Farm to Table Dinining in Northeast Florida
By Jennifer DeCamp
I feel the sun-warmed concrete steps beneath my bare feet. At this point in our lives, my sister and I are all knobby knees and gangly elbows. The distinct pop from wax beans adds rhythm to our conversation as we drop bite-size pieces into a pan.
Welcome to Sunday supper at my grandmother’s house, featuring meat from a steer raised at the family homestead, beans plucked and snapped by us, and sliced berries, the red juices staining her fingers. Her backyard sprouted produce like a horn of plenty, a symptom of her waste-not, want-not youth as a Depression-era farm girl.
These simple suppers are the origin of my love for the farm-to-table movement.
But first, a confession: I don’t have her green thumb. In fact, my first Florida garden produced a handful of cherry tomatoes and cucumbers that died on the vine. I leave it to the pros now.
Which is why we’ve settled down for a traditional Sunday supper at one of Jacksonville’s farm-to-table meccas, Black Sheep. I know we will be served crisp, leafy greens grown in Jacksonville, honey from Callahan bees and chicken raised in Palatka.
Alone, these ingredients remind me of the traditional suppers of my youth. But under chef Waylon Rivers’ care, they become anything but simple. The Black Hog Farm chicken arrives at the table with an oh-so-thin, golden layer of crackling skin that makes the juicy meat seem even more tender. Then it’s paired with sweet corn, bacon, pearl onions and biscuit dumplings. Yes, biscuit dumplings are a thing.
Simply put, this is my idea of heaven on a plate; beautifully plated, farm-fresh ingredients that are impeccably seasoned. I can’t wait to take a bite.
Days before my meal, that same chicken was one of about 2,300 on Black Hog Farm in East Palatka.
Patriarch Paul Watkins, a fourth-generation farmer, runs the successful family venture that supplies about ten Northeast Florida chefs with farm to table seasonal produce, fresh eggs and meats.
Rivers raves about the Black Hog Farm chickens. “They’re healthy and better tasting,” he said. “Plus, you can tell the difference from theirs and a factory-raised chicken, which has more fat.”
Over the years, the relationships between the local chefs and Black Hog Farm has developed into a partnership, influencing Watkins’ business with basics such as the ideal size of the chickens or adding Mangalitsa hogs, a heritage breed, to their herd.
It’s also great word of mouth for the family’s farm-to-door delivery business for everyday cooks from St. Augustine to Amelia Island. “They connect the two together,” Watkins said. “We’re proud to be a part of what they do.”
Rivers echoes Watkins’ sentiment when discussing how he seeks out new farm partners. “I am looking for people to be as passionate about what they do as we are about what we do,” he said.
Catch Watkins on the right day and he’ll talk passionately about his philosophy on healthy eating, breeding the rare American Guinea Hogs and how the St. Johns Rivers helps insulate some of his crop fields during cold snaps.
From Black Hog Farm the St. Johns River winds about 40 miles north toward Black Sheep. On the restaurant’s rooftop deck, the cocktail crowd enjoys riotous sunsets over the river while toasting each other with house-made cocktails named Bottled Salty Dog or Dusty Boot.
Those cocktails and the triangular-shaped building with floor-to-ceiling windows speak to the restaurant’s unique tone as much as its chef. Rivers prefers to take unusual ingredients and add an accompaniment or flavor that makes them still approachable for less adventurous diners. Hence the new starter featuring lamb belly, instead of pork belly, paired with a chilled field pea salad.
More Northeast Florida Farm-to-Table Choices
Black Sheep’s sister restaurant, Orsay, has the golden warmth of a Parisian bistro with its dark wood interiors and handled porcelain crocks serving up a thick layer of broiled Gruyere encasing an onion soup. Orsay’s Southern take on French cafe fare features more than 20 carefully chosen producers, including Twinn Bridges, Bacon Hill Produce, Musickal Acres and Black Hog Farms from the Sunshine State. Charcuterie lovers will find the Trios Fois Mousse (a housemade mix of chicken liver, duck liver and foie gras) irresistible, as well as the roasted oysters and that onion soup.
San Marco’s longtime dining gem, Matthew’s, has been a Bold City darling for more than a decade for locals seeking an intimate setting with tastebud-bursting dishes and immaculate service for special celebrations. At the helm is Chef Matthew Medure, who worked under the tutelage of Alain Ducasse in Paris. His seasonal menus celebrate the best from the state’s farms and local waters. Don’t miss the house-made pastas or splurge and treat yourself to the multi-course daily chef’s tasting menu. Also worth noting, is the Medure brothers’ Ponte Vedra Beach location, Restaurant Medure, with David at the helm.
At times, Scott Schwartz, executive chef and owner of Fernandina’s farm-to-table gem, needs only to walk out kitchen door when procuring vine-ripened veggies and fragrant herbs to supplement the other Florida purveyors on his daily menu. Fourteen beds, which have their own master gardener and curator, serve as a seasonal source of inspiration for Schwartz and his culinary crew. Southern flavors provide a wink-and-a-nod twist on his classic dishes -- think pork chops brined in sweet tea, a salad topped with deviled eggs, or a bread pudding made from glazed donuts.
The Floridian has a simplistic aim -- to serve local and sustainable ingredients in a casual atmosphere. Thus, it sources goods from Northeast Florida farmers such as
CartWheel Ranch Meats, KYV Farms, Fresh Start Hydroponics and Wainwright Dairy. Some dishes feature the smokin’ hot datil pepper, largely farmed in St. Augustine, in a starring role. If you think you can take the heat, try the Datil BBQ Tacos or the Datil Low Country, which features shrimp and sausage in a datil-tomato broth.
Photos by Darren Dean for VISIT FLORIDA