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A Farmer’s Introduction, Part Two.

Introducing the Wenger Farm.

Touching history and tasting tradition are experiences that a visitor has when they set foot on my family’s Lancaster County farmland. We specialize in biodiversity: growing and exploring food plants and heritage breeds of animals that are seldom seen in Lancaster County, and many that are rarely raised outside of their country of origin. Each of these agricultural treasures tells a story. There’s the ruby-red Floriani corn that has been grown in the Vasulgana Valley in Northern Italy for hundreds of years to make renowned polenta. Cotton patch geese which were used as “weeders” in fields of crops before the advent of chemicals. A colorful array of over one-hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes, bred to be all shapes, sizes, and colors. As well as papalo, pipicha, and chipilin, Latin American herbs that are seldom seen in North America. By midsummer our “garden” is awash in the edible history of humanity.

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Winter salad greens (Alex Wenger photos).

 

We first met Taylor and Leeann shortly after they came to Lancaster. Taylor learned of our fields of experimental growing through Cheryl Young, of Expressly Local Food. When Taylor introduced himself to us he explained that he wanted to work with local farms to get as close to the source of the produce served in Ma(i)son as possible. He told us that the restaurant would be seasonal and highlight freshly harvested Lancaster County produce. That spring he came to visit our fields to see our plants firsthand. We instantly connected, and, as he likes to say, the relationship that we’ve achieved over a short period of time has been incredible.

Happy with the quality and diversity of our produce, picked and delivered to Ma(i)son within 24 hours, Taylor asked if we might consider becoming the restaurant’s “culinary gardens” and supply the majority of their weekly produce needs. Early last December we sat down to chart plans for the 2013 growing season and the result of this meeting was a list that included more than 90 distinct types of produce that we are cultivating for Ma(i)son this year.

Increasing the scale of our production has been a challenge. It has also been an incredibly rewarding, and educational experience. We have met few people who truly appreciate and care about food as much as Taylor and the Ma(i)son team. We look forward to deliveries at Ma(i)son, or pickups when Taylor comes to visit and check on the crops firsthand. That’s when we trade knowledge, as well as produce.

We teach Taylor about horticulture and the unique history and growing practices surrounding the plants that we cultivate. In turn, he shares a wealth of his culinary knowledge and experiences with us, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the next stage for our crops.

Last August Taylor organized Ma(i)son’s first Tomato Dinner, a 7-course meal where every dish featured tomatoes. One of these dishes featured a Smoked San Marzano Tomato Conserva; a thick, rich, savory, sauce made from San Marzano tomotoes. I remember how with each bite the smooth conserva melted in my mouth, enlivening my taste buds with notes of sweet sun-ripened tomatoes and a hint of delicate grapewood smoke.

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San Marzano tomatoes, “from seed to sauce.”

  The San Marzano is an heirloom variety of paste tomato from Italy that is popular among chefs because of its rich flavor. It is considered by some to make one of the world’s best tomato sauces. I planted the San Marzano seeds indoors during the beginning of March. This fall harvest represented the end of their growing cycle when I savored the product of seven months of work.

Tomato conserva is created by slowly evaporating tomato sauce for several hours until the consistency becomes thick and the flavor concentrated. Historically conserva was used to preserve the summer tomato harvest as sustenance for the lean winter months. By smoking the San Marzano tomatoes before crafting the conserva Taylor made it complement the other foods on the plate.

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Freshly harvested San Marzano tomatoes.

Today, sadly, as a culture we seldom enjoy the rich flavors of foods like conserva in our daily life. In large part this is because the plants and the culinary knowledge that are needed to prepare them are disappearing. Many people have heard of the loss of “wild” species in the Amazon rainforest. Equally disturbing is the lesser known loss of agricultural biodiversity and traditional knowledge about food. According to a 2012 article by The Economist, “…the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields.”

Knowing that San Marzano tomatoes lend themselves to sauce, and knowing how to prepare that sauce requires both botanical and culinary knowledge. Just like the San Marzano, each crop plant has its own unique history and wisdom imparted by the people who grew it. As we face serious issues of climate change, droughts, a growing population, as well as a health crisis, we can’t afford to lose this knowledge. Fortunately, by preserving and reintroducing these foods we can pass along this wisdom to future generations. We are excited to be able to reintroduce these foods with Ma(i)son and bring knowledge about their uses to a broader audience.

In fact, I would say that our love of food in all its colors, flavors, and social dimensions has allowed us to grow so well along with Ma(i)son. Our philosophies meshed from day one. We both recognize that food is a keystone issue that impacts everything from human health, to the health of the planet.

Both of our practices are informed by centuries of tradition: the diversity of food plants that we grow have been shaped by humans for thousands of years. So have the “old world” culinary practices and philosophy that Taylor uses in his restaurant’s kitchen. Yet we both modify our practices to adapt them to modern challenges. For example, we are breeding new varieties of crop plants that are adapted to sustainable farming systems. And Taylor uses them to create a meal that goes beyond sustenance food to become a sensual eating experience.

I believe that one of the missions we share is to reintroduce diversity into our diets, what we eat, the way we eat, and the way that our food is grown. We want to help to create a sustainable food system and leave the world a better place for future generations. And we want to ensure that they can savor the flavors of the past as part of their future.

In the end, our work and this knowledge results in a meal: a meal composed from food grown in our fields and prepared in Taylor’s kitchen. It is a meal that is unique to our region and the season, composed of what is being harvested fresh from the field, direct from farm to plate.

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Floriani Red Flint corn.

Our partnership is still evolving. Every growing season will presents its own unique challenges. But, barring uncooperative weather, we’re looking forward to our most bountiful season, yet. Here’s a preview of just a few of the projects that we’re excited about for the upcoming growing season:

We will introduce a diversity of rare food crops to the Ma(i)son kitchen, such as cardoons, agretti, and Treviso radicchio.

We will grow local grains to supply Ma(i)son with special polenta, heritage grains and legumes.

We will forage for wild foods to add to the restaurant’s offering, such as morels, pawpaws, and greens like stridolo, chickweed, and erba stella.

We will collaborate with Taylor to help introduce forgotten foods such as the American Ground Nut, Apios americana, as a sustainable food for the 21st century.

And for you, the reader, we will document the life-cycle of several crops in a series of “planting to plate” articles posted on this blog where we follow the growth of select crops in several stages, from planting until Taylor prepares and plates them at Ma(i)son.

Our goal is to create a “research farm.” We want to bring sustainability to our food system and a diversity of foods back to the modern palate. This vision has been enhanced through our collaboration with Ma(i)son. By working together we are excited to have the opportunity to address some of the huge challenges that face us in the 21st Century by helping to chart a sustainable cuisine. And I am very excited to have the opportunity to write for this blog and to share the story of “what’s on your plate.”

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Stridolo flowers and young Treviso Radicchio.

 

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An Intimate, Farm-Driven, Urban Cookery