Working Farms for Foodies
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” —Aldo Leopold
Buttermilk Falls Inn, New York | Courtesy of Buttermilk Falls Inn
Think about the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Not the most exclusive meal or the most expensive meal or the one when you were the hungriest and felt blessed to be sated. Instead, return to that moment of blissful synchronicity when all senses exploded in utter delight, when you became one with the earth, when the meaning of life became—momentarily—utterly evident.
My guess, if you are honest, is that this meal consisted of something very simple—like fresh cherry tomatoes you couldn’t stop picking off the vine one summer in Canada, or apples you plucked from the trees near Northampton, Massachusetts, on a breezy fall day. Perhaps it was those chunks of pungent Parmigiano-Reggiano you purchased for a picnic in Parma, the wheel in the cheesemonger’s shop thankfully too big for you to pack in your carry-on.
There’s a reason that farm to fork (sadly, now sometimes found in acronym form as “F2F”) became a thing. We’d lost our way, we global eaters. Even back in the 1990s, certain researchers began telling us how far our food traveled to get on our tables. Soon, the average mileage touted was something like 1,500 miles—especially for processed food, something simple, like cereal with raisins or strawberry yogurt. The whole movement to awareness happened nobly enough. For that, we thank Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. She wanted to reinstall seasonal eating into the food she served in her down-to-earth Berkeley eatery. People had forgotten that peaches grew in summer and pears in fall. She began listing the names of farms on her changeable menu, using only ingredients grown nearby, by farmers and gardeners she knew, in the appropriate season. People and chefs copied her—with the best of intentions. Eaters began to remember—even if it was their cultural unconsciousness that recalled—the taste of locally derived food.
A movement formed, farmers markets came to fruition, chalkboards and servers everywhere began touting provenance—and we slowly returned, somewhat, to the beginning, the time when a pecan fell from the tree and you picked it up, cracked it with your shoe, and tossed it in your mouth. Our plant-to-plate awareness has made the culinary world more authentic. We’re in a better place. Farm to fork, plant to plate, tail to snout, ranch to repast—whatever you want to call it, it’s a good thing—and this new normal has become part of everybody’s lexicon. The key, now, is staying the course, deciphering the gambit to seek the genuine. As Wendell Berry wrote, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.” Let’s stay connected with it.
Here are some suggested ways to truly root into farm-to-fork, as it ought to be.
Blackberry Farm, Tennessee
Get schooled at Blackberry Farm’s Farmstead School, a hands-on, fertile soil immersion in Appalachia’s far-flung Tennessee. A 68-room Relais & Chateaux hotel, best known for its nostalgic—yet luxurious—rendition of the bucolic life, Blackberry Farm exemplifies the soulfulness of bygone times. Drawing from the area’s many cultural heritages, from Cherokee to African, the farm teaches eager pupils the arts of beekeeping, seed sowing, heirloom seed preservation, truffle hunting, and chicken raising. blackberryfarm.com
Flora Farm, Los Cabos
Mexico is not just about margaritas anymore. This vast, diverse, magical terroir has always had a more salubrious side—you just didn’t know where to look. Flora Farm, a 10-acre, organic estate in the foothills of the Sierra de Laguna Mountains, has spent a decade plying the land without pesticides or genetically modified seeds. They dedicated 100 percent of their production to local consumption, and work the farm the old-fashioned way—by hand. With more than 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs, they offer farm tours, have a scrumptious restaurant and a farm bar, and invite you to live the dream ensconced in their culinary cottages and “agri-stays,” which proffer harvesting privileges as a chief amenity. Flora-farms.com
Buttermilk Falls Inn, New York
Rip Van Winkle dozed here. And you’ll sleep well, too, after days spent gathering your own breakfast eggs from heritage chickens, foraging the garden with the cheerful chef, and frolicking with the llamas, miniature donkeys, alpacas, and rescued geese and swans. Located in the verdant Hudson Valley, with the Catskill Mountains as backdrop, the inn stands a stone’s throw from characteristic hamlets, antique stores, Lilliputian farms, wineries, and art galleries. With 18 cozy rooms, including 10 in the historic (circa 1764) main house, the inn’s highlight is Millstone, a 40-acre organic farm, and Henry’s at the Farm, its stellar, garden-to-palate restaurant. buttermilkfallsinn.com
