Delivering the Goods

Spring and a new growing season bring the opportunity for chefs and farmers to sow new relationships.It’s spring. Farmers are furrowing their fields and dropping in seeds, tiny reservoirs of life that ask only for the right amount of water to grow and fruit. Each year it takes a bit of faith that something will come from next to nothing, and after 40 to 90 days in the ground, the mature root or leaf or fruit will be received at the peak of freshness by someone who will lovingly prepare it into a nourishing and satisfying meal. What the earth gives freely takes time and talent, and even more marketing savvy to deliver into the most willing hands.At the same time, area chefs are thinking ahead to the bounty of spring and early summer. Ed Aloise, chef/owner of the Republic Café in Manchester, is waiting for those sweet, young garlic plants that were planted last fall. He says,“I love to make a confit (roasted with oil) with them that can be used as a spread a top a burger or sandwich.” The young garlic plants can be eaten whole, including the scape or stalk which can be sautéed, like young asparagus. In spring Aloise also stuffs zucchini blossoms, sears fresh greens with hot chilies and raisins, and serves early lettuce, barely dressed, with a bit of lemon and salt. He adds, “Fiddleheads from foragers stand on their own with a bit of vinegar and pepper.”The asparagus we see in March in grocery stores appears much later as a spring vegetable in New England. Locally grown, you may have to the wait until late May or June to find asparagus at the farmers markets along with rhubarb, salad greens, lettuce, peas, radishes, herbs and strawberries. The full bounty of the season lies pregnant for harvest in July and beyond.Putting the fresh and local mantra into full effect is a challenge for local restaurants. Not only is the New England growing season short, but finding the right farm, the right product and getting it delivered are a major stumbling block for most restaurants. Sometimes it takes a face-to-face meeting along with a handshake in the field to forge an effective alliance between farmer and chef.In January Charlie Burke, president of the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection, gathered Manchester chefs and area producers into one room to discuss ways to get fresh local product into local restaurants. The demand is there, diners are educated on the value of small farms and the flavor/nutrition of fresh and local product, but several problems hung in the air.The chefs wanted guaranteed delivery, washed products sorted by size, wholesale prices and 30-day terms. The farmers countered with the reality of the limits of the harvest, retail prices and COD terms. It may take a seasoned relationship and a bit of trust on both sides to iron out some of these differences. But this meeting was a good start.Some of the solutions were sitting in the room. Three individuals, Kent LePage of the Little Milkman, Jack Courtney of White Birch Gourmet, and Mike Litvin of the Fruit and Flower Farm, already own trucks and make a living driving and delivering around the state.Other solutions discussed might involve a central warehouse where farmers bring crops for distribution, similar to a co-op. Contract growing or Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA) and a handshake would go a long way, too.Sometimes the volume a restaurant requires makes it difficult to buy local. Tom Puskarich chef/owner of Z Food and Drink in Manchester says he would love local spring lamb ribs, but his requirements for a week would wipe out a small farmers’ whole herd. Most producers want you to take the whole animal and many chefs don’t want to get into butchering and using less desirable cuts.But the desire to source locally continues to grow. Chef David Becker of Firefly at 22 Concord St. in Manchester says“Before we opened, Diane Downing and I discussed making a commitment to using local providers, from the linens to the basic supplies to the food.” Currently they use a company on the Seacoast, Family Foods, that delivers all the products that a SYSCO truck typically does. In summer, Becker just hikes a block or two to the Manchester Farmers Market on Concord Street to get fresh greens. He confesses there is a challenge: “In this business where the margins are so low, it is hard to make a choice that would double our costs. I am willing to pay more for local, but it needs to be reasonable.”
Many restaurants, including Firefly, are already purchasing local vegetables and dairy when they order from the Fruit and Flower Farm on Webster Street in Manchester.Using the Fruit and Flower Farm as a central distribution point, and getting organic farmers involved, was discussed at the Manchester initiative meeting with Fruit and Flower doing the billing.Owner Mike Litvin purchases from 15 local farmers during the growing season, gets in product every day and delivers to 80 area restaurants, but he has not found a reliable source for organic produce. Possibly as the distribution network opens up, the organic farmers will get involved.Jeff Paige chef/owner of Cotton, continues to miss Eero Ruutillo, who recently sold his Nesenkeag Farm in fertile Litchfield. Jeff says, “Eero would leave some parsnips in the ground over winter for us. As they sat waiting for spring, the starches converted to sugar, making for a sweet and spicy parsnip. I think of them as the first spring vegetable.” Paige will be whipping the parsnips to serve them with a maple syrup glazed pork belly. He says, “For asparagus I will be running the Italian classic, Asparagus in Bed — grilled asparagus and fried egg with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.”Matt Provencher, at Richard’s Bistro at 36 Lowell St., is flexible enough to use what he can get locally, even if it is just five pounds of haricot verts. Since Richard’s prints the menu in house, he can serve it on the menu the next night. Come spring, he hopes to create salads from pea tendrils and braised greens with swiss chard, escarole and bok choy.Provencher loves to roast meat and is planning on roasted veal with French breakfast radishes and other baby vegetables.Sourcing locally doesn’t mean just produce. Neville Pereira of Ignite at 100 Hanover Street has put Flaghill and Labelle wines on his menu. Also, he has worked with Sweet Cierra’s bakery in the Millyard to create a signature cake for Ignite.Using the colors of the restaurant — yellow, red and black — owner Lynn Dion, has developed a sun gold yellow cake with almond, layered with a raspberry filling and chocolate ganache. This, along with a triple chocolate treat, an Italian rum torte with Myer’s rum and almond filling and a chocolate peanut butter cake.Ignite, Firefly and a few others are using Freedom Fish and Lobster on Second Street to get fresh seafood from the Maine coast. “I use another fish purveyer,” says Puskarich of Z, “But it is nice to have a quality product nearby for shortfalls on a Sunday. And they deliver, too.”Charlie Burke of Sanbornton, who has led the charge for the Farm to Restaurant Connection for the past five years realizes there are more difficulties to face, but he has confidence that it will happen: “Jeff Paige has been the driving force, and he and other Manchester restaurant chefs are motivated — everybody is on the same page now.”The fresh and local scene will just get better, but it will take some time. As diners get more knowledgeable and start asking questions and chefs respond with menu offerings, the tide will certainly change. Raising awareness of what it means to our small farmers, our health and our environment is just the start. NH

Maple Sugar Vinaigrette
From Jeff Paige at Cotton

1 1/2 cups soybean salad
1/2 cup maple sugar
or dark amber maple syrup
1/2 cup white vinegar
Pinch kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl or blender and whisk together. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Refrigerate until needed.