The cheese counter at Formaggio Kitchen is pasted with articles, vintage cheese labels, stickers, helpful tips and lovely old pictures from our early days in business. All are interesting to peruse, but one sticker in particular always resonates with me as I pass it daily – a small, hardly noticeable, green sticker right at the entrance to the counter. It reads, “No Farms, No Food.” This statement may seem obvious, but in a time where triple-washed, packaged, pre-cut and peeled vegetables are the norm, it is difficult to remember that everything we eat was grown by farmers in wide spaces, deep in the dirt. By maintaining close relationships with the farmers that produce our food, the gap from field to consumer is ultimately closed and enormous benefits are immediately apparent. Not only is it now possible to know the exact date of harvest, but we can discuss the pest management techniques used on the farm, inquire about the diet of livestock and poultry, and even know the farmer’s most recommended crop of the week. With this in mind, Formaggio Kitchen aims to be an equally transparent connection between our customers and farmers. We are happy to talk at length about the practices of each farm and alert customers as to when we receive produce from each grower. Recommending the perfect fruit or vegetable comes naturally when we are so highly tuned into what is happening on the fields! In that spirit, here is an in-depth look at some of our favorite farms and growers in the New England area.
Twice a week, a large, unmarked truck pulls up in front of Formaggio Kitchen before we open for the day. Briefly escaping the hustle of the morning, our head chef Eduardo and I step outside to greet Matthew Linehan from Sparrow Arc Farm.We offer a breakfast of hot coffee and sandwiches while Matt and his assistant pull open the back of the truck, revealing freshly picked produce from the 35 acre farm in Unity, Maine.
Sparrow Arc Farm is an uncertified organic farm, meaning Matt follows USDA organic standards but chooses not to certify with the government. Not many seem to mind – along with Formaggio Kitchen, Matt makes weekly stops at restaurants such as Bondir, Craigie on Main, Harvest, Hungry Mother and Henrietta’s Table to name only a few. In a recent interview with Chef’s Collaborative, Matt explained, “Growing for chefs has allowed me to specialize in heirloom crops. These crops are part of our history, part of what makes us unique, they hold our stories. Additionally, they taste better, are often more attractive, and are very important to the conservation of biodiversity. Giant Musselburgh Leek, Waldoboro Greenneck Turnip, Rampion, Satan’s Kiss Pepper, Reine des Glace Lettuce, Sea Kale, Black Futsu Squash, and over 100 other heirloom varieties are only grown on this farm because we love to do it and our customers support it.” It’s true, Eduardo and I could easy linger for hours – nibbling on samples of crisp, pear-like kohlrabi, peppery crinkle cress, black Spanish radishes and several varieties of heirloom kale. We are truly grateful to be working with such a fantastic grower and excited to offer such interesting, exclusive produce to our customers.
Red Fire Farm is an organic farm in Massachusetts covering 160 acres of land split between the towns of Granby and Montague. Started officially in 2001 by Ryan Voiland, Red Fire Farm is settled on rich, alluvial soils that were deposited by the glacial melt flooding of the nearby Connecticut and Sawmill Rivers, making the soil among the most fertile in all of New England. (Once, upon opening a muddy box of fresh golden beets from Ryan, I exclaimed that I could not believe how gorgeous a simple root vegetable could be – the secret appears to lie in the soil!) In addition, the land in Granby allows for more effective soil building and crop rotation than could be achieved on a single piece of land. A few of our staff members receive weekly CSA boxes from Red Fire Farm, which also includes access to Granby for pick-your-own produce, herbs, and flowers. This June, I was happy to be invited along. Needless to say, one of my greatest memories this summer was arriving upon a large patch of strawberries in the heat of the afternoon – the sweet, sticky smell of strawberries perfumed the air so strongly that the wooden signs marking the crops were completely unnecessary. This farm and its fertile New England soil are absolutely perfect for growing vegetables and each delivery proves this to be true time and time again.
The first time I met with Eric from Rockville Market Farm, Cambridge was still in the final throes of winter. Not a single shoot of arugula had emerged from the soil and yet here was Eric, huddled in our wine section, completely animated with talk of spring chickens. In late April, the 25-acre farm in Starksboro, Vermont welcomed the arrival of 1,000 laying hens. Now, the farm’s pastured eggs, appropriately dubbed “Eric’s Eggs” are free range and collected by hand each day. The girls are housed in two mobile, scissor truss structures and are protected from coyotes with skid housing. Aerial predators, such as owls and hawks, are deterred by two stunning Maremma sheepdogs, Molly and Emmett. Upon opening my first brightly colored carton of eggs from Rockville, I instantly realized why Eric was so thrilled to be expanding his egg business – each egg was a beautiful speckled brown, containing a glowing orange yolk. Local elementary schools in Starksboro are lucky enough to receive these eggs in their cafeterias. One important step that Rockville has taken before many others – supplying natural, delicious and local food to young students in New England. Without a doubt, Eric and his crew at Rockville Market Farm are extremely passionate and knowledgeable, not only with respect to the technical aspects of farming, but about the entire food movement across the United States. I am truly humbled to work alongside such dedicated people. Right now, we have both fresh greens and eggs from Rockville Market Farm. Their mesclun mix is hearty, yet delicate and clean. The arugula tastes of spice and fresh lemons. Be sure to look for their eggs in our dairy case – the label is unmistakable! (And so cute, you won’t want to throw it away – peel it off and hang it on the fridge!)
Four Star Farms, located in Northfield, Massachusetts are among the rare growers of grains, hops and sod in New England. Grown and milled on-site on their 85-acre farm, their wheatberries, barley, herbs and flours are incredibly fresh, sustainable and responsibly cultivated with both the environment and the community in mind. By using soil fertility and nutrition management as well as natural pest control methods, the L’Etoile family holistically approaches grains in a unique, deliberate manner. While we have just recently started working with the L’Etoile family, it was immediately clear that their farming practices were far ahead of many commercial brands. Elizabeth L’Etoile, the director of sales and marketing on the farm, is always eager to send us samples of any of the farm’s grains – and all of them have been outstanding in quality and performance in the kitchen. Currently we only offer their hulled barley, but we will soon be introducing coarse corn meal (perfect for polenta!), spelt flour and wheatberries onto our shelves. Thanks to the L’Etoile family at Four Star Farms, the idea of “eating locally” is truly expanded from produce into New England-grown, hearty grains and flours and we hope to continue business with them for a long time.
This brief glimpse into the fields of New England is but a small picture of the whole. While the practices and methods of the farms are important, it is the intimate relationship between the farmers, their families and the staff at Formaggio Kitchen that enriches my work in the produce department. Ultimately, however, it is our customers who bring these fruits of the harvest to life in their own kitchens, with their families or around the dinner table.
*Please note: the photos in this post for Red Fire Farm, Four Star Farms and Rockville Market Farms were sourced from their respective web sites.
Emily Shannon is a cooking enthusiast and works in the produce department and as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.