Scenes from a Farm Dinner

You can't get closer to your meal than dining on the grounds where ingredients were grown.

Farm work may be a dirty business but throw in a few white tablecloths and the magic starts to happen.

This summer Seacoast Local, based in Portsmouth, is showcasing a variety of farms and local chefs in a synergistic marriage of food and farm. After all, the seeds are sown on the farm, but the fruition only comes after the seeds have swollen, grow quietly in the dark, warm soil and then are finally able to reach for the sun, gathering vigor in every cell. A market table full of colorful harvested produce is a wonder to behold, but the real payoff occurs when talented chefs pick and choose, mix and match, sauté and stir, and finally present their creations on a plate to an appreciative audience. The sum is greater than the parts - why else all the hoopla?

On June 3, Seacoast Local facilitated a meeting of like minds on a grassy hill on a back acre of Tuckaway Farm in Lee. The agenda was a simple one: Let's all enjoy local food - local food taken to heights, that is. To that end, Chef Mark Segal from the highly touted 100 Club in Portsmouth and his team planned a menu that was sourced from the site and nearby Breezy Hill Farm.

Fulfilling the mission was a bit more complicated. Tents, tableware and a portable kitchen were put on site. Jars of Aspen Hill Farm flowers and herbs added a delicate counterpoint while a host of enthusiastic volunteers swarmed the grounds directing guests to the farm path that led to the night's planned revelry in a meadow. Dress code for the evening was simply jeans.

The cool air did not quell the party atmosphere. Tuckaway Farm owner Chuck Cox was giving tours of Tuckaway Gardens and the adjoining Wild Miller Farm in his hay wagon drawn by two draft horses - the same beasts used to cultivate the land. While Cox pointed out fields, both fallow and newly planted, the appetizers for the evening were passed around to guests sitting on bales of hay. A tamale was wrapped in Swiss chard. The corn masa inside was made with corn grown and ground on the farm. A minted pea soup shooter was graced with an almost liquid piece of lardo - smoked fat back from a Breezy Hill pig. Deviled eggs were garnished with sprigs of stinging nettle. With their deep yellow center it was obvious the eggs were sourced from free-range chickens. A few oversized ones came from a brace of ducks on the farm.

The adjoining property is run by Chuck's daughter, Annalisa, and her husband Joel Wild Miller. They use high tunnels and support local farmers markets almost year-round. The multi-generation aspect of this operation is heartening - it's just good to know that local farms have set deep roots.

Moving inside the tent, the crowd renewed old connections and discovered new ones under the glow of soft candles and oversize incandescent bare bulbs. Local beer, Smuttynose, was poured along with selected wines from Vinlandia USA. The crowd barely noticed that the entrée did not appear soon after the fresh salad of spring greens, blooms and turnip.

Plan A had not worked out. A rented portable oven had failed to heat and the chicken dish, though pre-cooked, was not ready to serve. Plan B involved a makeshift fire pit. The chefs also sautéed greens, including the foliage of vetch, normally planted for soil improvement over the open fire. Chef Segal said, "We researched it thoroughly and could see no reason to not eat a cover crop."

The meal was served family-style, adding to the camaraderie as guests passed and helped serve dishes. The wine flowed freely and by the time dessert, a rhubarb panna cotta with a wild violet cream, arrived, no one cared that darkness had also embraced the tent.

The eat-local movement has gained much attention in the past few years. It is so much more than saving the planet or getting fresher food. It's about supporting the fine folks who use our soil as their livelihood. It's the pristine rolling hills, it's the local environment, it's the ancient way of life that is preserved. All this is to be cherished. I will have another serving. Please pass the vetch.

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