Over the last two months I have spent several Sunday afternoons with some of the most relevant and important people in our community — farmers and fishermen, brewers and winemakers, restaurateurs and shellfish growers. The reason was a series of panel discussions presented by the Peconic Land Trust and sponsored by Edible East End. The theme for the four panels was “Long Island Grown: Food and Beverage Artisans at Work.” This was the fifth year that Peconic Land Trust has presented these talks, titled “Conversations With . . . ,” at Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton, a hidden gem.
The first panel was called “Small Bites” and the panelists were David Falkowski of OpenMinded Organics (the mushroom man!), Fred Lee of Sang Lee Farm, and Pete Ludlow of Mecox Bay Dairy.
Moderating a panel is easy . . . and hard. You have to be invisible but in control. You need to know your stuff but let the panel do all the talking. If you look out into the audience and see eyes glazing over and folks starting to whisper among themselves, you’ve probably lost them. They are not sheep, but you are the sheepdog. I have only done this once before.
For the first panel, I overprepared by sending sample questions and pre-interviewing them. I also warned them that I was going to throw each of them a curveball. Dave Falkowski, one of the more articulate and opinionated farmers in our midst, was not flummoxed at all by the picture of a strange mushroom I found in a friend’s backyard in Virginia. “Ganoderma Tsugae!” he said. My curveball for Fred Lee was unsuccessful. I begged him for the recipe for the ginger dip that comes with the Fresh-Lee Cut veggies sold at local farmers markets. “No way, that’s my wife Karen’s recipe.” Pete Ludlow helped us solve the mystery of some of Mecox Bay Dairy’s oddly named cheeses. “Sigit” was his great grandmother’s nickname. “Shawondasee” is Native American for “prevailing southwest wind.”
Honestly, though, the true highlight of being a part of these panel discussions with people I fervently admire was the food served afterward. Rick Bogusch, the garden manager of Bridge Gardens, would whip up all kinds of treats: chocolate truffles, homemade pates and dips, pickled quail eggs, grilled oysters with herbed butter, chocolate dipped crystallized ginger and apricots, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. Add this to the pesto from Sang Lee and samples of Atlantic Mist, Mecox Sunrise, and more cheeses from Pete, and every Sunday event had a feast after our Q and A.
Sadly, I had to miss the second talk, which was with the talented winemakers Miguel Martin from Palmer, Christopher Tracy from Channing Daughters, and Kareem Massoud of Paumanok. But the panel was deftly handled by Eileen Duffy of Edible East End.
The third panel was “Hops and Brews” with the guests John Condzella of Condzella’s Farm, Rich Stabile of Long Island Spirits, and Duffy Griffiths, brewmaster of Crooked Ladder Brewing Co. John, a fourth-generation farmer from Wading River, was inspiring because he used a modern method to keep his family farm profitable. With the help of Kickstarter (an online fund-raising tool for creative endeavors) he financed his hops-growing operation, which is now doing a booming business selling hops to local brewers. He brought a bag of freeze-dried hops for show and tell. Very cool. It looked like a big bag of primo pot.
Duffy Griffiths was kind enough to bring us two little kegs of beer to sample, and Rich Stabile brought Liv vodka, rye and bourbon, and sorbettos, fruit-infused liqueurs, all made with Long Island-grown fruit. The youngsters from Quail Hill Farm were delighted to be able to take home the leftovers, although I made off with the excellent Rough Riders bourbon.
Last but not least was “Fruits of the Sea” with Joe Tremblay of Bay Burger, also a shellfish grower and organizer of a Sag Harbor oyster club, Karen Rivara, president of Aeros Oyster Co. in Shirley and head of the Long Island Farm Bureau, and Sean Barrett, founder of the East End’s first community supported fishery, Dock to Dish, out of Montauk. Karen explained why raising oysters is a combination of “zen and voodoo.” Joe brought a basket of oysters and demonstrated how to open them. Sean, who feared he might be monosyllabic, was as articulate and knowledgeable as any of the panelists, although the renowned chef Dan Barber once told him “when your product speaks for itself, you probably shouldn’t interrupt.” Ha, ha.
So the last panel of the series ended with the educated and entertained guests slurping raw and grilled oysters and clams, sampling homemade mignonettes and Holy Schmidt horseradish sauce, nibbling asparagus and crudités with bean dip, and sipping Palmer sauvignon blanc. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in early spring.
I did my best to alternate between schoolmarm and P.T. Barnum as moderator, but it was the panelists and guests who made it good. There were bits of controversy: “The only good deer is a dead deer!” declared one farmer vehemently. There were tales of struggles: Fred Lee and his family had to auction their farm equipment in 2004 to survive. And there were plenty of new words to learn like “rectification columns” and “Hopfen pfluckmaschine.”
Thank you, Peconic Land Trust, for educating our community. Thank you farmers and fishermen and cheesemakers and brewers and winemakers and shellfish growers for sharing your time and expertise, and thank you Rick for making the end of each event a tasty example of what the East End has to offer.