Editors note: A fantastic article from Margot Russell from the 1st issue. With each sentence we experience the sights and tastes of beautiful Chautauqua County in western New York with a nice farm to table focus.
I wanted to move back to Western New York a long time before I did—particularly to the place where I had spent summers growing up as a child. Nestled in the gentle foothills of the Alleghany Mountains was a wonderland that I had stored in memory, as pristine and preserved as an ice sculpture.
My summers had been spent on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, which is nearly twenty miles long and surrounded by rolling farmland on either side.
Chautauqua County has more farms than any other county in New York State and also the richest soil, along with scores of other charming attributes: lush parks and trails adorned with waterfalls and tumbling creeks; a century old amusement park still in operation; Victorian era hotels; Amish folks trotting along in their horse and buggies, and more farm stands than you can visit in a summer.
When our children grew up and moved away, my husband and I bought a beautifully restored 1800’s Craftsman by the lake for less than half the cost we would have paid in New England, and we moved in, hoping to bring some level of authenticity and simplicity to our lives again. We loved that we could walk to the library and local shops in the village of Lakewood or find a waterfall twenty minutes from our door, but what excited us most was the sheer abundance of locally grown food. We realized it was possible to create a farm-to-table lifestyle and make different decisions about the food we bought and prepared.
Chautauqua County has two distinct plains for growing: One supports a dairy agriculture with hay and oats as a principle crop; the other supports an abundance or fruits, vegetables and grapes. It’s the leading grape-producing county in New York State, with nearly 20,000 acres of vineyards which help to support 8 wineries. The county was once home to Welch’s Grape Juice and many grape growers in the area are still part of Welch’s grape growing cooperative.
It’s always been this way here: Spring begins the parade of early vegetables and fruits and hundreds of farm stands dust off their countertops and open their shutters to the burgeoning rays of sun. When summer marches in, things like sweet corn, lettuce, peas and broccoli spill from truck and bin, and fresh fruits –peaches, plums and strawberries- color the landscape of offerings. It’s local food in overdrive, and throughout the growing season our baskets are full of homegrown shiitake mushrooms, big purple grapes, sweet blueberries and fat red tomatoes. Fall brings apples and root vegetables, and jellies and fruit preserves in glass jars. What’s left of the local syrup and honey is bought and reserved for winter mornings.
Some outlying farms have turned to creating organic products and they sell grass-fed meat, whole range chickens, and fresh eggs and cheeses. The ever industrious Amish—who have long been a focal point in these parts—sell their fruits, eggs and vegetables along the Amish Trail. They bring another level of authenticity to what is already a magical place.
Locals take this abundance for granted, but a coalition of health and community organizations are learning to harness it and have recently created the Chautauqua Region Farm to Table, which spearheads initiatives to bring local food to visitors, chefs, schools and other institutions. Farmers’ markets are now weekly events in the nearby city of Jamestown and in other towns and villages dotting the lake.
This is a socially conservative county, and it’s sometimes slow to catch on to things that are post- buzz in more cosmopolitan areas like New York City– some 500 miles to the east. Very little has changed here since I was young; it’s a land preserved in time. But there are signs that things are changing. The county is attracting new restaurants—and chefs—who are attracted to this land of plenty.
The mammoth Victorian Athenaeum is a 130-year-old hotel and is as graceful and charming as century-old hotels come. It’s located in Chautauqua Institution— an art and education center known for its lectures, concerts, scholars and its storied history. The Institution is nestled along 750 acres of Chautauqua lakefront, and the 19th century architecture that graces the village houses, amphitheater and other public buildings adds to the breathtaking setting, attracting visitors from around the world to its 9-week summer season.
Talented chef Ross Warhol (a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and a past student at some of America’s most famous restaurants—like The French Laundry) was hired to head up the kitchen at the Athenaeum and he’s bringing the new farm-to-table revolution to the fore here. He has an on-site vegetable garden and a close relationship with Western New York farmers. Twice a year, Warhol hosts popular farm-to-table themed dinners at the hotel which includes a venture to area farms to forage for food, and an all-local cooking class.
Just down the street from the Institution, housed in a historic Victorian home, is Le Fleur, the only Western New York restaurant to boast a AAA Four Diamond Award. With the addition of local ingredients and a backyard garden, Chef Haloua combines classic French dishes with cutting edge cuisine, like local butternut squash soup with maple cream and salads made with local lettuces or fruits.
Even the biggest chain supermarket in the county buys a portion of its produce from local farmers and it’s featured at the front of the store with the name of the farm prominently displayed. Store managers know the people here have been buying their corn from Peterson’s Market and other farms for generations and they’re not about to change their habits—not even for a fancy supermarket that offers cooking and nutrition classes.
On our first venture scouting for organic, local food, my husband and I took a 15- minute ride to Green Heron Growers in Panama, New York. The farm has been certified organic since 2007 for shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, herbs and fruits. Chicken and egg production was certified in 2009, along with their pastures where they graze 100% grass-fed beef.
Owners Steve and Julie Rockcastle say they produce food for conscious eaters, and part of their success stems from their involvement in the community. They offer workshops, farm tours and culinary experiences throughout the year.
Farm-to-table was never a fad or a political statement in Chautauqua County; it’s always been a part of life. I think people here find it interesting that the rest of the world is so enamored with locally grown produce that doesn’t require a highway to bring it to their table. Efforts are being made to bring this abundance into the 21st century paradigm by ensuring restaurants, schools and other consumers keep it local.
I remember growing up and bringing bushels of sweet summer corn back to the cottage for 4th of July parties, and today, those same farms are still here.
That’s part of the reason why it’s so good to be home.