Local chefs and local farmers: It's a natural match. Coming from opposite ends of the produce spectrum, the interests of both groups meet at the intersection of commerce and quality, freshness and flavor. However, given the relentless daily demands inherent in both professions, opportunities are scarce for growers and chefs to interact and learn about one another's work, needs, and ideas.
Pamela Boyar, founder, director, and intrepid doyenne of the Sunset Valley (formerly Westlake) Farmers Market, works hard to remedy that situation. She's orchestrated several farm tours, taking Austin chefs to visit Austin-area farms to talk with the farmers, see where and how they work, and get up close and personal with produce in its growing environment. Boyar's goal is "to give chefs a chance to develop a deeper connection with where the food they use comes from." Additionally, the exercise enables growers to showcase their bounty to sophisticated culinary consumers, find out what chefs want for their restaurants, and perhaps broaden some perspectives about the joys and benefits of locally grown fruits and vegetables
In early June, I had the good fortune to tag along on one of Boyar's rollicking road trips, and it was a great combination of chefly camaraderie, agricultural education, and some truly exceptional eating. After breakfast at Cafe Caprice (including lovely Belgian waffles provided by Oliver Buntinx of Brussels Sweet Feast), 12 chefs from various Austin food establishments (Driskill Hotel, Eastside Cafe, Barr Mansion, Amuse Bouche Catering, Zoot, Central Market, Moonshine, and Sweetish Hill) piled into the bus to head for the hinterlands.
Our first destination was Flintrock Hill Farm near Kingsbury (southeast of Austin in Guadalupe County), where Fred and Jackie Pomrenke have grown hydroponic vegetables in greenhouses and shadehouses since 1999. A jovial man sporting a bushy white goatee, Fred Pomrenke talked about inheriting the family farm, and how hydroponic technology has made it economically feasible to grow vegetables throughout brutal Texas summers, using 5-10% of the water needed to grow outdoors.
As we munched fresh-picked tomatoes and cucumber slices, Pomrenke gave a basic lesson in hydroponic farming, popular in Europe and Australia but relatively rare in Texas. Vegetables are rooted in perlite (absorbent, mined volcanic material) and supplied nutrients via computer-controlled watering tubes. Plants climb tall cords and then turn horizontal, creating verdant green walls festooned with hanging vegetables. Nearby, varieties of strawberries, arugula, and lettuces thrive in gorgeous pyramids. Climate control and pests can still be a problem, but no pesticides are used. "Greenhouse farming doesn't isolate you from the elements," Pomrenke explains, "but it insulates you." It's insulating enough to allow the miracle of strawberries and tomatoes growing in 100-degree Texas heat.
At our next stop south of San Marcos, we met Cliff Caskey of Caskey Orchards, who's been a county agricultural agent for 30 years and a peach grower since 1983. He's proud to point out that "the Ph.D.s at Texas A&M" didn't believe peaches could grow there, but his healthy trees and flavorful, juicy peaches surely bear testimony to his vision and skill.
While hauling us out in a tractor/trailer to pick some peaches, Caskey explained that the farm produces 32 varieties of freestone peaches. The blossoms are thinned to 8 inches apart; otherwise, Caskey says, "you just get fuzz-covered pits." The Caskeys don't believe in picking peaches before they're ripe, and they sell only in regional farmers' markets.
I must say, there's nothing quite like plucking a perfect peach and consuming it on the spot with sweet juice dripping down your arm. After filling our baskets (and frying our brains), we adjourned to the farmhouse for al fresco feasting on the front porch. For eating well, I certainly recommend picnicking with a bunch of chefs and farmers. Gordon Bledsoe III of Henry's Butcher Block in Round Rock grilled succulent, Texas-raised wagyu beef burgers, served on fat buns provided by Sweetish Hill's Jim Murphy. Sylvia Caskey made us a luscious peach cobbler, and Chef Keem Thiemermann of Sweet Venus Delights brought amazing Texas-lavender macaroons.
While we stuffed our faces, Dr. David Byrne of Texas A&M, a specialist in peach, nectarine, plum, and apricot research, talked about his work in Texas, Brazil, Spain, France, Australia, and Uruguay, where he helps adapt varietals for each area. Darrell Joseph of Bella Verdi Farms was there to chat about the microgreens and herbs he grows in greenhouses near Dripping Springs.
After such a fine meal, it wasn't easy to leave the shady porch, but we were on a mission to the Arnosky Family Farms on the Blanco/Hays County line, near Wimberley. We pulled in just as Pamela Arnosky finished the day's order for cut flowers.
The Arnoskys and their children have grown flowers for 15 years; they supply not only farmers' markets, but Central Markets, Whole Foods, and HEBs in Texas. Their statistics boggle the mind: 50,000 bouquets and bunches per year at a rate of 1,500 per week. We viewed the 40 acres of blooming color with awe dill, coreopsis, Queen Anne's lace, tuberoses, zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, celosia, and gladiola, as well as vast stretches of nodding sunflowers. "We love sunflowers," Frank Arnosky says. "They're the only ones you don't have to bend over to cut."
The chefs walked the fields, and the Arnoskys showed off their brand-new farmstand on the highway. They're expanding into specialty organic vegetables, and a goal is to make the entire farm an accessible destination for visitors, with bike trails, music events, and picnic facilities. "We figure if people are going to drive an hour or more to buy stuff here, we might as well make it fun for them to stick around for a while."
Over wine and Texas artisan cheeses served in the farmstand's shade, a lively discussion of vegetables ensued, with the farmers quizzing the chefs about what they'd want, and the requests included toro peppers, romanesco broccoli, green spiral cauliflower, asparagus, squash blossoms, Romano Italian beans, and haricots verts. The chefs agreed they'd find good uses for any locally grown organic specialty vegetables.
As the sun was setting, we found ourselves rolling home with bags of peaches, sunburns, full bellies, and armloads of flowers. I was exhausted simply from observing the work the farmers do, and I'm way impressed that the chefs would take a precious day off to learn more about locally produced food. The next time you're perusing a menu, think about what goes into it. And better yet, visit Austin's wonderful farmers' markets and support the hard-working local growers who bring their bounty into our fair city every week. Farm to table, indeed.
Frank and Pamela Arnosky;www.texascolor.com
Cliff and Sylvia Caskey;http://caskeyorchards.com
Fred and Jackie Pomrenke;830/639-4686
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