Paul Caval lives and works in Edgartown where he and his wife, Elizabeth Eisenhauer, have run the Eisenhauer Gallery for the past 15 years. But for one day this past weekend, Paul headed to Chilmark and Menemsha to learn about the Vineyard farming and fishing industries.
“This is my first time doing something like this,” Paul noted, saying his wife thought he might enjoy the food tour organized by Farm.Field.Sea, now in its second year exploring behind-the-scenes food production on the Island. “Sometimes I need a kick in my pants to do something out of my comfort zone.”
First stop of the day for Paul and 22 other participants was the six-acre North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, where they spent the morning walking through fields and greenhouses, past chicken coops and blueberries bushes, and listening to owners Matthew Dix and Rebecca Miller talk about their life on a family farm. The group enjoyed a breakfast cooked in the farm’s outside oven prepared by chef Chris Fischer of the Beach Plum Inn and Restaurant, a collaborator for the day.
Among other things, Paul said the group learned about North Tabor’s propagation of shiitake mushrooms for market, how they cut five-foot lengths of trees, drill multiple holes to inject mushroom spores, and the necessity of keeping the logs wet during the year-long growing process. “It was something different from a normal farm – not too many people raise mushrooms.”
In the afternoon, the group sat by the Menemsha docks outside Larsen’s Fish Market to hear about local oystering and fishing from a panel that included Nick Turner, a young grower who owns Honeysuckle Oyster Farm; Michael Holtham, 32-year-old seafood coordinator at the Menemsha Fish House; and two representatives from Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group who gave an overview of Island shellfish preservation efforts. Nick shucked his oysters (and gave a quick shucking lesson), and the group also ate lobsters, local clams, steamers, chowder, and the salad greens harvested at North Tabor for lunch.
“I love to see these young guys coming up in the industry,” Paul noted.
Alec Murray, a financial advisor from Boston, also on the tour, said that speakers, while informational, highlighted the importance of supporting the local industry and fishermen.
“It’s a dying economy, so few boats are here,” he said. “It’s hard for them to compete with the major players, the mass quantity fishing. It’s all the things we know but we kind of ignore. It put a face to the industry.”
In the late afternoon, the group headed back to the Beach Plum Inn restaurant where they participated in a fresh pasta making demonstration (which they would later enjoy with the shiitake mushrooms) and watched as chef Fischer broke down a side of a locally raised pig. Later, among the 9 or 10 courses on the menu, the participants would eat The GOOD Farm pork shoulder cooked with beans.
“People are becoming more and more aware of how their food is produced, where their food is produced and how it gets to their plates,” said Erica DeLorenzo, one of the event organizers along with Nevette Previd. “They were so engaged.”
As demonstrations were taking place, the crew from Farm.Field.Sea. set up two long tables for excursion participants to dine outside behind the restaurant as the sun would set overlooking Menemsha Harbor. Back in the restaurant, the kitchen crew began prepping the meal, incorporating the pasta, pork shoulder, North Tabor chicken, along with Island bluefish, lamb, and a multitude of seasonal garden vegetables.
By the time the Beach Plum restaurant opened at 5:30 pm, it was a local beehive of orchestrated activity. Inside, all the tables had been reserved as part of the Farm.Field.Sea event, also featuring locally sourced food as a benefit for the Island Grown Schools gardening project. The night was sold out with 180 people in three seatings, and the restaurant filled with locals as well as visitors.
The chef and staff had invited students from Island Grown elementary school programs to participate. A crew of young kids were given their own lesson in making pasta that afternoon and sat down to enjoy the staff meal before the restaurant opened for the evening. The school children then shadowed the waitstaff, learning how to serve and greet tables.
At one table, when a diner asked one of the young servers, a nine-year-old Chilmark School third grader named Jack, what he was being served, he replied, “soup.”
Meg Athearn, one of the parent chaperones for the evening and the Island Grown assistant at the Chilmark School where she runs the after-school garden club, said the kids enjoyed their tasks so well, they wanted to continue even as the staff got too busy getting all the courses out to diners inside and out. (Diners inside could choose from 3, 5, or 7 courses ranging from $25 to $75.) Meg later returned for an 8:30 reservation with her husband, Dan, a Morning Glory Farm family farmer, to sit at the kitchen bar seats to enjoy the dinner themselves. “It was amazing to watch the kitchen,” Meg said.
Michelle Moon, the New England chapter leader of Slow Food, who was dining at the restaurant with her husband on their honeymoon, commented that she was especially impressed with the children working alongside the wait staff. “They took their work seriously and clearly idolized their mentors,” she said. “This, to me, was an excellent way for the kids to experience the joys of providing hospitality while revealing the significance, complexity, and dignity of all forms of labor connected with food.” Michelle added that she found the dinner “inspiring and inspired, an authentic reflection of season and sense of place. The tiered pricing was also a wonderful way to make a very fine dinner more affordable.”
Meanwhile, outside, the participants who had spent the day immersed in food sourcing enjoyed multiple courses that included spinach salad with summer squash blossoms filled with Mermaid Farm feta; broccoli and turnip bagna cauda; and bluefish crudo.
“It was exceptional,” Paul Caval said about the meal. “After seeing how they raise things, it’s no surprise. Chris is definitely on his game.”
Paul added that he loved the bluefish course. “I’m a fisherman and I love bluefish, but I’ve never eaten it raw. It was fantastic. It took me by surprise.”
Rick Karney, head of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group agreed, adding that he also appreciated the handmade fettuccine with shiitakes, as well as the sweet pea and olive oil cake: “I had two of them.”
Catherine Walthers of West Tisbury is a food writer, private chef, and instructor.