The late spring frost made 2012 a relatively lousy year for many Western New York farmers, especially tree fruit specialists. But one farm-related product sector is growing steadily: farm dinners.
The idea of organizing fine dining excursions to the fields that filled your plate is old news in California, but Western New York saw its first such events in 2009. In the years that followed, interest in local vegetables, fruit and meat blossomed, driven by people taking a keener interest in what's on their plates, and in supporting the farmers responsible.
Even today, years after the farm-to-table discussion started, the vast majority of meals for sale in Western New York are made from vegetables and meat delivered by the trailer truckload from wholesale suppliers tapping into the nationwide foodstream. The exceptions are worth savoring.
From Niagara to Chautauqua counties, area diners have been offered a cornucopia of reasons to take a ride into the countryside.
*Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards, in Gasport, offers dinners crafted from local ingredients, including the farm's fruit and vegetables, paired with the farm's own wine, on Nov. 9 and Dec. 7.
*Field & Fork Network, a nonprofit formed to help local farmers find markets, organized a beer-celebrating dinner for Oct. 13 at Lockport's McCollum Orchards. The farm, founded in the 1820s and recently taken over by young descendants, harvested its first Cascade hop crop this season, and some will end up in beer served at the event. Chef Jim Guarino of Shango Bistro will present courses paired with various brews.
*Feed Your Soul's sold-out fall foodie-to-farm tour includes two meals in Chautauqua County, one with Chef Bruce Wieszala cooking at Green Heron Growers, and another with Chef Ross Warhol at the Athenaeum Hotel in the Chautauqua Institution. (Though those tickets are gone, Warhol – recently invited to showcase his talents at Manhattan's James Beard house – also is offering a farm-to-table dinner at the hotel this Friday.)
*Trattoria Aroma's September farm dinner is full, but an Oct. 6 dinner in Alden has space available.
At its roots, it's a simple idea: Enjoy a meal surrounded by the place where your food – or most of it, at least – was grown. The experience pleases for a number of reasons, said Trattoria Aroma owner Dave Cosentino, who in 2009 started holding dinners at the Oles Family Farm in Alden.
There's the satisfaction of seeing where your food comes from, Cosentino said, an experience that's almost extinct in an age when most purchases are made in supermarkets. There's the connection you can make with farmers, by meeting them and listening to them talk about their work, helping to bridge the disconnect between the producers and those they feed.
Then there's the food – you can't get fresher than that.
"To look at the farm and the fields that your food comes from while you're eating gives you this European feel, like you're in the field in Italy," Cosentino said. "You're eating this great food, prepared by chefs right next to the table, combined with fine china and a comfortable chair. The whole experience kind of adds up. It's a dreamlike experience almost – especially if the weather's great."
Customers are picked up at Aroma restaurants in Amherst and Buffalo around 2 p.m. They're returned about seven hours later, after spending an afternoon at the farm, getting a chance to talk to its farmer Dan Oles and his family, and picking a bag of vegetables, if they like.
And having dinner, of course. The farm dinners of Western New York can range from fine dining to more rudimentary, but Cosentino takes the high road, with linen-covered tables, floral centerpieces, and trained restaurant waitstaff.
"We try to make it so classy that the really unique fun thing about it is that you have every amenity that you have at a fine restaurant – china, napkins that aren't paper, real glassware for wine – but it's in the middle of a field," he said. If it threatens to rain, the tables are set inside the Oles' barn.
At a June Trattoria Aroma dinner at the farm, the menu included grilled asparagus torte with house-cured pancetta and eggs, chicken confit over mixed greens, roasted beets, house-made goat cheese and fresh herb vinaigrette, and chilled pea soup with basil. "One of the best dishes I've ever had," Cosentino said of the soup.
The Oles Family Farm dinners are at the top of the local farm dinner price list, at $140 a person, including wine, tax and tip. There are customers who initially question the price, but they're always happy in the end, Cosentino said. "People say, ‘I thought that was a lot until I experienced it.' We've gotten no push-back on the price whatsoever."
Closing the gap between consumer and producer can help both in the long run, and farm dinner fans find it satisfying, said Christa Glennie Seychew of Feed Your Soul, which also organizes the Nickel City Chef local cooking competition.
"I really feel like if people get a better sense of what's happening on a farm – if they can identify a farm, or say ‘I know what this farmer looks like' – it really connects them to the local food movement, in a way that has more staying power or impact than just visiting a farmers market or buying local food in a supermarket," said Seychew.
Lisa Tucker of Field & Fork Network said her organization's reason for supporting farm dinners was threefold: "To reach out to a whole different set of folks we weren't reaching before, to get a captive audience to talk about the work we're doing with the organization, and fundraise at the same time."
Proceeds from the farm dinners will go toward scholarships for the group's 2013 conference, Feb. 24 and 25, dedicated to connecting farmers and other local food producers with restaurants and others interested in becoming customers, Tucker said.
>Farm dinner menu
*Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards' 100-mile dinners, Nov. 9 and Dec. 7 in Gasport, $55-$60; for reservations call 772-2211 or email email@example.com. More information: beckerfarms.com.
*Field & Fork Network seasonal suppers, Oct. 13 beer pairing dinner at McCollum Orchards, Lockport, and fall harvest dinner Nov. 10 at Marienthal Country Inn, Eden, with the crew from O'Brien's Smokehouse & Bistro cooking, and wines by Lockport's Arrowhead Spring Vineyards. $85 through fieldandforknetwork.com.
*Trattoria Aroma dinner at Oles Family Farm, Oct. 6, $140, transportation leaves from Aroma restaurants in Buffalo and Amherst, tickets through aromafarmdinners.com.
*Chef Ross Warhol's field-to-table dinner Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua Institution. $89 plus tax and tip. Reservations: 800-821-1881.