of artwork by Connecticut residents.

That tent was later the site of a discussion of art, land and food by Jacques Pepin; Faith Middleton, host of the "Faith Middleton Show" and "The Food Schmooze with Faith Middleton" on Connecticut Public Radio; and Peter Forbes, a writer, photographer, farmer and ardent conservationist.

The three, along with moderator Jock Reynolds, director of Yale University Art Gallery, talked about the importance of food in our lives.

"Food is the way we connect, three times a day, with the Earth," said Forbes. "Most times that connection feels pretty remote."

But it doesn't have to be that way.

"The explosion in the culinary world has trickled down to farmers," Pepin noted. He urged people to patronize the farms in their area, whether by ordering a pig or picking their own fruits.

If they can't find exactly what they want, he suggested telling the farmers. Customers might be surprised at farmers' willingness to accommodate their needs.

Pepin recalled how his mother would ride her bicycle to a local farm to buy whatever ingredients she could get, then invent a dish to utilize them all.

"I'm a very miserly cook now, thanks to my mother," he said. "Everything was used."

He told how his mother would buy cow or sheep lung because it was inexpensive, cut it into pieces, and brown and stew it.

The last time he visited her in France, he asked her to make the dish for him. To oblige him, she went to the butcher and requested cow lung, then became embarrassed and said it was for the cat.

He spoke of how dramatically the American public's perceptions of food and chefs have changed in recent years. "Twenty-five years ago, a chef was someone in a black hole, at the bottom of the barrel," he said.

"People would want their children to be doctors or lawyers, not cooks. Back then, we were never in newspapers or magazines."

But times have changed, and so have some of the people choosing careers in agriculture.

"These are terrific, energetic people who would excel in anything they chose to do - people who would typically go into business, medicine or law – but farming offers them a whole new way of fulfillment," said Forbes.

With any luck, this new crop of farmers will be able to weather the storm better than Forbes' family did.

"I grew up on a farm in Connecticut," he said, "and I returned almost 22 years later to see no part of it there.

"By the time I came around, what we were mostly growing was memories."

March 15, 2006

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