What should be the cost of a healthy meal made with farm fresh ingredients? We suspect that it’s going to be more expensive than a meal made with conventionally sourced and cheaper ingredients, whether home-cooked or at a restaurant.
The camaraderie at a farmers market eases the pain of spending perhaps a little more money for locally grown and organic produce. Still, it’s less painful to slip those extra bucks across the counter when the amiable person behind it is the one who grew your lettuce. It’s more abstract at a restaurant, of course, where higher food costs are reflected in a higher bill, and you’re also paying for the ambiance and service.
But when you see the setup at Saratoga Apple, you’ll realize right away that you’re going to get a bargain for fresh from the farm ingredients. And you do. Twenty-five dollars for a four-course meal is an exceptional value for the home-grown fare that you get. The fact that it’s not served on anything fancy actually complements the rustic feel of the event and likely explains the bargain pricing.
9 Miles East is the farm that has been serving weekend dinners at Saratoga Apple. Not surprisingly, that’s also its distance from Saratoga Springs. My wife and I started 9 Miles East in 2005, says co-owner Gordon Saks, with 29 acres and a commercial catering kitchen. Now we have 35 employees.
It’s both a farm and a food-preparation site, as Saks explains: Saratoga Apple features local craft beers and cider but has no functioning kitchen. We have a functioning kitchen but no dining area, so it’s a perfect combination. We’re going on a year and a half presenting these dinners there. First they were occasional, then monthly – now we’re doing it every weekend, fifty weekends a year.
The Darrow family, who own and run Saratoga Apple, have been growing apples for five generations, and their site is open daily. The evening my wife and I visited was overcast and a little cool, but still shirtsleeves weather. Your journey to the dining area takes you past the produce Saratoga Apple has on sale, so be prepared to spend a little more than you may have had in mind.
You’ll reach a modest-sized dining area with five booths, five more high-tops, and five side-by-side seats at a counter, and there’s a small bar area with still more seats at it. That’s where you’ll go to select a beverage, choosing from the handcrafted beer and cider and a selection of small-batch soft drinks, including some delightfully spicy ginger ale varieties.
Two 9 Miles East employees worked the dinner we attended: Bear, behind the bar, who helped me select a delicious, chocolatey Black Creek Porter from R.S. Taylor and Sons Brewery, a farm brewery in Hebron (Washington County, NY) that also operates a taproom in downtown Saratoga Springs, and Katie Lyn, who busily worked the floor but never lost her humor and grace.
We started with asparagus soup, featuring stalks from the Pioneer Valley, filled out with local dairy products. It was thin but a very tasty compote, flecked with pepper, easier to drink than to spoon, served (as was almost everything) in biodegradable cardboard.
The asparagus came from Marty’s Local, which is a supplier in western Massachusetts that works with farms in the Pioneer Valley, the Hudson Valley, and the Berkshires, Saks told me. A nice thing about serving prepared meals with local ingredients is that we can use produce that may not meet the cosmetic requirements of farmers markets. Consumers have been trained to look for strict uniformity, so we go through, say, baskets of asparagus and set aside the spears that aren’t perfectly straight.
Salad was a mix of baby leaves of green and red, with scallions and an herbaceous vinaigrette. It was an efficient palate-cleanser for the main course, a serving (three slices) of cider-brined pork loin, which came from a collective of farms in Quebec. This is a dish elegant in its simplicity. When it’s tender enough, as was this preparation, it doesn’t need to be swamped with sauce. But pork has an affinity with fruit – there’s a reason that’s an apple in the pig’s mouth – and it was satisfied with a side-serving of sautéed local apples. What ties a dish like this together? Mashed potatoes, of course.
There’s always a vegetarian alternative, and for this meal it was a pearl barley risotto. I’m a big fan of pearl barley as a rice substitute, says Saks. Barley is massively healthy and reduces cholesterol. And there’s a practical consideration: there’s about a five-minute window for arborio rice to be served before it turns too mushy, while barley is very forgiving. Our portion was finished with sweet peas and asparagus and a vegetable stock. This was my first encounter with barley as a rice alternative, and I’m sold. I’ve already been experimenting at home with barley risotto, and it’s a winner.
To finish, a simple compote of whipped Greek yogurt enhanced with local rhubarb, so it was sweet yet tangy – tangy in all sorts of palate-pleasing directions. We lingered. It’s easy to do here. As Katie Lyn explained, there’s a tendency for the regulars to recognize one another and hang out to chat.
We’ve developed a number of regular customers, echoed Saks, and it’s nice to see familiar faces every weekend. It’s become about more than just food – there’s a community component. Kids run around, get to play outside. We really want it to be accessible, so we keep the pricing low.
The pop-up dinners are served from 5 to 8:30 PM Fridays and Saturdays at Saratoga Apple, 1174 Route 29, Schuylerville, NY 12871. You can find the menu (and much other interesting information) at the 9 Miles East website.
Much of what Saks also offers are meal subscription plans. We’re servicing nearly a hundred companies in the Boston area. We have customers in 125 counties, with a heavy concentration in Albany, Saratoga, and Glens Falls. We deliver fully prepared meals, also fresh vegetables from our farm and other local farmers. And part of our mission is to extend the education process, so people know what’s growing and when. We’re not going to serve asparagus out of season.
As for the ingredient origins, we use a concentric sourcing model, so we start with local, then look to regional, then to national sources. There are some really great things about our global food-supply chain – it’s easy to forget that once upon a time people got through the winter on potatoes and cabbage and salted pork.
(B.A. Nilsson, June 21, 2019)