Think about it. What's the best way to enjoy a farm-to-table dining experience? I vote alfresco dining on an actual farm. This summer Haskells Farm, on the outskirts of Chadds Ford, will be staging three such farm dining adventures.
As the sun dipped below the trees last Friday, a mixed bunch of guests tromped along the land viewing fields of plentiful produce that spread out toward the horizon. They were on their way up to a bank barn that dates back to the 1600s that was festive with arrangements of local wildflowers, strings of twinkling lights and a vintage chandelier. The sounds of crickets, conversation and music ebbed and flowed in the gentle calm of the farm's natural beauty. Friends and family were set to savor a bounty of food harvested just hours before it lands on the plate.
"As a grower, some of the most rewarding things are seeing how the chefs use our products and how creative they are at putting these delicious dishes together," said proprietor H. G. Haskell. "I also enjoy talking with our guests. They are quite curious as to how we're able to grow such a variety of crops and how the farm operates."
The sprawling 60-acre farm sits across Route 100 from Haskell's iconic farm stand SIW Vegetables that comes to life each year from mid- June through late October. A hand-painted white "Open" sign out front ushers folks into the gravel parking lot next the railroad tracks. Most summer days, SIW's wooden shack check-out does a brisk business.
Throughout the summer season 40 kinds of sustainable veggies and fruits are toted by the pickers from fields to rustic farm wagons several times a day. The farm stand is a bevy of heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, onions, melons, garlic, raspberries, blackberries, green beans, Doc Martin lima beans, okra, and the early summer sunflowers look like they're right out of a Van Gogh painting.
CSA Thank You
The idea of the summer alfresco dinners sprouted as a thank you to members of SIW's Community Supported Agriculture program launched in 2001. At the farm stand an arty chalkboard lists intriguing seasonal produce items for pick-up by CSA members each week.
While the relationship between rural farms and urban and suburban restaurants has long been established, there is something truly special about sitting down to eat right where the food grows. This summer marked the third consecutive year that Chef David Banks was at the helm of Haskells' farm-to-table dinner. Executive Chef of Harry's Hospitality Group in Wilmington, Banks, along with Xavier Teixido, is also the co-owner of Harry's Seafood Grill and partner in ownership of Kid Shelleen's. Well known for creating and presenting innovative menus, Banks used his diverse food background for the development of the Haskell's menu.
Banks and his sous chef Tim orchestrated the unending buffet of all things local from a makeshift kitchen adjacent to the barn. The bounty included locally sourced, exquisitely grilled organic chicken and beef served side by side with dishes that showcased SIW's wealth of fresh produce. The caprese salad served with H. G.'s prized heirloom tomatoes and DiBruno's EVOO and fresh mozzarella was superb and the raw bi-color and white corn salad teamed with rhubarb was unexpected and delightful. The sideboard groaned with perfectly turned mushrooms, kale and candy onions, luscious red beets, and fruit salad with melons, berries and cherries. Topping off the evening's pleasures were blueberry and blackberry pies shot through with summer sweetness. It was a farm dinner at its finest.
"The idea is to keep it fresh and exciting, playing on the seasonality of the crops," explained Banks. "We take probably 15 components (crops) and turn them into creative dishes like the organic chicken that satisfies the wants of our guests. There is a lot of spontaneity-- 100 percent."
As summer rolls along the bounty of the farm will include 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes that shine in their crimson, purple, green and yellow hues. Rich in character, heirlooms range from modestly tart to immodestly sweet. The Green Zebra has sweet and zesty flavor that is as appetizing as its appearance is spectacular. Then there is the funky-shaped yellowish orange Hawaiian Pineapple that is terrific for juicy tomato sandwiches, and the pink-tinged Peruvian that looks almost hand-painted.
"Heirlooms have been one of the stars as H.G.'s farm stand has evolved in popularity," Banks said. "They've taken foodies by storm over the past five or six years. Some are ugly, gnarly looking, but heirlooms flavors are outstanding. They are the lynchpin of my farm dinners here."
Coaxing tasty food from the unforgiving earth seems like a daunting task given drought, flood, disease, pests and human error. The recent parched summers remind us just how talented farmers are-- the folks who put an array of foods on our tables. They battle plant diseases and weeds and do a lot more no-till planting which reduces soil erosion.
Still, the key to SIW's veggies and fruits is that the crops are 100% drip irrigated. And, Haskell says he has done it since day one. The crops are nurtured by thirty miles of lines of this trickle system.
“The irrigation saves water and man hours,” Haskell explains. “ Water is applied where needed, at the plant's roots, and soaks into the soil before it can evaporate or run off.”
Good stuff. Still, its early July and Haskell already has a bumper crop of those luscious, tasty, full-sized tomatoes. Exactly how does he do it so early in the season?
Haskell utilizes something called a high tunnel. Otherwise known as a hoop house, the high tunnel is a semi-open cover that allows farmers to plant the tomato seedlings in the ground early, and shields them from the intense weather that so often happens in the springtime.
"We were especially lucky that the tomatoes were sheltered from that hail a few weeks ago," Haskell noted. "Thanks to our good old fashioned high tunnels."
Son of Wilmington Mayor
The son of a former mayor of Wilmington and Delaware Congressman, Haskell's grandfather bought the former Pyle farm around 1910 and renamed it Hill Girt Farm. For many years it was a working dairy farm. Sections of the massive bank barn-- where the farm dinners are staged-- date back to the 1600’s and the main house to 1816.
Twenty-eight years after its self-service debut, Haskell’s is arguably the best local produce stand in the Brandywine Valley. His bounty of seasonal produce will supply two additional farm dinners on August 8 with Chef MacGregor Mann of Junto in Chadds Ford that will feature background music by Alfie Moss. On September 12 it's Bryan Sikora, the acclaimed proprietor of Wilmington's La Fia restaurant with jazz vocalist Erin Dickins, a founding member of Manhattan Transfer. At $30 per person, these dinners are a steal.
"The experience of dining right where the produce is grown, the barn setting, the incredible creativity in the food preparation, and the variety of folks that attend, -- it all makes for a one-of-a-kind unforgettable evening," said Suzie Martin, a Pilates instructor and resident of Greenville. "Plus, I go home energized with all sorts of new ideas for our home table. "
Chef Banks appreciates the challenges farmers like Haskell face.
"It's not easy being a farmer, there's an enormous amount of hard work and then you throw in the vagaries of weather," Banks explained. "As chefs we express through the food to farm dinner guests what farmers do. It's a partnership, a collaboration between the chefs and the farm to produce these wonderful dinners. For me, it's the essence of the best home cooking."