Monday, June 2, 2014

Farm Dinner to Benefit Matthews Community Market

“Our jaws hit the floor.”  That’s how Pauline Woods, manager of Matthews Community Farmers Market, describes the reaction of the market board in February, when they saw the reaction to her online plea for support.  A heavy snow had damaged or destroyed almost all the tents at the market, and $4,000 was needed to replace and install new ones.  Time was a concern, as the main market season was to start in only six weeks.

Within days, the total donations zoomed beyond $4,000 and kept going.  In all, supporters donated $12,000, and by opening day on April 19th, not only did the grounds boast bigger, better tents, but the entire site had been re-graded and graveled.  It looked fresh and strong, but the additional improvements came at a price—almost all the market’s operating funds were depleted.  Fortunately many area chefs, who use the market to source local ingredients for their restaurants, had offered to step up to their stoves in solidarity.  “Paul Verica [of Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw] texted me the same day with one word: ‘dinner?’,” said Woods.  “But we needed money faster than we could put together a dinner.”

No matter.  Once the market was open and humming, arrangements were made and a farm dinner was announced in early May.  Jaws dropped again when tickets started selling online within half an hour of the announcement.  In the end, it took less than five days for the 100 seats to sell out, at $150 a pop.  Amazing?  Perhaps, but when you consider that the dinner was to be prepared by six of Charlotte’s most most innovative chefs, and held at beautiful Newtown Farms, the appeal is obvious.

Miss Chef and I were lucky—or clever—enough to purchase tickets within the first couple of days, so we were among the lucky ones.  She got a bit of sneak peek of the menu, as she drove out to the farm in Waxhaw the day before to assist with prep.  But come Saturday evening, she and I arrived as guests at the farm, about 20 miles east of town.

White tents had been erected on green lawns, with a small orchestra playing to one side.  We sipped sparkling rosé and shared warm greetings with friends we knew from years of early-morning markets, now all dressed in cool evening casual.  Down a nearby expanse of green, one long table was already laid for dinner.

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While we mingled under the tents, we enjoyed a selection of appetizers prepared by Chef Joe Bonaparte, including barbequed pork on scracklings—deep-fried cracklings—pickled North Carolina shrimp, and kholrabi vichyssoise.   Eventually we moved down that great expanse of table to find our seats, and menus tucked into elegant cloth napkins.

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The white-shirted servers moved discreetly down the table, pouring wine, and it wasn’t until Miss Chef said her name that I realized my glass had just been filled by Mindy Robinson, owner of Tega Hills Farm.  Most of the servers were market volunteers, vendors and their children.  For nonprofessionals, they did an excellent job throughout the evening.

We didn’t have to wait long at all for the arrival of our first course, by Bruce Moffet of Moffet Restaurant Group, including Barrington’s and Stagioni.  His creamy onion soup featured  extraordinarily delicate crab topped by deliciously light friend onions.

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I have to confess that crab is one of my least favorite seafoods, but this was so fresh and clean-tasting that I had no problem cleaning my plate.  Or bowl, rather.

Next was a raw fish dish sent out by our friend and favorite, Luca Annunziata of Passion8 Bistro in Fort Mill.

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I was stunned by the simple beauty of this plating, and the delicate taste of the fish matched its clean design.  Everything on the plate was sourced from North Carolina, including the caviar garnish. 

I settled more comfortably into my seat, amazed at the view of all the people gathered together in celebration of this market that has become so important to our lives.  In the background, smoke drifted up from the grill, captured for a moment by the sinking sun before dissipating into the cool evening air.  At one point I remarked to our dining companions, “I feel like I’m on a California vineyard, at some Saveur dinner.”  This, he replied, was a Carolina equivalent, and I quickly agreed.

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Soon the next course, by Joe Kindred of Roosters Wood-Fire Kitchen, brought my attention firmly back to the table.

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A rich chicken breast, from a Red Bro variety raised on the very farm where we sat, was nestled between a confit leg and a squash blossom stuffed with the liver.  A graceful coriander flower lent just a touch of lightness to the plating, as its lemony flavor did the same for the rich flavors of the dish.

Tim Groody of Fork! was not about to be outdone, sending out an equally rich dish of Ossabaw pork, also raised on Newtown Farm.

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The accompanying vegetable slaw was pitch perfect, highlighting the flavors of hyperlocal, seasonal ingredients.

After these last two heavy plates, I have to admit we were grateful to know that we had only one more course to fit into our filled bellies.  Still, I knew from the beginning that it would be worth making room for a dessert by Paul Verica.

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This goat-cheese cheesecake sure tasted like a panna cotta to me…a delicious, silky panna cotta with tasty notes of strawberry, mint and balsamic to play with.

The best moment was yet to come.  After the last bit of cheesecake had been swirled around our plates, a spontaneous ripple of applause moved up the table, from one end to the other, until all the guests were joined in an impromptu expression of appreciation and admiration for the chefs’ talented efforts.

There followed a few words of thanks from the market president and manager, and then we rose from the table and recommenced mingling.  We spent almost an hour chatting by the deserted service tent, while  behind us the now-empty table was efficiently cleared, broken down and carted away.

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It was a gorgeous summer evening, closing down the month of May and welcoming the promise of June.  On nights like this, I can think only of the good things in life, and be grateful that it has brought me here.

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