It’s Monday morning in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Scott Miller, executive chef at Max’s Oyster Bar is in his restaurant’s kitchen unpacking boxes that were dropped off a few hours prior. Nothing in these boxes is generic. They’re filled with a rainbow of unusual, rare and old-fashioned varieties of vegetables, fruits, and culinary herbs. Some hold a strange beauty to the uninitiated. All of them are delicious. They are heirlooms.
Chef Miller spreads out the contents of the boxes across the large stainless-steel prep table. His menu for the week will be dictated by what he finds within. This week he gently sets out his bounty of product grown by hand in rich New England soils: bright yellow orbs, lemon cucumbers from Rutabaga Farm, dark-green ridged Tuscan kale and Chinese red meat radishes from Provider Farm, golden beets from Wayne’s Organic Garden, and bright bunches of callaloo and fragrant papalo from Grow Hartford Urban Farm.
Hartford is one of the oldest cities in America and prides itself on its cultural and historic heritage. Once a major industrial center, the capitol city’s primary industry is insurance. Just about 20 miles east of the city is the family homestead of one of America’s national heroes, Nathan Hale. Hale, before being hung by the British as a spy, uttered the now famous last words “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” His family farm is now a museum open to the public and the location of the weekly Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market (CRFM). The market is easily the liveliest and most loved farmers market in the state and has won numerous awards and accolades. It was here at this storied location that these Yankee vegetable farmers got together and started a project to encourage, promote, educate, and discuss the importance of heirloom produce.
The importance of flavor
“I’m seeing an expanding appreciation for taste, as well as a keener awareness of basic nutrition,” CRFM farmer Carole Miller said. Carole began her farm as a wholesale supplier of medicinal herbs, and her exploration of the legends surrounding herbal uses expanded to include heirloom vegetables and plants native to Connecticut. She found that many of her customers also shared these same interests.
“Our farmers understand the value of offering prime produce, and spend a lot of time discussing it with customers at the market. In turn, customers value discussing the growing of their food with ‘their’ farmers,” Miller said. It is precisely this one-on-one relationship that continues to make the market a success and the realization of the link between well-cared-for soils and the people eating food grown from those soils.
As part of its Heirloom Project, the CRFM provides weekly shares of heirloom produce to area restaurants, including Chef Miller’s. “So many American farmers have eliminated flavor so we can grow things bigger, faster, and easier. Crops are being grown in soil that has no nutrient value; therefore, they have no flavor,” Carole Miller said. And that’s where heirlooms come in.
A supportive relationship
The Heirloom Project aims to create a supportive and familiar relationship between the restaurants and farmers who are growing heirloom crops. It is this kind of sustainable relationship that can be crucial for the success of small farms and stands in stark contrast with the cold industrial food system. “While corporations focus on pushing unlabeled GMOs onto supermarket shelves, we're taking a different track encouraging a huge variety of produce favored for their flavor by previous generations,” Winter Caplanson, one of the CRFM’s organizers, explained.
Like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, the restaurants involved in the Heirloom Project pay upfront for a weekly share of the harvest. Instead of placing an order each week from a list, the farmers themselves choose what looks best. In this way, chefs are assured to receive the finest and freshest heirlooms available that week. Market goers can also purchase the heirlooms denoted by Heirloom Project signs.
For Chef Miller, supporting these growers who abstain from chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) makes good business sense because his clientele sees the value in it. That said, it is not always simple. “We live in a world where conventional is easy,” he said. “Breaking people from their eating and buying habits is one of the hardest things for a chef to do.”
Passing on the knowledge
As chefs like Miller work and learn from farmers, food historians, and people dedicated to saving heritage seeds, they in turn pass what they have learned onto their customers. “Our country, and especially New England, has such a strong agricultural history; I would like people that eat my food to not only enjoy the flavor, but get a brief education on the history of the product and understand what it is supposed to look, feel and taste like,” he said.
Farmer Carole Miller couldn’t agree more. “Heirlooms certainly have a place in the rich tapestry that is New England's history…from the tales of early settlers bringing seeds from their native lands, sewn in the hems of ladies' skirts and gentlemen's pockets, to the horrors of the Dust Bowl years and monocropping of ‘new’ varieties,” she explained.
History, culture, and sustainability meet flavor in heirlooms, and the CRFM Heirloom Project has seen considerable success in getting this message out. The number of restaurants receiving weekly deliveries will increase this year, and the number of young and beginning farmers at the market expressing an interest in these tasty historical varieties continues to grow. The market’s yearly Heirloom Festival is also a popular event, held each summer at the height of tomato season.
“From the great interest we see in native plants and heirloom varieties, it appears that New Englanders honor their heritage and learn from the past,” Miller said. “I've been specializing in heirloom tomato plants for the past 6 years or so, and the inquiries about ‘this year's list’ now start sometime in January. People are learning about them while appreciating their taste.”
Some of CRFM's Favorite Heirlooms
• Jacob's Cattle beans
• Mayflower beans
• Scarlet Runner beans
• Chinese green Noodle beans
• Nero Di Toscana cabbage
• Parisienne carrots
• Dragons Egg cucumber
• Mexican Sour Gherkins
• Ground cherry
• Extra Dwarf pak choy
• Miners Lettuce
• Bianca Di Maggio onion
• Flat of Italy onion
• Jimmy Nardello Italian peppers
• Shishito peppers
• Chinese Red Meat radish
• White Icicle radish
• Rat's Tail radish
• Violet Jasper tomatoes
Some dishes served at Max’s Oyster Bar using CRFM heirlooms:
Connecticut landed John Dory, ficoide glacial, wheat berries, red and gold beets
Shaved Black Spanish radish with confit of green onion
Puree of spring peas, French Breakfast radish, garlic scape chips
Coconut-milk braised papalo
Jimmy Nardello pepper Pepperonata
Tuscan kale, house cured sardines and citrus
Rodger Phillips is an organic farmer from the Farmington River Valley of Connecticut. You can learn about his farm at www.SubEdgeFarm.com