Blue Hill at Stone Barns, New York
On a sunny Saturday afternoon we headed up to Tarrytown by train and a short cab ride later found ourselves in a working farm setting like no other.
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is an extraordinary place, and on "a mission to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits us all.".
They don't use pesticides, herbicides or chemical additives to grow a huge variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. They do use crop rotation, composting and other local ecosystem friendly techniques. We saw chicken coops on verdant green slopes, adorable turkey poults and ducklings cheeping in airy barns, feisty geese (part of a potential natural foie gras experiment we were later told) and pigs being fattened in conditions that looked less farmyard and more holiday home. Out in the fields there were sheep chewing frenetically on grass as high as they were, completely oblivious to our presence and watched over by a resplendent Labrador that reminded me of a friend's maremanno dog in Italy.
As we continued on our walk we entered a beautiful wood, all high boughs and dappled sunlight. Spotting glimpses of a lake and hearing running water we realised we had left the farm's lands and entered Rockafeller State Park Reserve. It was time to turn back and have dinner.
Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns has no Michelin stars, unlike his New York Blue Hill restaurant. But this may be more due to the Guide setting limits on only grading restaurants within the city's limits. Certainly his mission to bring the principles of good farming directly to a delicious table and to take food sustainability to a new level are inspiring and reminded me that I need to read his latest, much lauded book The Third Plate.
Nothing goes to waste. Even animal bones (we saw skulls and marrow bones) are heated under high pressure and converted into charcoal for the grill.
Grillworks Argentine grill. One day...
We started our early dinner with cocktails outside, bathed in late afternoon sun and looking over some of the farm's vegetable fields. Vodka, rhubarb syrup, cappatelli amaro and cider was an instant hit, sparking discussion on how we could make something similar at home.
Mexican horchata with mezcal, triple sec, beer syrup, milk made from malted wheat soaked overnight with almonds and rice and various spices including nutmeg and cinnamon.
There was no menu. Instead we were given little booklets describing the farm's growing, foraging, animal and other activities each month, along with field maps.
Dinner came in flurries of small plates. First came a split baby courgette with sunflower seed powder and grilled peanut oil which tasted unsurprisingly sweet and nutty. Next we were presented with vegetables from the farm - tiny turnips, a rather tough glacial radish, bok choy and a succulent leaf (ficoides?). And then...
Young kohlrabi, one of my new favourite vegetables, on mildly peppery nasturtium and earthily sweet beetroot purées.
Served with rhubarb fizz...
Tiny spiced grissini style 'needles' in a haystack.
A deliciously meaty miniature sugar snap pea with diced speck and pickled garlic scapes.
Rapeseed(?) flowers and foraged fiddlehead ferns. Having gorged on them recently after finding them in very reasonable priced at Wholefoods Union Square of all places, we both felt the delicate flavour of the fern sprouts was sadly lost, overwhelmed by the sesame and poppy sesame cracker.
Multiseed cracker, reminding us of Faviken's brilliant flax seed crackers but studded with every seed imaginable, possibly a few grains too.
One of our favourites, of course - 'pigcorn' seasoned with fennel pollen. The rinds were so airy and puffed one even popped on contact with my tongue.
Sweet brioche pea burger.
Foraged lamb's quarters and bronze fennel served with a charred vegetable mayonnaise, aleppo pepper and blackened wheat. We couldn't 'find' any sorrel despite its name being mentioned.
A clever 'ham sandwich'. We instinctively split the vegetable cracker in half to hold soft folds of fatty ham, cut with sharp English mustard.
Chewy crispy cocoa caramel wafer with peppery, livery pork pâté.
Tomatoes we plucked from the vine and dragged through peppered goat's cheese and milk wheat honey. These were lovely but hard to eat, if only because I was frantically trying to get as much cheese and honey on each tomato as possible and they kept slipping off!
Lovely looking slices of marbled coppa, well cured and seasoned, but let down by parts so dry they had the consistency of thin leather rather than supple flesh.
Charred cucumber paired beautifully with butterfish cream, made from the ground skin and bones of 'trash fish' as our chef server called it, calling to mind summer sandwiches filled with oil-rich mackerel and crisp cucumber slices. The wilted squash leaf tasted lovely on its own but seemed unnecessary to the dish as a whole.
Farmer's cheese full of creamy curds, so fresh you could almost taste the grass and herbs the cow had fed on before she was milked, paired with a sweet and sour strawberry relish and rocket leaves.
Goose eggs with asparagus, cheddar and bacon. Crunchy little asparagus dice mixed with soft cool egg, enriched with cheese and bacon. A more luxurious form of egg mayonnaise perhaps, but the addition of lemon juice jarred against the other ingredients.
An unusual and successful combination of spring peas and cubes of springy squid with preserved egg yolk, topped with a gossamer thin sheet of translucent lardo.
Donka shitake mushrooms baked in compost tasted dry and chewy. The slightly intensified flavour they gained from being semi-dried in their compost oven was no match for the Chinese dried shitake mushrooms from Hong Kong I grew up on.
Bok choy and flowering Chinese broccoli (gai lan) stems with grated preserved tuna heart. I found the sweet-saltiness of the tuna a little strange - a saltier cure would have been better suited to the meat's marine roots.
Whole wheat sweet brioche loaf, with green leaf and raisin 'marmalade'. The loaf was made from Barber wheat, a new breed created by the chef and Dr Stephen Jones of Washington State University with the aim of prioritising flavour and grown at Stone Barns.
Fresh ricotta was a thing of beauty - creamy, grassy, served in a dish with holes to allow the uncoagulated whey to drain away. Which I promptly drank as I love its lightly acidic, milky taste.
Deep fried soft shell crab with black bean purée in a celeriac 'burrito', with black sesame and a fairly mild 'rejected pepper' (from another experimental farm project) hot sauce. The celeriac tortilla was a fun idea but its strong flavour overwhelmed the crab.
And then we went for a wander, to the loveliest shed I have ever seen.
It might have been one of the most romantic restaurant settings we have experienced, despite the fact our waiter, the sommelier and then a chef were all hovering nearby. They soon left, allowing us a moment of quiet to enjoy our hen of the woods pizza with pea shoots...
and egg mimosa. We were also given a blind tasting of two red wines to help decide our next selection.
Sharing our shed was a vegan compost heap...
that cooked our mushrooms sous vide at 160˚F.
The compost heap also heats a water bath opposite, where our egg was cooked.
On returning to the restaurant we received another bread course. It was a lovely loaf but on top of the Barber wheat it seemed less like a dish and more like a move to fill us up. A number of recent restaurant trips have featured similar bread courses - have there been concerns about unsatisfied appetites?
Soft folds of speck with sherry vinegar and sautéed porcini
Our main course - beautiful pieces of pink, succulent Berkshire pork, a rich, dark round of blood sausage and chewy creamy malted grains. A perfect dish, really.
We moved swiftly into desserts, which then seemed to be over rather quickly. I can't put my finger on it but I felt like something had been missed out, or some hidden message that would conclude the meal hadn't been relayed. My husband claims I would have been fine if I had been given cheese, but then he tends to think that is what I consider my solution for a variety of problems in life. Instead we had strawberries and blackcurrant - leaf and ice cream.
A rhubarb and whole grain pastry.
S'mores Ferrero Roche - puffy brûléed marshmallow and gooey chocolate inside a biscuity wafery shell.
And ended with spruce, berries and grains, a healthy rice crispy and spruce chocolate.
It was a truly memorable day, and night. The highest form of farm to table, and beyond that I am still thinking about each dish and where it came from.