Culinary buzzwords: How local is 'local'?

In the Berkshires, thoughts on "local," "farm-to-table" and "organic" vary

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At Mezze Bistro + Bar, chef Nicholas Moulton and company don't just cook the pork that is a staple of the Williamstown restaurant's regularly changing menus. They feed it.

Mezze staffers often bring the restaurant's vegetable and bread compost over to Williamstown's East Mountain Farm, where Kim Wells raises heritage breed pigs that end up, in a variety of ways, on plates at the Route 7 establishment. Every couple of weeks, one of those pigs is brought to Mezze. The roughly 275-pound animal gets completely broken down there, supplying meat for a host of dishes.

"That's farm-to-table to me," Moulton said.

Mezze takes being a farm-to-table restaurant that serves local food "very seriously," according to Moulton. The restaurant sources nearly all of its ingredients from within a 50-mile radius, he said, and has developed ongoing relationships with Peace Valley Farm in Williamstown, Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough and The Berry Patch in Stephentown, N.Y., among others. For Moulton, having conversations with farmers is vital. Wells also cited the importance of the farmer-chef relationship during a 2018 interview with The Eagle.

"It puts them in touch with a quality of product that they can't really get from the big distributors," he said. "Most chefs are just so happy to get real meat."

But some restaurants that bill themselves as "farm-to-table" spots dishing out "local" food stretch the truth, taking advantage of these terms' vague meanings.

"I don't think there's a commonly used definition right now, and I think it's abused in some ways," Nick Martinelli, of regional distributor Marty's Local, said. "I think some consumers have started to ignore when a restaurant advertises themselves that way because it doesn't really mean anything in a consistent way, unfortunately."

Today, even if it wasn't the original intention, farm-to-table is widely used to refer to a dining option that sources locally. The concept of "local," however, varies greatly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines the term as marketing a product that is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state of its sale. Martinelli believes that the USDA's definition is a bit too loose, but that some are too rigid when it comes to "local," using political boundaries unnecessarily. His company, Marty's Local, was founded in the Berkshires several years ago and delivers food predominantly from Western Massachusetts farms.

"I think of local and regional as kind of what we can pick up and deliver on that same day, or what can we pick up and deliver the next day. I don't know of anyone who's too worried about, 'Is it 99 miles or is it 101 miles?'" he said, "but more that concept of what's accessible in a reasonable period of time for the sake of freshness and supporting the people around us, the economy around us, the economy that impacts us."

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For Jim Schultz of Red Shirt Farm in Lanesborough, Berkshire restaurants who deem themselves "farm-to-table" shouldn't be picking up ingredients from neighboring counties if they can find them closer.

"If there's a farm that's growing what you need on your menu within 15, 20 minutes of you, and you're not buying from them, then you shouldn't be calling yourself farm-to-table. There's a few restaurants that do that better than others," Schultz said, mentioning Elizabeth's in Pittsfield as one of them.

"Local" and "organic" can also get conflated.

"Just because a restaurant serves products from a local farm doesn't mean that those products are necessarily sustainably grown or organic," said Cynthia Pansing, the executive director of a nonprofit, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, that invests in area farms and food businesses. "Oftentimes, they are, but becoming [USDA]-certified organic is a very expensive process both in terms of time and money. A lot of farms who, for all intents and purposes, adopt the same practices as organic but don't go through the certification process may be regenerative, biodynamic, sustainable. They're perfectly good, wonderful places to buy from."

Berkshire Grown Executive Director Margaret Moulton agrees.

"For some people, it's really important," Moulton said of the organic certification. "And for others, if you know your farmer, and you go to their farm and you see how they care for the land and produce the vegetables, and you realize they're not using any of those chemically based pesticides or fertilizers, that's enough. That's one of the advantages of living in a rural area where you do see your farmer."

In the end, consumers have to rely on chefs to source their food honestly and responsibly. Moulton can see both positives and negatives to the "farm-to-table" spread.

"It makes people think about where their food is coming from: 'How far away was this food grown?' And, 'Here I live in a rural economy; do you think I maybe actually know the farmer who grew these greens?'" she said. "But I think that it's interesting to note that it can be more of a marketing label than what's really going on."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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