Castello di Vicarello, Italy
The cities of Tuscany, in central Italy, vaunt some of the world’s most storied Renaissance art and architecture. But it’s the sigh-making countryside, punctuated by needle-shaped pine trees, carpeted with meadows of sunflowers, and smudged with family-owned vineyards, that sets the heart aflutter. Alongside winding roads, moldering castles and ancient mansions beckon, their golden-flecked stone capturing the sunlight for a halo effect. Dusty paths, flanked by olive orchards, invite hikers and bikers to ply them. Do that in the Maremma, near Grosseto, at Castello di Vicarello, located about halfway between Rome and Florence. With just seven rooms, surrounded by vineyards, rife with bountiful gardens, and flanked by olive groves, this Small Luxury Hotel of the World is a restored 12th-century castle. Here, owners Aurora and Carlo Baccheschi Berti welcome you as family. Aurora will tutor you in the kitchen—she’s the author of My Tuscan Kitchen—while Carlo will take you hunting for wild boar (you’ll learn to cook it nose to tail), or join him during the grape harvest. castellodivicarello.com
Find a quieter, more authentic Jamaica at Jake’s. This family-owned haven on Treasure Beach, on the lesser-traveled south side, transports visitors who have a yen for the intimate and a penchant for artistic digs. Gaudi-influenced, stand-alone, brightly colored cottages hover at the ocean’s edge and offer coddling touches, such as rooftop daybeds—ideal for celebrating the sunset—and outdoor bathtubs. Organic gardens, a yoga platform, and a cozy spa add to the sense of visiting the home of longtime friends. In a region called Jamaica’s “breadbasket,” with more than 40,000 farmers, the resort celebrates nature’s gifts with monthly full-moon dinners at a nearby local farm. Sitting at a long table, participants nosh on a bevy of organic, family-style courses created at the farm with its harvest. jakeshotel.com
The Pig, New Forest, United Kingdom
Go high on the hog at The Pig, the ultimate destination for culinary aficionados. Set just out of sight of the Dorset coast, in Arcadian Hampshire, this “restaurant with rooms” frames the fabled, unblemished New Forest National Park. Known for its robust breed of horses, the profuse woods also have pigs and cattle aplenty—not to mention a cast of other wild animals. During pannage season, hogs run free to graze on acorns and chestnuts, a diet said to improve the quality of their meat. Once the hunting lodge of royals, The Pig aims for a house party atmosphere. Gourmands go to gobble from the menu, which gleans its ingredients from a walled garden and vendors living no more than 15 miles away. Between meals, join the forager on his rounds or the chef in the kitchen. Attentive staff share their tips on chicken raising, gardening, fly fishing, and smoking meat. thepighotel.com
Spork Foods, Los Angeles
Sisters Jenny Engel and Heather Bell comprise Spork Foods, a vegan culinary support system in Los Angeles. These advocates for vim, vigor, and deliciousness are chefs, teachers, consultants, and cookbook authors who work with local farms, pick their own fruits and veggies, and teach classes on vegan cuisine that even carnivores love. “In living a plant-based lifestyle and teaching vegan cooking classes, cooking with produce that is sourced from local farms makes our job easy because they simply taste better and contain more nutrients than their shipped-in counterparts. We also feel like local fruits and veggies make you feel better on a physical and spiritual level,” they say. Check out their newest cookbook, Vegan 101, a collection of easy recipes, ideal for busy lifestyles. Find their cooking class schedule at sporkfoods.com
Island Creek Oysters, Massachusetts
A Boston-area phenomenon, Island Creek Oysters stands out as—arguably—the Northeast’s most fascinating bivalve laboratory. A family-owned farm wedged into Duxbury Bay’s muddy flats, the business yields more than five million, succulent, briny oysters annually. Top restaurants serve them with an esthete’s reverence, and your palate thanks them. But ever wondered what it’s like, firsthand, out there in oyster land? Board a skiff with an oyster guide to visit the oyster farm—from hatchery to processing. You’ll end your extravaganza at Island Creek’s floating Oysterplex, the ideal spot for an all-oyster feast. Tours take place during the summer months, and sell out quickly. islandcreekoysters.com
Becca Hensley is a spiritual adventurer and a widely published poet and writer, specializing in travel and spas. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Toronto Star, and Austin Monthly.