The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
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Blackberry Farm • Beall + Thomas Photography
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Beans, Greens and Cornbread - a Blackberry Farm Recipe
These restaurateurs share a passion for the closest tie possible between what they cook and where they obtain the ingredients. The happy result is a consistent diner’s delight.
More and more restaurants across the region are sourcing ingredients – from lettuce and peaches to sausage and cheeses – from local farms and creameries. A number of restaurants have taken that one step further, from planting urban and backyard gardens to establishing full-fledged farms to inspire and supply their menus. It may have started as a practicality, but for these, it’s become part mission as they incorporate cooking classes and summer camps, sustainable practices and seek to preserve an Appalachian farming heritage before it is lost.
Harvest on Main, Blue Ridge, Georgia
“I’m standing outside with the geese now. They follow me around when I walk.”
Danny Mellman is on the phone, talking from the two-acre in-town farm he and his wife Michelle Moran have developed as part of their restaurants, Harvest on Main, the Blue Ridge Bakery and the about-to-open Masseria – all three next-door neighbors to one another on Blue Ridge’s Main Street.
“We only open restaurants we can walk to,” explains Moran. “That’s our deal.”
Moran worked for years as a food writer and editor, and Mellman was a restaurant chef starting in his 20s. They’ve been together about 10 years. “He’s my best friend, and we love what we do together.”
What they have done is take a passion for cooking and eating and combine that into multifaceted careers. The geese number 14; the couple also has six bee hives, 50 chickens, silver fox rabbits. And a garden that grows 10 to 14 types of tomatoes, specialty herbs, fennel, red leeks, scallions and “a lot of lettuces.”
“We have a practice pig,” Mellman says. Her name is Noel the Hanukkah pig, they got her on the first day of Hanukkah, when she weighed nine pounds. Eight months later, fed only with scraps from the garden, she weighed 275. She won’t become bacon, though – “when they get a name, they can’t be slaughtered.”
The restaurants are one part of the business. Harvest on Main is in a 10-year-old lodge-style building, with old timbers. Cross the alley and you’re at Blue Ridge Bakery, which serves breakfast and lunch and sells provisions including jams, sauces, cheese and smoked salmon. Moran runs a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture sales network – through the bakery. Masseria, in the next building over, was slated to open in July, and will be a Mediterranean restaurant with a wood-fired stove, covering the cuisines of countries including France, Italy, Morocco and Israel.
Besides running the restaurants, the CSA and a small farm, the couple teaches cooking classes to adults and runs corporate retreats for 15 to 100 people, and cooking camps to children.
“We really wanted to share what we’ve learned about food with the youth in the area as well as people coming and visiting,” says Moran. “It’s important they know where their food actually comes from. The first year the kids were searching for bushes when I asked where to find potatoes were growing.”
Mellman grew up hunting, fishing and foraging. “My mother was a very good cook,” he says, and a gardener. She did all her shopping at the local farmer’s market. Mellman would bring her what he’d found or killed – “if I caught it and cleaned it, she would cook it. Fish, birds, rabbits.”
Moran’s parents both worked, and the family ate out a lot. “It was a small town, and so we knew a lot of the people who owned the restaurants.” When she got fidgety, her parents would send her back to the kitchen and she’d spend time with the chefs, watching them work. Her father, who died when she was 19, always wanted to be a food writer, and he coached her on it, asking her questions – how would she describe the fish she just ate? How would she describe the room?
Today, she and Mellman still do a lot of foraging. “Our relaxation time is going out in the woods for four hours,” he says, gathering mushrooms, fiddle head ferns, ramps, blackberries, wild plums, wild cherries, wild quince, paw paws, wild onions and arugula, cattails, dandelion greens.
They hope to expand their farming work to a larger plot of land they’re hoping to buy – 43 acres with 2,000 feet along a trout stream, and a 100-year-old farmhouse, where Moran can build a herd of free-ranging pigs and Mellman can build a smokehouse.
Moran says raising produce and raising animals are about equal in difficulty.
“The animals raise themselves. It’s amazing to see a mother rabbit care for her young. Even pregnant for the first time she knows what to do. Nature is amazing.
“The hard part are illnesses and not being able to resolve or help the animals in any way. It’s hard, but I have been able to accept death on the farm much easier than when I first started.
“Produce takes care of itself too, but you are at the mercy of Mother Nature who – well, she can be fickle. Last year I had a horrible year and grew nothing. This year looks good, the right amount of sun and rain. Now I just have to keep up with weeds and bugs, which is also a struggle working sustainably.”
Basil Lemonade from Harvest on Main
• 2 cups basil lemon syrup (see recipe below)
• 2 cups cold water
• 2 cups ice cubes
• 1 ¼ cups fresh lemon juice
Garnish: fresh basil sprigs; lemon zest strips
Stir together all ingredients in a large pitcher, then pour into tall glasses half filled with ice.
To make Basil Lemon Syrup:
• 4 cups packed fresh basil sprigs (top 4 inches; from a ½-pound bunch)
• 4 cups water
• 2 cups sugar
• 9 (4- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Let stand at room temperature, covered, 1 hour, then transfer to an airtight container and chill until cold, about 1 hour. Strain syrup through a sieve into a bowl, pressing hard on and then discarding solids.
Cooks’ note: Makes about 5 cups. This recipe makes enough for several batches of lemonade; any leftover would also give a nice hit of flavor to a glass of iced tea. Syrup keeps, covered and chilled, for five days.