Well-Preserved: The Berkshires Take Manhattan

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 5, 2013

Berkshires chefs descended upon Manhattan on Friday to present "The Berkshire Cure-All," a multi-course dinner that celebrated the region's commitment to preserving the bounty of the harvest season.

Often recognized as a forerunner of the farm-to-table movement and originator of the first CSA (community sustained agriculture), the region's top chefs packed their pickles and other culinary treats for a seven-course menu that ran the gamut from pork belly to parsnip jam.

Leading the team was Brian Alberg, Executive Chef at The Red Lion Inn. This was Alberg's 10th appearance at the James Beard House, a tradition that he says is vital for continuing to cultivate the region's position as a food destination.

"I am a firm believer in promoting the region," Albert told EDGE. "Even though [the chefs'] techniques may be different, our primary goals are to keep our landscape beautiful and maintain sustainability and quality of products. Most of what we're serving tonight was harvested in July through August. We're using all kinds of techniques - including canning, curing and smoking."

From Knakwurst to Mutton

The menu featured a veritable Who's Who of Berkshires growers and chefs as well as a number of specialty products. Fire Cider, an apple cider-based health tonic with a sturdy kick of habanero and organic fruit and roots, was combined with Berkshires Mountain Distillers Corn Whiskey and Berkshire Wildflower Honey for a stomach-warming hot toddy. While delicious, I opted for (several glasses of) cava, which seemed a better fit for Daire Rooney's plentiful appetizers.

Rooney, who recently stepped into the Executive Chef position at Allium Restaurant + Bar, kicked off the evening with a selection of five tastings that exemplified the "cure-all" theme. Forget pigs in a blanket, Rooney offered knackwurst with rutabaga sauerkraut and pickled mustard seeds on a toasty bun. Salt cod fritters with preserved lemon and harissa aioli and pork belly rillettes exemplified her classic French training, but it was the gin-cured diver scallop with pickled jalapeo aioli and kale chips that pushed the envelope and captured the spirit (literally) of the evening's theme.

The Old Mill (a former grist mill dating back to the 1700s) has been a Berkshires' staple for more than 30 years. Chef/owner Terry Moore offers a seasonally inspired menu with a few contemporary twists but firmly rooted in New England heritage. Moore's first course took a spin on traditional gravlax by substituting day boat halibut and serving it with a mustard dill sauce and "Danish-style" potato salad.

Mark Firth jumped ship from New York City's restaurant scene to reinvent himself in the Berkshires. Now both restaurateur and "farmhand," Firth raises pigs at Chestnut Hill Farm and also owns Bell & Anchor in Great Barrington. Chef Stephen Browning's second course offered a charcuterie tasting that included prosciutto, coppa and a country-style pat.

The Meat Market's Jamie Paxton served up more cured meats for the third course, partnering with Black Queen Angus Farm for a grass-fed beef tenderloin and Kinderhook Farm pasture-raised mutton. Both meats were cured three to four days and accompanied by a celeriac remoulade and parsnip jam.

Culinary Conversations

Throughout the evening, Nancy Thomas, local food advocate and co-founder and proprietor of Mezze Restaurant Group, made the rounds throughout James Beard's townhouse as if she was the well-put together mother of the bride. And in many ways she is. Thomas has been in the restaurant industry for 30 years and a Berkshires visionary since 1996 when she founded Mezze Bistro + Bar in Williamstown.

Thomas is well acquainted with the chefs, famers, small business owners and residents of the Berkshires. She introduced each dish with casual familiarity but also with an underlying respect and awe for the dedication she knows goes into every bite of a responsibly sourced preparation. The wine flowed. We each became familiar with our neighbors through Nancy's gracious introductions. And the courses continued...

Craving something warm, I was happy to bite into Chef Zee Vassos' duck confit arancini garnished with thinly sliced Hudson Valley Moulard duck breast. I happened to be sitting with beekeeper Jan Johnson, whose Berkshire Wildflower Honey was used in the preparation. A discussion of colony collapse disorder and other industrial/agriculture concerns ensued and it was a not-so-gentle reminder that this food extravaganza was teetering on a fragile ecosystem - one that requires attention if it is to be preserved.

Just when I thought I couldn't taste another piece of cured meat, chef Dan Smith (John Andrews: A Farmhouse Restaurant) presented a house-cured "lambcetta." Delicately rolled and accompanied by pickled turnips and the first spring onions of the season, the musty, intense flavor trumped its predecessors with the perfect balance of fat and flavor.

Coming full circle, chef Alberg decided to take on dessert. Admitting that sweet confections are not in his comfort zone (or even his "like zone" for that matter), Alberg opted for Old Chatam Shaker Blue Cheese Cake with honey and a Serrano-style ham crisp made from a pig that he had raised himself, dried for 35 days then cured for an additional nine months. Drawing upon other local ingredients, he finished the dish with an apple cider-goat's milk caramel, a creation so delectable he might want to consider an appearance on "Shark Tank" and market it to the masses.

They say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts it's made of and the Berkshires Cure-All was no exception. The collaborative efforts of the seven participating chefs along with tightly knit Berkshires community indicated that there is good reason why the farm-to-table movement is still going strong.

While maybe not as flashy and trend-driven as a decade ago, the philosophies behind sustainability and understanding our food source are more important today than ever. This particular evening of culinary creations and conversations proved that while there may be no "cure-all," there are certainly actions and awareness that will help preserve these traditions for generations to come.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.