Grab your butter, salt and dental floss — it's corn season
Eagle staffers try corn from six different farms in a blind taste test
It's corn season in New England, but someone should let Mother Nature know.
"I tell our customers, 'I can't make the weather do what I want it to do,'" said Tonya Halley, of Bittersweet Farm on Barker Road in Pittsfield. "A lot of farms in the area are having the same issue."
The issue is too much rain in the spring and not enough rain right now for those golden ears of corn, which is how The Berkshire Eagle features department found itself in a predicament of almost cider-doughnut proportions (remember that time we had a blind cider doughnut tasting and picked the best non-cider doughnut? Ya, we're still not ready to laugh about it ...).
We set out a week ago to find the best tasting sweet corn among our local farms. First, we asked our Facebook followers where they like to get their corn. The debate quickly took off, producing more than 120 comments within 24 hours. From that list, we picked the top six most suggested: Whitney's Farm Market & Garden Center, Forthill Farm, Noble's Farm Stand and Flower Shop, Chenail's Farm Stand, Boardman's Farm Stand and Bittersweet Farm.
On Monday, we made the trek around the county to pick up half-dozen ears of corn from each farm stand. This editor learned many lessons along the way, the most important being bring exact change to these places, folks — a $20 bill will hold no value on this sojourn. (A special shout out to the lovely stranger at Noble's on East New Lenox Road who just happened to have change.) I also learned that peaches are delicious right now and that, thankfully, these farm stands have excellent signage. I also learned that our timing for a blind taste-test was a bit early for this season's crop of corn.
Most farms we visited were just putting out their corn that weekend for the first time, and most of the ears were small and pale compared to the large, golden yellow ears you dream about come August. But editorial calendars, like hungry corn lovers, don't let a little weather hold them back.
On Tuesday, eight Eagle staffers, including myself, sat down on my back deck to perform the difficult task of a blind taste test of corn from the six farms to pick the best one. You know what they say, it's a tough job ...
First, we cut the cobs into thirds and boiled each farm's corn in its own pot with fresh water. Once the water began to boil, with the corn in it, we shut the burner off and put a lid on it, steaming the corn, for 10 minutes. Then, each ear of corn was quickly wrapped in aluminum foil marked with its corresponding letter. (Each farm was given a letter so the tasters wouldn't know which farm's corn they were eating.)
Because I don't have an industrial stove, (I'm still convincing my boss that one should be included in the features department budget ... I kid.) we could only boil three pots at a time. Once the corn was wrapped in foil, it was put on our outdoor gas grill kept on low so as to keep all the corn at an even, hot temperature. Once all the corn was cooked, we sat down to taste.
Tasters took to the task seriously, with most refusing to use butter or salt until they'd taken a few bites of the naked corn. Kernel size, color and even "corn-like" smell were all noted. We quickly realized that most of the corn we were tasting was on the bland side, lacking that sweet corn punch. Most cobs had good texture and juiciness, but something was missing.
"I think we're just too early," one of the tasters remarked.
But one corn did come out on top, the only problem was, it was from a farm outside of Berkshire County.
The winner is ...
Bittersweet Farm, well, sort of. It turns out that Bittersweet Farm is not selling its own corn until this weekend due to it not being ready yet.
The corn that I bought last Monday was from Kinderhook Creek Farm in Stephentown, N.Y., just over the border.
"Their corn is excellent," Tonya Halley said, almost apologetically. "We sell it until we can sell our own."
There is no funny corn business going on, though. Bittersweet Farm buyers are told upfront if the corn isn't from the farm with a sign posted on the corn bin. This buyer knew it when she bought it, but was hopeful that maybe Berkshire County corn would still reign supreme. But the winning corn was the sweetest, juiciest of the bunch.
"That's good corn," Meggie Baker, our toughest critic, said after the first bite. Others called it "sweet," "bright" and downright "delicious."
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Kinderhook Creek Farm being operated by the Eckhardt Family, according to its website, and it's famous for its sweet corn.
"Kinderhook is always much earlier than everyone else," Halley said. "Beginning in mid-July, we use Kinderhook. It's fresh-picked every morning and they deliver it to us by 9 a.m. We get a shipment every morning and it's always fresh."
Even if the corn we loved didn't come from Bittersweet's crops, we felt they still deserved the recognition. So many of our readers touted Bittersweet Farm, which is run by Tonya Halley and her sister, Carla Halley and their father David Halley. David started the farm 27 years ago, and the sisters help him run it every summer when they're not working at their day jobs — Tonya is a school nurse at Becket Washington School and Carla works in the office at Craneville Elementary School.
Their road-side farm stand makes up about 99 percent of their business, according to Tonya. There they sell squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, beets, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, fresh-cut flowers and, of course, corn. Their garden sits on about 12 to 15 acres, and their days filled with picking, weeding and planting last eight to 10 hours, she said.
"I love working on the farm; it's very rewarding," she said. "Most of the time it's very peaceful. ... It's my meditation."
So, what makes their corn — when it's ready — so special?
"We hand pick all our corn, so we can be selective," Tonya said. "Each corn stalk only has two ears of corn, and we only pick the first and we pick fresh every day."
Tonya estimates that they sell about 18,000 ears of corn a season, which usually runs six weeks starting Aug. 1, weather permitting.
When asked how she likes to eat her corn, Tonya said, "Right out of the garden, you don't even need cook it — that's how you know it's good corn."
Perhaps, the story here isn't which corn was best, but rather a cautionary tale that if you've already had corn from your favorite farms and haven't been wowed this season, don't lose hope. Just adjust your corn-eating calendar and wait a week or two.
And Tonya is quick to point out that there are no winning or losing farms when it comes to corn season — they're all in it together.
"We support all local farms," she said. "It's a lot of work."
We'll just have to try this experiment again next year, a week or two later. Until then, we'll keep eating corn until the season runs its course — I guess that makes us all winners.
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