BY RON BERNTHAL
At the beginning of the 18th century, Boston didn’t have a central marketplace, so vendors pushed carts through town selling local produce such as seafood, wild game, fowl, apples, nuts, and berries. Cooking traditions were based on those of English and Irish immigrants, and featured plenty of stews, roasts, preserved meats, biscuits, and puddings. In addition regional foods such as corn, squash, beans, and potatoes were introduced to the local cuisine.Faneuil Hall, built in 1742, served as a marketplace for fresh goods, and the region became important for trading, farming, and fishing. By the 19th century, traditional Boston area dishes such as baked beans slow-cooked with molasses, deep-fried batter-dipped clams, and clam chowder began to appear on dinner tables.
Despite the area’s industrialization and resulting loss of farmland, the Boston area has remained a culinary center, where the nation’s oldest restaurants compete with some of the newest, most imaginative kitchens in the country. The one element that many Massachusetts Bay area chefs seem to have in common is that they try source locally as much as possible. Since the mid- 1990s chefs in Cambridge and many of other historic towns which form a half-circle along Boston’s perimeter, have become nationally recognized.
Julia Child, who moved to Cambridge in the 1960s, introduced fine cuisine to the area and paved the way for other great chefs and restauranteurs to emerge onto the food scene. People like Ana Sortun of Oleana and Jody Adams of Rialto, both in Cambridge; Chris Douglas of the Ashmont Grill in Dorcester; Jim Turner of Turners Seafood Grill and Market in Melrose; along with Jason Bond, Jeremy and Lisa Sewall, and Steve Johnson have turned this crescent shaped region into a Mecca of innovative, organic, and locally sourced restaurants.
Jim Turner has continued a long family tradition in the Boston area fish industry, started by his grandfather at the turn of the century, and continuing today, where Turner and his family run a fish processing plant in the seaside town of Gloucester, as well as a popular retail and restaurant operation called Turners Seafood Grill and Market in Melrose, about ten miles north of Boston. Turner is a big proponent of community supported fishery, where local catches are not shipped outside the area, even if the species caught are not as well known as customers are used to.
“The community supported fishery has become an important part of our region’s fishing economy, especially now that all our customers are demanding that the fish they buy from us, whether from our wholesale operation, or from the retail shop, is fresh and mostly local. Whenever possible, we catch it locally and sell it locally,” said Jim Turner.
Lee Belanger, author of the Boston Homegrown Cookbook, says that women chefs, especially in Cambridge, are taking the “farm to table” concept to new levels. “The towns outside of Boston have quite a few restaurants that truly dedicate themselves to serving the freshest cuisine possible, and many of them are now operating their own organic farms nearby. One of our noted women chefs, Ana Sortune, is married to an organic farmer.”
Chef Ana Sortun serves rustic and imaginative eastern Mediterranean cuisine in a historic wood and brick Cambridge restaurant called Oleana. Sortun won the James Beard award in 2005 for “Best Northeast Chef,” and her spinach falafel, Turkish pancakes, Tunis lamb, and sheep’s milk yogurt are just some of the unique menu items that customers love. Ms. Sortun says that to her, serving local has to do with passion, flavor, and her farmer-husband. “Quite frankly the decision to use local was easy. It was driven from the chef end in me, where the first thing I look for is the best ingredients, the purest ingredients, the best flavors. My husband and I live on our farm, and we get can fresh vegetables and meat products very easily, so it was just a natural movement for us to incorporate most of our produce into the menu, and the flavor of course is extraordinary, which to us is the major benefit to our customers.”
Ms. Sortun and her husband, Chris Kurth, live on Siena Farms, a 50-acre property about 25 miles west of Boston. Their produce is grown using traditionally sustainable farming practices of modern organic agriculture and is free of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. Having a farm like this so close to Boston is unusual, but there is another farm even closer. Actually, part of the Alandale Farm is within the Boston city limits as well as in the neighboring suburb of Brookline just across the border. Its 30 acres produce all sorts of organic vegetables that it sells both to area restaurants and local residents.
“This pristine farm has been in the same family since the French and Indian Wars, and despite the increasing land values around the farm, the family is definitely not interested in selling it. It is a truly unique situation, being able to grow and supply organic produce to local residents and restaurants without the additional cost and environmental concerns of transportation,” said John Lee, Alandale Farm’s long term manager.
Chef Chris Douglass runs two restaurants in the town of Dorchester, a few miles south of Boston. Ashmont Grill is a modern tavern with grass-fed beef burgers and fresh fish, including grilled trout, with oyster night on Thursdays. Nearby is Tavolo, another neighborhood gathering place with an Italian ambience. Chef Douglass has been a pioneer in Boston’s sustainability movement, and is the founding president of the area’s chefs’ collaborative. Running both restaurants, located a few blocks apart, leaves little time for relaxation, or sleep.
Today, Douglas is up early, heading to the sprawling Boston Fish Market as the sun rises over the harbor. By 7:00 am he arrives at Red’s Best’s, where he picks up some fluke and striped bass. “The guys down here at the market really know what’s running, and when you see the fish come off the boats, it’s great to buy what’s fresh and affordable, whether its haddock or cod or blue fish, and bring it back to the restaurant for our lunch and dinner menu,” Chef Douglas said as he makes his way from Puritan Fish to Boston Sword and Tuna to Cape Cod Shellfish, loading boxes of fish and ice into the back of his van until the back end started to settle lower under the weight. Because the fish was fresh, the inside of the van smelled pristine, as if we were in a new vehicle.
Back at the Ashmont Grill Douglass had kitchen staff bring the boxes into the cooler, other staff would begin to prepare tonight’s vegetables and soup stock, and someone else was already writing the new fish and meat specials on the blackboard for tonight’s customers. This type of preparation happens at many Boston area restuarants every day, and throughout the country at dining establishments that prefer to serve fresh, locally available produce. With all the work involved it has to be a labor of love, and for the Massachusetts Bay area chefs highlighted in this article, it’s also a passion.