June is just around the corner and that means we move outside to enjoy the feast of fresh produce from nearby fields. And sometimes we drive out from Asheville and the Carolina Bed & Breakfast to enjoy a special meal at one of the neighboring farms. This past week the dinner was part of the Asheville Beer Week celebrations with Catawba Brewery providing beer to pair with food prepared by Chef Steven Goff from King James’ Public House.
It is a lovely drive out to Hickory Nut Gap Farm, down to a lush valley populated by grazing animals, small farms and creameries. We pulled up next to the farm store where during the week one can buy some of the best beef and pork available anywhere in the United States along with fresh strawberries, blueberries and other produce. Hickory Nut Gap Farm is a very special place where they practice sustainable agriculture, allowing livestock to graze on wildflowers and green grasses while the animal waste enriches the fields and makes them perfect for the cultivation of crops. This is almost iconic in Asheville: modern knowledge and techniques used to produce food without resorting to hormones, chemicals and inhumane practices which results in better tasting and healthier meat and produce.
Under a lean-to next to a burbling brook a bluegrass band played while guests said hello and sampled the first beers. Hors d’oeurves were spread on trestle tables. Wisely Chef Goff limited the selection to three truly excellent bites: an amazing deviled egg, a mousse of chicken livers on toast and a perfectly cooked piece of pancetta topped with a vinaigrette (I think) and an edible flower petal. James and I had invited a friend along whom I knew was not a great fan of the trend towards organ meats and less-used animal parts in Asheville cuisine. Knowing the chef and the location, she knew what she was getting into and I am proud to say that she was game to try everything and enjoyed the meal as much as anyone there.
Shortly before dinner was served Jamie Ager, one of the owners of the farm, took us on a short walk through the fields while he explained the philosophy behind the farming methods of Hickory Nut Gap. Jamie’s family settled in this valley in 1916 and he is the fourth generation to farm here. (James and I feel an extra attachment to the farm as our middle daughter went to Davidson College with one of Jamie’s cousins and we have been guests at other events at the farm –part of the small world of Western North Carolina!) Anyway, it was impressive to listen to Jamie talk about the farm and to see the passion he feels for the land. We think Jamie would be perfect for a reality TV show about organic and sustainable farming: good-looking, articulate and extremely knowledgeable!
After we all got our feet dirty and said hello to the cows (and flies!), we moved up to a large barn where we found two large smokers which had clearly been working all day to provide our dinner. Long tables were set among the hay bales and lights strung above in the rafters while blue wild flowers were set among the plates to bring color to the tables.
The first course was predictably outside most people’s comfort zone: Skewers of beef heart which had been dry rubbed with an African spice mix, along with tabbouleh and vegetables pickled in sour mash from the beer. Once people got over the idea of what they were eating they found that they liked it. The meat was succulent and tender and the pickled vegetables gave a needed note of vinegar to the mixture.
This was rapidly followed by a plunge back into the heart of Southern cooking: a whole pig smoked overnight to melting tenderness then finished on the grill with Western North Carolina BBQ sauce (more tomato and less vinegar than Eastern NC style), sliced and shredded and served with slaw and “Hawaiian” rolls. My favorite part was the charred and crunchy bits of skin which were a rare find in the platter and I found myself carefully eyeing the platter before deciding where I would take my serving from! In my opinion, pork, more than any other meat, has suffered and changed the most in the past half century. The deep veins of fat which gave it flavor and character were bred out of the meat when marketers wanted another “lean meat” to rival poultry. One of the great delights in our markets and butcher shops in Asheville are the bone-in pork chops one can buy, full of flavor and much more satisfying than a thin lean pork “chop” produced for the mass market.
Dessert melded the two worlds. Birch syrup ice-cream was floated in a bourbon tinged red ale for a traditional ice cream float modern Asheville style.
The entire event epitomized everything James and I have come to know and love about Asheville. The guests, the vast majority of whom were locals, were a varied and interesting group. To James’ right on the table was a business man who was also heavily involved in an outreach program to Nicaragua. On my right was a man who came with a friend because his wife was a vegan and clearly not interested in this particular meal! Our discussion ranged from nutrition to poverty, to dignity and religion with room for humor and sidebars about life. The food was interesting but not pretentious and the location took advantage of the beautiful mountains and countryside around us. This is the atmosphere we strive to bring to the Carolina Bed & Breakfast and hope to share with you when you come to visit us.