What excites me most about Slow Food is that in a world that feels more and more serious and fraught, this international organization chooses to celebrate all good, clean and fair food cultures around tables with friends, food, beverages, stories and joy. That’s not to say that the work of Slow Food is not serious, but that tackling the biggest issues in food is more enjoyable when it can be done around a table. It is exactly in this spirit that we created the meet-up that was held on the unseasonably warm first night of the Annual NOFA-VT Winter Conference on February 18th. The gathering was the result of a delicious collaboration between NOFA-VT, Slow Food Vermont, Vermont Young Farmers’ Coalition and Chef Doug Paine of Hotel Vermont. As a farmer myself, and the president of the Vermont chapter of Slow Food, sharing the stories of culturally significant products with like-minded food enthusiasts is my constant goal and passion; and if we can do that with some rare Vermont foods prepared by a celebrated local chef for young, inspired farmers? All the better.
Ark of Taste was the theme for the evening’s food offerings, and showcased nicely a sampling of Slow Food’s catalog of rare and endangered foods. Currently, the Ark has nearly 5000 items on it worldwide, and around 350 in America. This living catalog is a place to preserve and celebrate foods that are important to our culture and have a significant place on our plates. The Ark of Taste enables us to point out the existence of these products, educate about their risk of imminent extinction, and use that as a platform for action. Everyone is invited to help preserve them in whatever way they are able: grow them, consume and appreciate them, tell their story and support the producers. In other cases of wild species (like wild ramps or staghorn sumac), it might mean eating less of them or working to reproduce and preserve them in their specific habitat.
New England, and Vermont specifically, has many items already boarded on the Ark of Taste, with more nominated every year. It was exciting to work with Chef Doug Paine to locate some of these distinctive crops and actually bring them to the table – we were thrilled to find so many products available in February! We acquired the Gilfeather turnip, the newly anointed and celebrated state vegetable from Wardsboro (donated to the gathering by Will & Judy Stephens of Golden Russet Farm), the absurdly delicious cider jelly made from concentrated apple cider (provided by Chris Chaisson of Eleven Acre Farm), the Randall Cattle – our state heritage livestock breed which hails from Sunderland, VT, as well as Roy’s Calais Flint Corn from North Calais, Vermont – championed by Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds. We even found the rarest of the American swine breeds, the Mulefoot Hog! Pizza dough was donated by amazing local grain stewards Randy George and Liza Cain from Red Hen Bakery.
We were particularly lucky to work with Chef Doug Paine, who is a true partner in the process of telling the story of these special crops through his skills in the kitchen. The pizza toppings he crafted made excellent use of the unique qualities of each Ark of Taste item, articulating what makes them worth sharing and worth preserving.
- Gilfeather Turnip when cooked, is a smooth & creamy turnip – soufflés are one of their celebrated uses. Doug made a puree that became the sauce, topped with a blend of Jasper Hill cheeses, sliced charred turnips and tossed in warmed cider jelly.
- Randall Cattle is known as a particularly “beefy” flavored beef, and was prepared perfectly to showcase that quality. The cut was a standing rib roast marinated in Juniper steak sauce, slow roasted, then sliced and put over a chimichurri sauce on the pizza.
- Mulefoot Hog is an extremely rare hog of superior flavor and fat content. Doug used a shoulder and smoked it on maple, then braised with apple cider vinegar, shredded it, then tossed with bbq sauce.
- Roy’s Calais Flint Corn was nixtamalized with wood ash, then used whole-kernel with the pork and bbq sauce on the pizzas. The whole-kernel treatment allowed the full flavor of this special corn come through.
In addition to these Ark of Taste products, we featured the incredible sprouted-grain porridge bread of Heike Meyer’s Brot Bakery in Fairfax with Ploughgate Creamery butter, as well as Eden Specialty Ciders’ Sparkling Rose. Brot Bakery, Juniper Bar & Restaurant and Eden Specialty Ciders are all recipients of the prestigious Slow Food Snail of Approval award of excellence. This award is bestowed on food establishments and artisans who are committed to good, clean and fair practices in every aspect of their business.
By evening’s end, over 120 people tasted these storied items as well as made connections with other farmers. Many lingered outside on the terrace around the fire pit, continuing conversations and basking in the glow of a convivial evening, sharing bites and food stories, Slow Food style.
Want to learn more about Ark of Taste or grow some of the crops in the extensive catalog? Check out http://slowfoodvermont.org/ark-of-taste-plant-sale