Cooks and farmers, a necessary connection
Remembering when: Jaffrey chef on his lifelong relationship with food
I remember how our family would endure those winters of yesteryear. We faced the worst that Mother Nature had to dish out, and yet, one way or the other we got through each winter. Winters back then, much like winters today, seemed endless. Then, one morning you would wake up to the sounds of birds chirping and you knew winter had given way and released its firm grip. Just like clockwork, the arrival of spring meant local farmers would begin to work the land.
I recall vividly that each year you could tell it was spring just by placing your nose in the air, and taking in a long, deep breath. That was when the cow manure that had been composting over the winter would be reintroduced to the soil, making it fertile for the coming growing season. The smell always caused quite a hoot in our family. I remember my brothers blaming my five sisters for the foul odor, as the smell permeated the entire valley where we grew up in Jaffrey. As kids we thought it was the most horrible smell, but I have to admit that as I grew older, I became quite fond of it, and it signaled a very special time of year. For me it became the smell of spring.
Only later did I realize how that annual ritual brought about the bountiful harvest that our family enjoyed every summer and fall. Not only did we buy carrots and potatoes from the farmer down the road, but we harvested radishes, basil, cucumbers and corn from our own garden as well.
When spring comes, along with the smell of fresh manure, my mind immediately takes me back to the farm stands that would pop up at the crossroads throughout town, places where a farmer would open up shop with a few baskets of sun-warmed produce displayed on the back of a pickup truck or tractor. I remember the vivid colors, the deep green of fresh broccoli and bright red of sweet field ripened strawberries. I can almost smell the produce and my heart fills with nostalgia for those days.
It seems like we lived in much simpler times, long before we had cell phones and Facebook, long before the invention of all the time-saving technologies that never really did save anyone any time. Since those days, major grocery store chains have sprung up everywhere and with them produce that is grown on another continent, sometimes ripened in trucks or on store shelves. Walking through the grocery store aisle, I wonder what farmer grew this. It seemed the connection to local growers was all but lost.
When I moved out of the region, wanting to pursue a career as a chef, I embarked on a 20-year journey that would bring me to some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the United States. Here I began to understand and experience different foods and different cultures from around the world. And I had the good fortune of working with some of the finest ingredients the world has to offer. If I needed caviar for a client, it might be brought in from Russia, truffles from France, or tuna might be flown in fresh from Japan. As a chef, I was like a child in a candy store who couldn’t wait to stuff my pockets with all my favorites. I couldn’t wait for the next menu, or the next new ingredient to satisfy my desire to place a plate of my latest culinary creation in front of a guest.
As I returned home to New Hampshire to open a new chapter of my life and to raise my young family in the shadows of Mount Monadnock, I once again began to see just how much the Monadnock region has to offer, not only in its beauty and grandeur, but also in its people. When you leave a special place like home for so many years, you tend to think that it stays the way you remembered it. Somehow, over those many years, the Monadnock region continued to grow. Second generations of families took over all the farms. Parents and grandparents made sure they had the knowledge, and knew all the traditions that would help them be successful and continue to work the land, so that one day perhaps they could pass it on in turn. As youth would have it, they had their own ideas of how to run the farms. With the advancement of technology, there were newer ways to grow and harvest and, with the dawn of the Internet, they would learn modern ways to bring their products to the marketplace.
Now as I cook among the hills where I grew up, I am so impressed with the local farms and just how much produce is available right here. This year, I was introduced to a buying program that connects chefs to local farmers via Monadnock Menus. This valuable program of the Cheshire County Conservation District was launched to help schools, restaurants and health care providers, provide local fresh produce for their students and clients.
In this day of big chains and brand names, it is easy to forget the people right next door, that may go to your church, or whose children may attend school with your kids — people that run local restaurants, food stores, bakeries and farms. It may be that they have a product or service that you need, or similarly you may have something they are looking for. So take the time to meet your neighbor, talk to the folks at the farm stands and markets. We cannot allow these personal connections to be lost to the temptations of social media.
There are many advantages to supporting local farms, and other businesses. Firstly, you get a fresher product. Would you rather your produce was just days away from the garden, as opposed to being weeks or months away? Your local farmers usually pick the foods you buy at a farmers’ market on or close to the same day. Secondly, for health reasons, it is often better to eat foods that are grown in your area of the country. For instance, consuming local honey has been proven to have many health benefits, especially with allergies and such. Finally, when buying from local farmers you support the local economy. We are so blessed to be living in the Monadnock region with such a wide array of entrepreneurs just waiting to get to know you.
So, the next time you are driving through the countryside, and you come upon the smells of spring, and your kids tell you to roll the windows up, take in a deep breath and teach them that, to everything there is a season.
Aylmer H. Given III is the director of culinary service at Summerhill Assisted Living in Peterborough. He encourages everyone to visit a local farmers’ market, or visit monadnockmenus.org.