Fresh from the farm

The farm-to-table movement is no longer just a foodies’ trend — it’s going mainstream, even in the Caribbean. Franka Philip explains why knowing where your produce comes from adds something special to your meal

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramPhoto courtesy Green Market Santa Cruz

When you’ve bought vegetables, meat, or eggs directly from farmers who grow the produce, there’s a special sense of satisfaction, knowing you can cook a wholesome meal with the freshest ingredients available.

It means going to the market regularly and engaging with the farmers, who offer tips and the occasional something extra for loyal customers. But often many of the vendors who sell in our local markets are not the actual farmers. Instead they go to the wholesale markets or — in the case of Trinidad — visit the docks in the capital, Port of Spain, to buy the best of the fruit and vegetables imported from the Caricom region.

But in recent years, farmers markets have become extremely popular. Known for their emphasis on local and fresh produce direct from farmers and small producers, these markets play up the notion of “fresh food from the farm to the table.” This idea of eating the freshest produce without having to go very far also ties into the “buy local” thrust gaining traction in these straightened economic times.

 

At one farmers market, the San Antonio Green Market in the lush Santa Cruz valley just east of Port of Spain, patrons visit not only for the produce, but also to have a great experience. When shoppers head to the Green Market on Saturday and Sunday mornings, they meet a range of cooks selling breakfast, chocolate-makers offering exquisite dark cocoa delights, and more often than not there’s an expert on hand giving a talk or cooking demos.

There aren’t any farmers markets in Antigua, but that doesn’t stop people from building close relationships with their local farmers and getting their farm-to-table fix. At Hall Valley Farm in St Mary, meat is the word. Run by Adrian Hall, this is one of the island’s top meat producers. And it’s not a typically commercial enterprise. The farm has been in Hall’s family for several generations, and his grandfather Robert was a pioneering agriculturalist who was well known across the Caribbean.

A visit to Hall Valley Farm’s Facebook page shows complimentary comments from customers. “Thanks for the beautiful leg of Easter lamb, it was the best lamb I’ve tasted in the nine years I’ve lived in Antigua,” says one. “Not only do we have free-range eggs on island now, but stunningly beautiful free range eggs!” gushes another.

Hall Valley specialises in lamb, beef, pork, chicken, Cornish hens, and free-range eggs. Some of their deli products include yogurt, lemon ricotta cheese, achar seasoning, dulce de leche, and lime marmalade.

Adrian Hall takes pride in his non-intensive approach to rearing animals. “Our chickens, for example, are reared in pens that are moved every day. We don’t pack three thousand chickens in an area like the commercial farms do — our chickens have space to run and thrive.” Hall uses a similar approach with lamb, which is grass-fed, leaner, and ultimately tastes better. The farm’s meat costs more than normal supermarket fare, but there are people who prefer to pay for quality. His clients are ordinary people, boutique hotels, fine dining restaurants, and the super yachts that dock at the island.

“We don’t have a farmers market here, but we have a loyal client base,” Hall says. “We organise delivery and pick-up points. Certain things they come to the farm for. Our client base is growing all the time, but we are conscious of keeping it small, so we can build relationships with our customers.”

 

Convenience and relationship-building are both part of the farm-to-table concept. Getting farm-fresh food delivered is a fantastic option. In Trinidad, D’ Market Movers has made a huge impact with their pioneering delivery service. It is the first company in Trinidad to offer an online delivery service of fresh produce, seafood, and meat.

Former banker David Thomas started the company in 2011, after observing how his co-workers appreciated similar services offered by other vendors. Thomas, who is passionate about agriculture, deals with farmers who share his mission to deliver top quality produce. “We work with greenhouse farmers who use fewer pesticides than open field farmers. We go and see their operations, so we know exactly who we are dealing with,” Thomas explains.

D’ Market Movers’ vegetable box business has been doing well, and the attractive, easy-to-use website makes shopping easier for clients. “Our business has grown and we have been doing really well on the retail side. Farmers are excited, because where in the past some might have had trouble matching their products to a market, they can now get their goods sold through us.”

The company has also found a way to extend the farm-to-table experience. Their supper club, Our Moving Table, aims to show off the best local produce in an outdoor dining setting. Our Moving Table is a collaboration between D’ Market Movers and chef Sonja Sinaswee. The chef, who is a big believer in the farm-to-table concept, says that “The emphasis is on wholesome food, using very few store-bought, processed products. For instance, if there’s coconut milk in a recipe, you can rest assured that I cracked some coconuts and made the milk myself.”

At each event, fifty guests are treated to a menu that incorporates food from up to twenty local farmers and agro-producers. “One of the things our clients appreciate is that, regardless of their special dietary requirements, they will get something tasty,” says Sinaswee. “We have a core of guests who attend regularly, and they eat whatever we serve, because they like our menus.” Sinaswee describes her style of cooking at Our Moving Table as “elevated rustic cuisine.” For the self-described “country girl,” cooking in the rustic way is quite normal.

While Our Moving Table is a niche product, Sinaswee notes that more and more people are interested in attending. Besides word-of-mouth endorsements about the quality of the meals, she thinks people want to support local farmers and agro-producers. At each event, producers are invited to speak about themselves and their businesses. This is so that those attending can have a closer connection with the food they’re eating and raise awareness of buying local.

Thomas is pleased at the progress of Our Moving Table, and in the future he intends to spread the event to different parts of Trinidad, incorporating more farmers. He believes there’s yet another step in the farm-to-table concept for D’ Market Movers and Our Moving Table. “We will begin to retail some of the items we serve to guests at the events,” he says. “It’s a guarantee of fresh, seasonal produce.”

What more could thoughtful gourmands ask for?