Bringing the Farm Closer to the Table

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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The farm-to-table movement is an exciting change in the way we get our food. If you are new to this concept, the idea is to cut out the middleman, so a less-traveled product is delivered in a sustainable fashion. The fewer miles food travels, the fresher it is when it arrives at the final destination. In the restaurant world, farm-to-table and sustainability are popular, and I think that’s a good thing. During my restaurant explorations, I’ve found a variety of ways owners and chefs are embracing farm-to-table and want to tell you about two of my favorite examples in Maryland.

Why does farm-to-table and sustainability matter? The benefit of a restaurant growing their own produce and livestock is, this cuts out long shipping times. The fewer miles food has to travel to the restaurant the less money spent on fuel. Closing the distance food travels benefits air quality and food quality when restaurants have their own farms close by. As for sustainability, when farms don’t overtax the land we get better produce and livestock from land that can continue to produce food without the addition of costly chemical fertilizers.

Over on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is The Inn At Perry Cabin by Belmond and their restaurant Stars. At Stars, Chef Ken MacDonald embraces sustainability and the farm-to-table approach. Although Chef Ken tries to source his food products within a 150-mile radius, he takes farm-to-table even further. Enter Phal Mantha, the farm manager for The Inn At Perry Cabin. Phal has some two acres of prime land just steps from Stars restaurant. Phal and Chef Ken work together to provide guests with the freshest produce available anywhere. Not only does Stars have two acres of ground for growing crops, but also a greenhouse to grow vegetables and herbs year-round.

Herb and flower garden

This is the first year of Stars and the Inn having their own home-grown produce. I’ve been following their progress since first learning about the new program in April. Back then there was just the plan, but on a recent visit, I saw the fruits of Phal’s labor. Growing in the plot were thriving baby lettuces, three varieties of kale, chard, kohlrabi, and several more types of gorgeous green goods. All this produce is ready to decorate plates, adorn entrees, and add to salads. Come July 2018 I can’t wait to see fields of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and whatever else Phal and Chef Ken have in mind for the restaurant.

Closer to my home is Cunninghams in Towson.  Upstairs is the main restaurant open for dinner, and their café and bakery downstairs is open for breakfast and lunch. Both the restaurant and café benefit from a close association with Cunningham Farms. These three farms are just a few miles north of Towson and supply Chef Jay Rohlfing with herbs, vegetables, berries, and over a dozen varieties of tomatoes for lucky dinners. Cunningham Farms also raise free-range chickens, lamb, and heritage breed pigs.

Happy sheep at Cunningham Farms

Recently my wife and I dined on Cunningham Farms pork and lamb. I had the Berkshire pork rack (pork chop) with gouda mac and cheese that was delicious. I could taste the difference of responsibly raised free-range pork versus factory raised pork. The pork rack tasted more like the real thing then grocery store pork that seems almost like chicken breast. My wife had the braised lamb ragout over mascarpone polenta. The Katahdin sheep, raised at Cunningham Farms provide a rich, but not gamey flavored lamb the way most dinners like it. Some lamb is strongly flavored or mild enough to taste like beef that doesn’t fit the flavor profile I expect.

In September, I was lucky enough to visit Cunningham Farms and see for myself how the sheep were being raised. Farm manager Richard Cramblitt oversees Cunningham Farms and ensures the restaurant receives the best produce, eggs, and meats grown without chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO (genetically modified organisms). I met with Richard on the Ivy Hill Road farm where sheep graze on 16 acres of healthy looking pasture.

The Ivy Hill Farm isn’t large enough to supply all of the restaurant’s lamb, but they do provide some 50% the restaurant requires. Though not certified organic Cunningham Farms is good enough for me. I’m more interested in pesticide-free and herbicide-free food than certified organic. Few restaurants in Maryland can serve such pure foods as Cunninghams and Stars but I hope more will join the party.

Vegetables at Cunningham Farms

Richard and I also traveled to the Bonnie Brook Farm near Monkton. At Bonnie Brook, I saw the last of the summer tomato crop, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini. Late harvest butternut squash, beets, and gourds were looking good also. The tomatoes were still making their way to Cunningham’s Café for BLTs and salads upstairs for the dinner menu. I was impressed with the condition of the rows of vegetables and how healthy the plants looked late in the season.

Both The Inn at Perry Cabin and Cunninghams are on the cutting edge of the change I see in our food culture. I believe more of us diners are demanding pesticide-free produce, responsibly raised pigs, lamb, chicken, and beef from restaurants where we dine. With all this excellent farmland in Maryland, I hope that more restaurants will join Cunninghams and Stars by starting their own farm projects. All of us will benefit when restaurants serve this level of fresh farm-to-table fare.

Kurt Jacobson is a food and travel writer with more than 20 years experience as a professional chef, in addition to being an avid amateur gardener. Read more of his writing atTaste of Travel 2and find his food writing, including recipes, atFast and Furious Cook.

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