"Farm to Table" is such a popular phrase that it has, perhaps, lost its impact. In my experience, farm to table, sea to table, oven to table — whatever the configuration — is much more than a cultural magnet used by restaurants to cue health-conscious diners into their seats. It is a way of life. The best food is fresh. Super fresh. Magically fresh.
If you have ever had the good fortune of visiting a friend or relative or even an "agriturismo" (as a paying guest house) in Italy — or the same in Greece or Spain — you have discovered that this link between the food on the table and your precise whereabouts are an essential element of daily life and has been, forever.
My Roman relatives begin their days with a visit to the nearest market. When they are at their summer house on the island of Levanso, in Sicily, they go to the dock and visit their favorite captain and purchase his "catch of the day," first thing in the morning. God forbid they don't get the finest tuna or octopus that the fisherman has caught. Even at seven in the morning, there is a line for "ricci di mare," spiny sea urchin that the fish monger needs a special tool to open. Then there's another line at the bakery where fresh bread, just out of the oven, is bought to get the family through the day's meals, essential for eating pasta or dunking into the ricci.
When I'm with my relatives, every moment is one for celebration. I believe this is how they live when I'm not around too, but perhaps with a bit less diligence. So, on our way back to the cottage, on these sparkling summer mornings, we stop at a spot overlooking the sea and snack on our purchases — bread, cheese, figs and the amazing "ricci." The beauty is stunning, the air is perfect, the food is divine. My impression is that each day is built around food for my relatives — that is, everything is a major food production, in a good way.
Their outdoor kitchen, under a grapevine, with a rustic table that each day quickly becomes something that Gourmet magazine would feature on its cover: tuna carpaccio, grilled octopus, spaghetti with baby clams — sea to table, food to die for. And here's the thing. My memory of my visits is that driving just a few miles inland would mean the availability of fish would diminish quickly. Italians would look at me like I was nuts if I'd ask for seafood at a restaurant an hour from the water — food has to be fresh in their world, they've never considered doing it otherwise. Like everything, though, Italy is quickly modernizing, and I fear that in the past decade or two this culture may have waned. I hope not.
"You musta 'ave the chingale (wild boar) befora you depart," I was told by another relative, in Tuscany. I had seen them at the local butcher, and I thought we were off to buy one. I was wrong. We were going hunting for one — well, they were, at least. You don't have to go too far. You can hear them in the woods at night while you sleep. After a few hours in the morning, my cousins returned with the boar and the preparations began.
First, we went into the woods and picked juniper berries (marinata), the start to a good marinade. An expensive balsamic vinegar, one that would last me a year, went into the antique oak bucket, and a huge bunch of fresh thyme and rosemary (needs to be 'fresha') which we gathered in the meadow near the house. Roasted garlic was smashed in their centuries old mortar and pestle, no food processor here, went into the mix as well.
For three days we watched as it turned on a handmade spit. The aroma was so intense that waiting for it to be declared cooked represented a few of the most difficult hours I have ever endured. When we did sit down to eat, the meal began with a first course of spaghettini, homemade, with white truffles. Then the boar was presented to the table as if it were a king being lowered onto his throne, but was decorated with roasted veggies and fresh herbs in place of gold and fine fabrics. The crisp skin was and still is one of the most delicious tastes I have ever enjoyed. I brought home some white truffle, very expensive, but it was never the same even though I also bought a special grater for a full effect. This is the sort of experience that I suppose inspired the farm to table movement, but the phrase doesn't render the power of that actual forest to table experience.
You cannot escape the abundance of corn from the local farms apparent in most markets and farm stands. The season is so short, it seems a pity not to serve it on the cob, boiled a few minutes with a little butter. I often buy more than I need and make a chowder with a few of the cobs, the next day. I add chopped sea clams that I buy frozen and dump them in for a few minutes after I make the chowder. (See recipe).
Blueberries are perfect for scones, crostata, salad dressing and my favorite breakfast treat, blueberry muffins. A hundred years ago, there was a recipe for popular Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins printed in the local papers. (The Cricket reprinted the recipe in full when the Manchester Historical Museum hosted an event on the history of Jordan Marsh in April.) I still use this recipe; except I substitute buttermilk for whole milk. Eat them soon, and if they don't get eaten immediately (from oven to table), don't cover them or they'll get too soft.
Rosalie Harrington is a chef and cooking instructor who started Rosalie’s Restaurant in Marblehead in 1973, which she operated for nearly 25 years.