We’ve just returned from California where the farming season is well underway, and local produce of all types is widely available. The tomatoes in restaurant salads look like the ones we’ll see here in August. Leafy greens, artichokes, broccoli, strawberries, and much more are all local in the Bay Area. In Southern California, you can grab a sweet juicy orange or grapefruit from suburban backyard trees.
In the face of all this early spring bounty, I wondered how Connecticut farmers were getting on and how farm-to-table restaurants are keeping up their commitment to local, sustainable ingredients in our short growing season.
To find out, I called Chef Robert Ubaldo at the Farmer’s Table in New Canaan, Chef Renato Donzelli at Basso Cafe in Norwalk, and the Pirraglia family at Oak and Almond on Main Ave. These restaurants seek out local suppliers to fulfill their mission. I also got in touch with Charlotte and Jonathan Janeway at Sweet Acre Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut to see how the Spring was going.
Spring is a tough time of year in the local food scene. As the weather warms and days lengthen, the restaurant business emerges from the winter doldrums, but the supply of local produce lags behind. Seeds and sprouts are just going in the ground now and won’t be ready for months.
At the Farmer’s Table, Ubaldo scours the region for early produce. His brother farms in upstate New York and connects the restaurant to a network of sources. Greenhouses enable some farms to get a head start on the growing season. Early crops coming onto the menu now include spinach, fiddleheads, asparagus, and mushrooms.
Ubaldo is looking forward to arugula and sorrel to brighten up his menu with fresh spring flavors. In the meantime, the sea is a source for local dock to dine menu items. New Bedford scallops have been a menu feature through the cold weather scallop season. Atlantic swordfish has been on the menu too. Some farmers are getting into the meat business, so Ubaldo has been working with slow-braised New York State short ribs.
Still, he concedes, it will be a few more months before the menu is filled with local produce. That’s just the way it is in New England.
At Sweet Acre Farm, the extended winter has allowed Charlotte and Jonathan more time with their new baby boy, but now the spring crunch is on. Last week, they transplanted kale seedlings into their rows. The greenhouse is filling up with more trays of seedlings in shades of green – lettuce, chard, kale, choi, beets, flowers. Their heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are at a friend’s nearby heated greenhouse getting a head start.
There’s endless work prepping fields, tuning up equipment, and getting seeds and root stock into the ground. Friends and family pitch in, but still the to-do list never seems to get done. The only thing they’re offering at this point is shares in this season’s CSA. No fresh produce yet.
At Norwalk’s Basso Cafe, hands-on Chef/Owner Renato Donzelli is known for his innovative South American accented Mediterranean cooking. He’s committed to locally produced and grown ingredients but also admits that it’s pretty tough through the winter and early spring.
Donzelli haunts the year-round Westport Farmers Market for whatever might be available. In recent weeks, he’s scored some beets, pea shoots, microgreens, and salad makings. He’s looking forward to new potatoes, sunchokes, and local asparagus. Morels and chanterelles occupy a special place in his spring menu plans.
New England lobster is a winter mainstay on the Basso menu, he told me. One of the most popular presentations is in saffron risotto. It’s halibut season now. Donzelli likes to put it over roasted spring vegetables – beets, carrots, and spring onions – when he can get them.
At Oak and Almond on Main Ave in Norwalk their tag line is, “A Farm to Table Restaurant.” The menu names a half dozen local ingredients among their extensive choices: local oysters from Norm Bloom and Sons; Hamden burrata; Ambler Farm kale; local beets, carrots, leeks, and squash; and meat from Craft Butchery in Westport.
It’s a pretty impressive showing for this time of year. Their website lists eighteen local farms and suppliers that they work with year round. You can see they’ve made a commitment to supporting small, local, sustainable producers.
In California, the “local” season for fruits and vegetables can run eight or ten months – a bounty they take for granted. Kudos to the chefs of New England who are pressed to be more creative, look harder for local sources, and treasure the flavors of each season as they come.