The sight of a whole lamb being turned on a spit over open fire is nothing new to me. Countless Greek Easters of my youth dictated that one if not two lambs would be started on the spit early in the day, and that I would be required to take a turn turning the lamb, feeling the blast of heat from the hot coals and doing my best to turn the lamb evenly as it slow roasted. The word for lamb in Greek is arni, so Dad would always urge me, with a little laugh, to say hello to “Arnie” and I’d do my best not to imagine what our non-Greek New Jersey neighbors were thinking as they peered out their windows. Instead I’d try to connect with the many generations of ancestors before me who knew lamb on a spit to be a celebration, a rare luxury, a special feast.
So I found myself completely at home this past Saturday seeing a whole lamb on the spit once again, but instead of an Easter celebration with Greek flavors of lemon, rosemary, and oregano, this was a Midsummer celebration and the flavors were decidedly Scandinavian, the meat infused with blue spruce, juniper and oak smoke. Just as my family’s Greek Easter feasts were half a world away from Greece, so too was this Midsummer feast from Sweden. We were in New Marlborough, Massachusetts at the debut event of the Berkshire Food Guild.
The Berkshire Food Guild is made up of local food crafters whose mission is “to support and celebrate the regional food shed”. It also happens to be co-founded by my dear friend (and talented chef) Jamie Paxton. When she reached out to my husband, Tom, and I to photograph the event, we were delighted as it put in front of our cameras several things we are passionate about: amazing food, farm-to-table eating, an integrated and sustainable local food hub, organic agriculture and grass-fed meats. We couldn’t resist the opportunity and the gorgeous setting of Mill River Farm just sweetened the deal.
The idea for the Midsummer feast as the BFG’s first event was the idea of co-founder Jake Levin, nose-to-tail butcher, food writer and self-professed Scandophile. Jake fell in love with Scandinavian culture and cuisine though his fiancee, Silka Glanzman, and as he turned the lamb hours before the first guests arrived, he spoke wistfully of the summers they spent in Sweden with Silka’s Swedish relatives. Having been to Sweden myself with Tom’s family, I could well understand his longing.
When Jamie sent me the menu prior to the event, I knew the Berkshire Food Guild meant business – the menu was daring, unusual and ambitious. I was so pleased to hear on our arrival that the event was a sell-out, and that people in the local area were hungry for this kind of brave cooking. Around 6 o’clock guests began to arrive on the farm and it was a happy sight to see them shaking hands and forming a community that evening, supportive and appreciative of the talented food artisans working so hard to celebrate what is local, delicious and responsibly produced in and around the Berkshires. Some of the guests were farmers themselves, and they could take pride that their lamb and vegetables were being so lovingly showcased.
After a tour of Mill River Farm given by owner Jan Johnson, guests turned their attention to the canapés, a true smorgasbord of seasonal gems devised by Jamie – deviled eggs three ways, liver pate, green pea pesto with local chèvre, pickled mackerel, hot-smoked bluefish, lardo with honey, and more. It bears mentioning that all the canapés were served on various scandinavian breads like knackbrod and frisian rye bread, milled and made from scratch by baker and co-founder Jill Jakimetz with 100% locally grown grain from Hawthorne Valley Farm. What a talent Jill is! A rumor circulated through the feast attendees that one rye bread in particular was baked for 12 hours.
The fires, tended to and stoked by co-founder Jazu Stine, were blasting with indescribable heat and smoke, and over them everything was cooked on an outdoor kitchen of his own design. The lamb was stuffed with blue spruce branches, basted with juniper branches and oil and turned evenly on its spit. The peas, turnips, fennel, spring onions, garlic scapes, zucchini, and even pinnebrod, a Swedish bread made with dough wrapped around sassafras sticks (foraged by Jill), were all cooked over the fire. It was a gorgeous sight, and many guests wandered over to sneak a taste or snap a photo. What restaurant do you know that produces this kind of food experience?
Gasping for a beverage after shooting too long by the fire, Tom and I found sweet hydration in a few glasses of homemade rhubarb cooler. Jazu grew the rhubarb, Jamie made the rhubarb syrup – add some lemon juice, water, ice and garnish with lemon thyme and the result was one of the greatest drinks we have ever tasted. There were also sulfate-free, organic, biodynamic wines from two small producers in France, sourced by Berkshire Food Guild member Brian Heck, who also happens to be a coffee roaster at Barrington Coffee. Needless to say, the coffee accompanying the dessert (Midsummer spruce bavarian with strawberries, petit fours) was divine.
A crowd gathered with anticipation as Jazu broke down the cooked lamb, removing the blue spruce from the cavity, and pointing out which part was the tenderloin, which part the lamb breast, to curious attendees. At his side, Jamie worked with colorful and perfectly cooked local vegetables – butter-poached white and deep pink baby turnips, a medley of green peas (snap, shelling and snow), deep red beet carpaccio with buttermilk and dill – as she did her final plating before all the food was served family style on the long farm table. It truly was a celebration of seasonal living. Silka and I stood back and marveled at the sight, it was thrilling to see the mission of the Berkshire Food Guild achieved so successfully.
Perhaps the best moment was one the guests did not see, a short and sweet toast from Jake behind the scenes at the very end of the night thanking everyone who helped for all the hard work in producing such a memorable and delicious first event. Tom and I felt so lucky to be included in this group of talented and passionate people, and we can only look forward to the next time we get to collaborate with them. Perhaps a Greek feast someday?