Ripe red cherries, crisp chard, and cheese made from the milk of goats pastured on sweet Timothy grass are chef Debra Whiting’s inspiration for the evening’s featured appetizer: a chevre torte, a dish that is as visually appealing, beautiful as it is fresh and savory. The journey to the feast, a lakeside sojourn along farm- and vineyard-dotted roads, is arguably one of the most picturesque drives in the region.
Along the way, we pass roadside stands with hand-lettered signs advertising farm fresh brown eggs, a cornucopia of oddly shaped squash, and plump peaches just picked and warming in the late summer sun.
There’s little traffic on this two-lane road, which makes the scenery and fellow travelers stand out all the more. A band of black leather inches past – a pack of riders powering their Harleys at a snail’s pace signals to the right and pull off at one of the larger wineries. Further down the road, an Amish farmer labors in the late afternoon heat. Aided by a pair of draft horses, he plows a field with dogged determination. I imagine the fruit of his efforts – perhaps a profusion of sweet summer corn, or else a crop of crisp cucumbers, which later the girls at home will put up for the long winter.
My belly grumbles as I realize that it has been many hours since our last meal. Soaking in the sweeping lake views, we eagerly anticipate the handsome rewards that have been promised us at our journey’s end: local cheese accompanied by orchard fresh fruits and exquisite wines directly from the winemaker. Later, we’ll continue the celebration with a leisurely dinner of local meats and produce, many of them harvested that day by farmers like the Amish gentleman down the road.
This is the voyage that thousands of tourists take yearly, and we could be anywhere – perhaps California’s Sonoma County or else the rolling hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But instead, we are just a stone’s throw from our home just outside Rochester – in the fertile Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
With a national movement embracing all things fresh and seasonal, the Finger Lakes region has never been better positioned to advertise its agricultural wealth to consumers. “Our slogan is ‘fresh foods, fine wine, from right here’,” says Monika Roth, spokesperson for the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty.
The Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty is a consortium devoted to linking area chefs with local food and wine producers. At its most primal – and strongest – level, it’s a grassroots effort aimed at empowering food producers and food consumers to make a mutually beneficial connection.
With 120 current member chefs, producers, farmers and wineries spanning a 14-county region, the Bounty is as diverse as it is widespread. The organization is a local treasure that brings the farm to table and transports the consumer to the farm: from the goat cheese maker in Penn Yan to the winemaker in Geneva to the chicken farmer in Romulus. In restaurant windows throughout the region, vivid signs with the group’s trademark logo proudly announce to passersby: “local products are featured here.”
When joining the organization, chefs and restaurateurs promise to feature at least two items that contain 70 percent or more of Finger Lakes products on their menus, says Debra Whiting, the chef at The Bistro at Red Newt Cellars and the Bounty’s current president. “It’s a pretty loose agreement at this point because we don’t have any way of ‘policing,’ nor do we want to be involved in that,” she explains. “Exactly how you want to set that up is totally up to you. For example, on my menu, I actually star the items that are 70 percent or more local, and then I list all my local producers. Some people have local producers on a board in their restaurants. People do it different ways.”
During the summer and fall, Whiting estimates that local products constitute 90 percent of the items on her menu. The aforementioned chevre torte is a great example of the chef’s seasonal artistic interpretation. “I really try to use fruits in many different ways – I try to expose people to different ways of using them,” she explains. The chevre – a mild form of goat cheese, handcrafted in the French manner – hails from Lively Run Goat Dairy in Interlaken and forms the base for the pie. A rich red puree of local sweet cherries provides balance, while a sprinkling of leeks and fresh chard adds color to the plate.
The Finger Lakes growing season for many products is short, and Whiting changes her menu frequently to reflect this seasonality. “The first thing I do is write a list of what is available and what will be available for the next three weeks, and that basically generates my menu,” she explains. “I start working around those items and incorporating them in different places. Some may be sweet and some may be savory. For example, in the menu that I have right now, we’ve got strawberries. I have strawberries in a turnover with chevre and marscapone, but then I also have a turkey sandwich with a strawberry chutney with garlic and onions.”
On our visit, the running theme is cherries, and as promised, the seasonal fruit finds its way into various courses. After the chevre torte – which is served with a freshly baked baguette – there’s tender grilled pork tenderloin, stuffed with cherries, pancetta and monchego cheese with a cherry wine sauce. A vegetarian Napoleon with artichoke cherry walnut pate is crowned with a homemade woodland mushroom sauce. Red Newt vintages, as well as a variety of Finger Lakes wines, are offered by the bottle or the glass and provide a fitting accompaniment to any dish. The resident winemaker – who happens to be Whiting’s husband David – has received many awards for his vintages.
