Photos by Alec Jordan
This past Sunday’s farm to table dinner at Holbrook Farm in Bethel, Connecticut sort of began with dessert for me – farmhand Jessica Wong brought a couple of pies from the Holbrook bakery to a local campfire I attended Saturday night, and though the pies had been significantly demolished in the night, I had a few succulent bites of blueberry before heading over the the dinner. Later on, over scallops and a remarkable kale salad, Wong told me the pies are no longer baked in house due to high demand, but are shipped frozen from the family-owned Gardener Pie Co. based in Abron, Ohio and fresh baked at the farm, and that Gardener was chosen as the Holbrook pie company after a rigorous tasting test.
It was a beautiful day for the dinner, the fourth that Holbrook has put on and the third catered by Executive Chef Michael Bick and his Bethel-based company, Some Things Fishy Catering (Stanziato’s, a popular wood-fired pizza restaurant on Lake Avenue Extension in Danbury, had an end of summer dinner at Holbrook few weeks ago, complete with a mobile pizza oven, 40 pounds of celery root, and the Danbury-based reggae band Fattie Roots). About 90 people attended, arriving to the sounds of Union Rail, a newfound bluegrass band featuring local musicians Brenton Vaughan, his brother Aaron, Rob May, Donny Pierro, and their myriad string instruments. Their first album, If the Good Lord’s Willin’ and the Creeks Don’t Rise, will be released next week, and the band will be performing at this Saturday’s “Number for Numbers” brain cancer benefit at Fast Eddie’s, located at 46 Old State Road in New Milford.
The evening began with passed hors d’ouevres – Grilled Vegetable Quesadillas, featuring Holbrook vegetables and goat cheese from Litchfield’s Arethustra Farm, Smoked Salmon Crepes, and Spiced Pumpkin Soup Sips with Ancho Chili Crema accompanied by Pomegranate-Ginger and Apple-Cinnamon Aqua Fresca. The event was BYO, and dinner guests did bring – the long family-style tables were covered in an array of wines and beers as we sat down for the meal.
I spoke with farm manager Ben Saunders about compost, cabbage worms, and holistic farming over our starter courses: Seared Stonington Scallops with Celeriac (a potato puree), Caramelized Leeks, and Raisin Compote with a Dill Drizzle (a delicate and decadent dish), and Crispy Kale Salad with Shaved Beets, Carrots, Radishes, Cucumber, and Arugula in a Lime Dressing (the salad was a standout course, and Chef Bick later revealed the dressing’s secret ingredient: fish sauce. He was reprimanded by a vegetarian guest soon after, who asked him if he would hold her head while she vomited).
When I asked if there had been any particular challenges at Holbrook this year, Saunders said he embraces activist farmer Joel Salatin’s “don’t complain” philosophy when it comes to farming.
“You’re never going to have a perfect season,” Saunders explained, “but this one was pretty good.”
“God made some animal when He made a raccoon. They are some animal.”
-John Holbrook, remembering a raccoon that was still alive after he shot it four times with a .22 (it was hunting his chickens).
Salatin, well-known for his appearance in the documentary Food, Inc., is a prolific author and speaker on the practices of holistic farming, which he utilizes on his family farm, Polyface, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Salatin’s “beyond organic” philosophy views a farm as a living organism unto itself, an organism that is also a part of the surrounding community and the greater economy. Saunders and Holbrook’s owners, John and Lynn, who have been tilling the land for 30 years, feel similarly about their own parcel, managing bugs with beneficial soil-dwelling bacteria rather than pesticides, baiting coyotes and raccoons with dead chickens, stocking raw milk in the market, and devoting two and a half acres of the farm to compost, a rich mix locally renowned for producing healthy gardens and crops.
As we tucked into the main courses, Grilled Brasciole Style (stuffed) Braised Shorts Ribs with Tomato, Fennel, Capers, Red Pepper Flakes, and Lemon–Parsley Gremolata (the ribs literally slid off the bone) and Autumn Panzanella Salad with Roasted Butternut Squash, Celery, Shiitake Mushrooms, Sweet Potato, Apples, Pomegranate Seeds, Arugula, and Panificio Navona Multigrain Bread Cubes in a Spiced Pomegranate Vinaigrette (the pomegranate seeds, shiitakes, and bread cubes really made this dish), John told me about Connecticut’s farm-friendly policies (check out New Milford’s Right to Farm ordinance here, enacted in 2008, the exorbitant price of apple cider (eight dollars a gallon) due to the New England apple shortage, and the 12 month farming model, which he says will render the seven month model obsolete in the coming years.
Holbrook has been open year-round for some time, and with last year’s mild winter, their greenhouse bounty was ample. The farm market will be open Monday through Saturday throughout the winter, and interest is currently being gauged for a winter community supported agriculture (CSA) program. For more information about the winter CSA, contact the farm at (203)792-0561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The evening of incredible food, great company, and lively music was finished out with Panificio Navona Petite Harvest Cakes, Blue Jay Orchard’s Apple Cider Bites (both Bethel businesses), and a sweet and creamy digestif, which one of the caterers ended up spilling on Lynn’s sweater. She cleaned it off with a smile though; the dinner felt like a grand family gathering, and everyone’s spirits were high.
Holbrook Farm is located at 45 Turkey Plain Road (Route 53) in Bethel, Connecticut. The farm is open 9am to 5pm Monday through Saturday and offers fruits, vegetables, baked goods, eggs, chickens, and various artisanal products from around New England. Visit Holbrook on the web at holbrookfarm.net. Frankie’s Fresh Fish delivers to Holbrook straight from Bridgeport markets on the weekends; orders can be placed with Frank Musser at email@example.com or (203)340-4670.