Farm-to-table rarely works in New England. This James Beard winner gets it right
TURNER, MAINE — Visiting one of the newly recognized America's Classic winners brought me to rural Maine on a recent Saturday. It was an adventure, and one I recommend. Though spending the night in the big city of Portland makes sense for even more fun (and dinner) and a leisurely-paced drive.
But let's not rush the story.
My favorite part of the annual James Beard Foundation award galas in New York City (I went to two or three) was learning about the America's Classics winners. These restaurants are the opposite of the trendy restaurants that win the annual Beard awards, considered the Oscars of the food world.
America's Classics are restaurants with timeless appeal and beloved in their regions for quality food that reflects the character of their communities. They all have a history of more than two decades but many are much older.
Olneyville New York System in Providence was recognized as a classic in 2014 and Aunt Carrie's in Narragansett in 2007. Both offer a taste of place, I think we'd all agree. Their popularity extends across both generations and time.
Six new America's Classics, one for each region, were named by James Beard last week. For the Northeast, there was Nezinscot Farm in Turner, Maine, recognized for its Café and Coffee Shop. The announcement included this description: "The Café has something beautiful and exciting on every shelf—cases of homemade cheeses and meats, bagels, freshly baked pies, and perfect breads rolling out the kitchen, topped with farm eggs and homemade sausage and cheeses."
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The farm offered "homemade everything" as "the instrument of creating and sustaining a warm space to gather around food."
Who wouldn't want to go?
But I was skeptical. Over my two decades covering food and dining, I've heard a lot of platitudes about farm-to-table. It's never delivered. It's simply not practical either financially or geographically. Here in New England, we have a short growing season and few large animal farms. The cost of getting farm goods all year round is generally prohibitive.
To my amazement, Nezinscot Farm delivered on all its promises. They baked the bread on which the hamburger, ground from beef on their farm, was served. It came with microgreens they grow and pickles they made. Even the cheese was one of the more than a dozen they make on the farm.
The cafe was born some 35 years ago when Gloria and Gregg Varney married. Gloria insisted they open a café on the farm that had been in his family for 100 years. She's still the woman cooking behind the counter today. What the family has grown is amazing.
We shared a table with a young family who also read about the Beard award and made their first visit from another part of rural Maine. There was so much to see however, I could barely stay in my seat as I explored the store.
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There was the case with fresh brownies, bliss bars, biscuits and bagels. Cookies and doughnuts were in another case. Five varieties of bread (from sourdough to Anadama) stood on open shelves. There was the full cheese case with 14 kinds of cheese from Camembert to cheddar. Prepared foods, including soups and stews, ground meat and steaks, filled three cases. There were homemade candles, teas, dried peppers and herbs, and a whole floor of yarns.
There are a few long tables and seats. At the counter where you order, they don't take your money until after you pick up your food and eat. You might want to add something to take home, the young man behind the register told me. Two friendly farm dogs roamed the room.
Nezinscot Farm is not just a taste of the farm, it's a model for sustainable food and living. It's a beautiful place. And they just started making their own gelato.
Details: Nezinscot Farm, 284 Turner Center Rd., Turner, Maine, nezinscotfarm.com. They have a calendar of special events and are on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Maine's Nezinscot Farm cafe a new James Beard America's Classic winner