Whiting buys cherry, chard, greens, and other fresh produce from local farms like The Organic Cornucopia in Rock Stream. From Peter Messmer at Lively Run, she purchases a variety of goat cheese products, which she enthusiastically describes with adjectives like “wonderful and “amazing.” Her longest standing arrangement, though, is with McDonald Farms in Romulus, from which she orders pasture-raised chicken, pork, rabbit, lamb, and duck. The two have a standing order for chicken – McDonald’s specialty – but the arrangement is flexible. “She can call when enthusiasm for her cuisine outstrips what she expected,” says farmer Peter McDonald. “We have coolers and freezers stocked.”
McDonald, who raises what he calls “the big six” – chicken, lamb, beef, pork, turkey, and eggs – on his 220-acre certified organic farm, sells directly to half a dozen restaurants, including Red Newt, as well as to cooperatives in Rochester, Syracuse, and New York City, and directly to consumers at the Ithaca Farmers Market. “Our specialty is antibiotic and hormone-free pasture-raised meats,” says McDonald, whose nine children help out on the family farm. “Primarily we deal with local restauranteurs, who, to get the freshest product, come to our farm on processing day.”
For farmers, reduced transportation costs aren’t the only benefit of supplying directly to local chefs and restaurants. McDonald explains that the opportunity to cater to a local clientele fits with his philosophy of farming, and of living in general. “I have a real heart to see fresh foods grown and consumed in our communities,” he says. “So much of our farming is farmed out instead of farmed in. We have such a wonderful area – with the rainfall, the nutrients in the soil, and the different species that we grow in different seasons – not only vegetables, but fruits and also lean table meats, that we should really be able to encourage farmers to first of all, grow what people eat and second of all, provide it to the people who are eating it in our communities,” he enthuses.
For chefs, the farmer/chef relationship is not without cost; procuring local products generally requires more sweat equity. Produce needs to be washed and prepped, orders need to be made, and deliveries need to be arranged. But it’s a worthwhile effort, says the energetic Whiting, who is nationally recognized for her devotion to, and enthusiasm for, Finger Lakes food and wine.
“Oftentimes, I will have people say, ‘What did you do to this? It’s so good!’ And the answer is ‘I did very little to it basically. It’s just because it’s so fresh’,” she explains. Generally, locally purchased product is far superior to product purchased through a larger distribution system, says Whiting. “Getting something out of a box is quick and easy, but you really lose out on the quality of what the food can offer, and for that matter, the nutritional value too.”
Jerry Serafine of Restaurant 2Vine in Rochester, agrees. “It is extra work, but that’s what makes the food good,” says the co-owner of the fine dining bistro, a charter member of the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty. “We have become a society that is used to having things 12 months out of the year regardless of what they taste like. You can walk into a grocery store and have corn in the middle of February, and it’s just horrible. It wasn’t meant to be eaten in the middle of February, and that’s why there are seasons. You eat foods in season because, first of all, they taste better, and they make better food.
Serafine and business partner Gerry Vorassi are provided with a steady supply of seasonal ingredients, thanks to a number of well-crafted relationships with area producers. “During the season – part of the spring, summer, and fall – most of our deliveries are from local farmers,” says Serafine. “We buy enough produce that we are able to have agreements with certain farmers that they grow things just for us. For example, we had one guy that decided to grow a whole field of artichokes.”
The products of the Finger Lakes can hold their own against better known regions such as California’s Napa Valley, says Whiting. “It’s a natural progression. The Finger Lakes is finally really being recognized as an accepted wine region to the rest of the world, and wine and food go hand in hand. I don’t know whether it will ever be on as large as a scale as Napa, but I definitely think that it could be a ‘mini’ Napa,” she remarks.
Consumers can support the efforts of the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, as well as the perpetuation of the family farm, by buying fresh and locally, say McDonald, Roth, and Whiting. “Supporting your local farmer preserves the agricultural antiquity and integrity, providing hope for local food production,” explains McDonald. “It’s nice to drive by a bunch of farms on your way to a favorite restaurants that serves food from those farms.” And that is the essence of the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty: fresh food, fine wine, from right here. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a feast to attend.
by Jackie Perrin, photography by Neil Sjoblom
Jackie Perrin is a freelance writer from Walworth, Wayne County. She is an ardent advocate for local agriculture and New York State tourism.