On a perfectly clear and balmy night last week, 60 diners gathered at Millstone Farm, Wilton, to dine alfresco in the field adjacent to Betsy and Jesse Fink’s farm house . Tim LaBant, Chef and owner of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale Restaurant, was focused and in good humor as he checked last minute details and greeted familiar faces. Enthusiastic attendees sauntered down the hill towards one very long, white draped table dotted with glowing candles and jam jars filled with brightly colored flowers from the fields.
His restaurant waitstaff took care to place diners’ carefully selected bottles of wine and artisanal beer in an ice packed cooler that had been set up for that purpose. Somehow, they remembered who brought what, popped open corks, filled goblets, and the party started. But this was no ordinary party. Those who arrived promptly were treated to a farm tour by renowned, sustainable farming guru and Master farmer, Annie Farrell (seen below).
“Keep up with me, we don’t want to keep Tim waiting,” she cajoled as she led a group of 15-20 followers to view chickens, pig, and sheep roaming in spacious pens. “Do you know the difference between grain fed and pasture grazed?” she asked over her shoulder. Always the educator, effortlessly sharing her wealth of knowledge and commitment to organic and sustainable farming practises, she explained the differences and the benefits to both animals and meat eaters. Attentive participants tried to keep up as she led us through the greenhouse. We walked between raised beds where multi-colored crops are planted in a meticulously arranged rows, allowing for maximum productivity with minimal impact on the land. We crossed over fields of tall grasses, into lushly wooded wetlands, pausing to feel the change in temperature and humidity, while learning about this remarkable and exemplary model of sustainable agriculture.
This beautiful and highly efficient 75 acre farm has the goal of seeing “ local food production become the norm rather than the exception.” They “pursue the best means possible to help good food take firm root in the soil and in the fabric of the community.” In order to pursue these goals in CT. and beyond, the farm team, led by Farah Masani as farm manager, serves in many capacities: growers, educators, hosts, consultants and suppliers of ingredients to area restaurants that value the same ideals and the pure flavors of organic, freshly picked ingredients. Masani is the heartbeat of the operation, directing and participating in planting and harvesting in addition to handling a myriad of details. She worked directly with Lauren Kreter, events coordinator for the Schoolhouse Restaurant, and Chef LaBant to create this extraordinary evening.
Chef LaBant’s meal combined an exciting and broad array of Millstone’s harvest, deftly handled by one who shares their passion for local, seasonal, organic ingredients. LaBant allowed these freshly picked ingredients to shine by keeping seasonings understated. At the risk of summoning up a misconstrued reference, the ingredients were so close to the field that they almost tasted of soil. Yes! That is a good thing.
Here’s what we ate: creamy avocado gazpacho was served in jam jars as a first course. The velvety texture and mild flavor was heightened with fennel pollen and basil flowers. Each serving was pierced by a firm, cool, cucumber spear. You know you are in deep luxurious texture when your spoon almost stands up on its own.
Next up was a salad of brightly colored heirloom tomatoes, a celebration of August for sure. Simply dressed with lemon zest, olive oil and sea salt, the distinctive heirloom flavors were allowed to shine.
We enjoyed a creamy barley and vegetable medley with crunchy corn off the cob, nestled in roasted peppers, gently seasoned and tangy with local goat cheese.
Next, we were presented with another salad as our entree. A generous plate of cress and mint leaves was topped with quinoa, fresh apricot chunks and crisp green beans. Grilled baby zucchini halves punctuated the plate. Who could have missed the meat with such an ample, crunchy, thoughtful combo of ingredients? We especially appreciated the quinoa, which added some substance and heft.
Somehow we always manage to make room for dessert, especially when the peaches and blackberries are from the farm. The simple, moist, fruit laden pie topped with lemon verbena ice cream punctuated the end of the meal. Schoolhouse pastry chef Jessie Fila, teased the summer out of the herbs and whipped the ice cream to a perfect consistency. With almost every ingredient coming straight from the fields just beyond our dining table, we were sated, educated and sorry to depart from this glorious site.
View www.millstonefarm.org for upcoming events on their farm. Hours and info about the Schoolhouse Restaurant may be found at www.schoolhouseatcannondale.com. The dinner was a bargain at $65.00 pp, BYOB.
Liz Rueven is a blogger for www.ctbites and her soon to launch Kosher Like Me, which explores how she eats as a vegetarian when away from her Kosher kitchen.