A Farm Dinner at Hancock Shaker Village
September 17, 2013 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
As a crisp autumn-like afternoon last week turned settled into a cool evening, three friends and I dined with about 150 others at a long communal table on the farm at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, about 3 hours from New York City and 2 hours from Boston.
Outstanding in the Field, which started in the summer of 1998 in a Santa Cruz, California restaurant as a series of “farmer dinners” straight from the field with a few of their regular producers, has now crossed North America nine times from Alaska to Maine, ventured as far afield as Florence, Italy, and will close this season in Hawaii.
A crew of nine including Outstanding the Field’s founder, chef and artist Jim Denevan, above, travel field to field together across the country and camp in a bus he bought for $9,000 and took two and a half years to retrofit. “it looks good now,” Denavan remarked, “but you should really spend more on a bus.”
The tour, which I’d written about but until now had not experienced, has always been and continues to be about the relationship between the land, the farmers, purveyors, chefs.
Fifteen years and many miles later, Denevan is still doing what he did from the start: featuring dishes whose ingredients come straight from the farm while the folks that grew the food, raised the animals, or caught the fish continue to join everyone for the meal.
Last year OIF served 87 dinners and 86 this year, “We’re slowing down,” quipped Denevan.
We arrived a little early at around 3pm, which gave us time to wander around exploring the farm while sipping a peach lemonade made with local Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ice Glen vodka from Great Barrington, MA.
Milling among some of the other early birds, we chatted with the “melon gal” and a woman who called herself “the chicken lady,” two of the local purveyors who were there to partake in the farm dinner experience.
Guests may either bring their own plates, the way it was done from the early days of the tour, or they can select from a pile of supplied mismatched plates as we did.
As some of the chefs chopped and diced, others grilled, and one stepped into the garden to pick some fresh basil.
“A garden is an index of the gardener’s mind,” said Bill Mangiardi, Director of Farm & Facilities. The Shakers, I learned, developed an underground water system for irrigating their farmland, which was donated n the late 1780s by local farmers who had converted to the Shaker movement.
Hancock Shaker Village, in operation until 1960, grew to the 3,000 acres it is today, cultivating medicinal herbs, vegetables, fruits, and other crops, and a thriving dairy industry with its 1826 Round Stone Barn still the focal point of the property.
The farm operates a CSA and continues the Shaker tradition of seed saving, which they feel allows people to share a bit of history.
Busy observing the behind the scenes food preparations, we didn’t notice the first hour’s reception had started so we missed some of the passed appetizers. I did seek out a server passing Joshua Farm deviled eggs with Indian Line Farm roasted beet relish. Delicious. We never got to sample the Berkshire Valley Beef summer sausage with half-sour pickles and dijon mustard or the Willow Brook Farm sweet corn pancake with Rawson Brook Farm Monterey chevre.
I chatted with local craft brewers, Christine and Bill Reaton from Big Elm Brewing who were pouring selections of their handcrafted beers. The couple met in 2003 while employed at Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania, where Bill was Christine’s boss. They later opened a brewpub together, but after deciding they enjoyed brewing more than running a restaurant, Big Elm was born. The 401 Farmhouse Ale I sampled contained whole flower chamomile, lemon zest, and Brazilian pink peppercorn from Himala Salt in Sheffield.
OIF’s staff were meticulous about setting the table so every single glass was aligned from one of the long table to the other.
Up until the very moment we were seated, cutlery was adjusted, a water bottle moved a few millimeters to maintain the table’s symmetry, which was perfectly in line with the center of the Shaker Round Barn.
Outstanding in the Field Founder Delavan attends most of each season’s dinners. He shared a bit of the tour’s history, peppered with a few humorous anecdotes, then introduced the host farmers and guest chef, Brian Alberg, below, from The Red Lion Inn in nearby Stockbridge, MA.
A short farm tour culminated at the table where five courses with wine pairings made three hours pass quickly.
Desert was served by candle-lit mason jars as the late summer sun had already begun to set.
The Farm Table Menu
Saturday, September 8, 2013
Chilled and smoked Berry Patch tomato soup with olive oil-poached Markisto Farm hakursi turnips, garnished with Lila’s Mountain mutton jerky.
Howden Farm sweet corn and Farm Girl gumball tomato salad, Equinox Farm arugula, BBQ Meat Market bacon.
NV Pere Ventura, Tresor, Brut Rosé, Cava
Wannabea Farm rabbit bratwurst, Raven & Boar pork shoulder choucroute with lacto-fermented kraut, mirepoix, toasted caraway.
2008 Sipp Mac “Rosacker” Riesling Grand Cru
Grilled Hudson duck breast, Thompson-Finch adirondack reds buttered Indian Line Farm celeriac, Farm Girl kale.
2011 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso
Dave’s melons with Cricket Creek Farm Feta, Hancock Shaker Village herbs and honey.
All images © Robin Plaskoff Horton for Urban Gardens. Please request permission before republishing.