Local farmers and food specialists are helping Orlando-area restaurants to get back to basics.
In this era of strawberries from Chile and shrimp from Thailand, the distance between the producer and the plate always seems to be expanding. But we in Central Florida are able to narrow that gap with a plentiful local harvest.
Thank the urban farmers and craftspeople who put passion and time-honored skill into feeding us. Surrounded by sprawling subdivisions and shopping malls, the following food-producing fundamentalists hearken back to the days when the village baker hand-formed loaves, the local dairy farmer knew each cow (and kid) by name, and morning eggs were still warm from the nest.
Lake Meadow Naturals
On the shore of Lake Meadow, just off Clarcona-Ocoee Road and 10 minutes from downtown Orlando, is a farm that’s home to 1,800 speckled chickens and a small herd of deep brown cattle. Ducks sit along a small stream while enormous geese strut imperiously across the acreage like feathered bulldogs. The view is interrupted by soccer ball-sized birds dashing by at roadrunner speeds.
“Guinea hens,” Dale Volkert explains. “That’s our natural bug control—they eat every insect around.”
Volkert, who’s had the farm for five years, says, “We just wanted food for ourselves, that’s how it started.” Now he supplies eggs and naturally raised beef to local restaurants such as Primo and Disney’s Victoria & Albert.
As we walk through the open-air hen houses, Volkert points out the nests filled with pale brown eggs. “People have no idea where their food comes from,” he says. Hoping to change that, Volkert opens the farm to visitors for “you pick” weekends, and enjoys the squeals of disbelief from kids as they discover a hen roosting on eggs.
And, yes, an egg from uncaged hens raised on natural feed with no hormones or antibiotics is different. It’s as if those well-exercised thighs produce better results. The yolks and whites are richer, fluffier, eggier.
Brian Jaymont, general manager at Primo, says his restaurant makes an extra effort to get fresher ingredients from local suppliers like Volkert. “We have a display table [of product] right at the front of the restaurant,” he says, “where we highlight people like Dale. Customers notice because they recognize the names from when they shop at the [farmers’] markets.”
Winter Park Honey
Beekeeping is a sensual experience. Hives stacked in their white boxes give off a heady smell of pollen and honey, and the hum of the worker bees fanning the honeycomb is soothing. Until you get closer.
Scott Shurman and Jean Vasicek tend to about 100 hives, spread throughout Orange County, to harvest the nectar sold under their Winter Park Honey label. “The noise of the bees gets very loud,” Scott told me. “I can still get frightened. And it gets scary sometimes when they cover you. Jean does most of the bee work.”
The couple has been producing honey for 10 years, selling at area farmers’ markets and from shops like Infusion Tea in College Park. Shurman and Vasicek both have engineering backgrounds. “We’ve had to experiment on every part of the process,” Shurman says.
I’m struck by the lack of technology involved in their tiny “honey house”: The most sophisticated machine is a centrifuge used to spin the honey out of the comb.
“Heating, filtering and straining takes nutrients out, so we don’t do it,” says Scott. Honey goes from hive to jar in just a day.
Every season has its flowers, each one altering the look and taste of honey, from avocado honey’s dark and thick-as–molasses color to orange blossom honey’s amber sweetness. In Central Florida, it’s an ever-changing harvest.
Winter Park Dairy
Arriving at Winter Park Dairy, I was greeted with the faint lowing of cattle and a hearty cry of “Welcome to the smallest dairy in Florida!” As I approached owners David and Dawn Green, I saw cows grazing contentedly on a nine-acre strip of land bordered by houses, Howell Branch Road and Lake Florence. A dairy in the middle of a neighborhood?
There have been four generations of the Green family on this land, first in citrus, then cattle. It was David who decided that milking cows and selling the cheese made from their milk was better than selling the cows for meat. The restaurants at the Gaylord Palms proudly list Winter Park Dairy on the menu. Other restaurants such as the Ravenous Pig Gastropub grab up most of the dairy’s output, with the rest showing up at Winter Park and Maitland farmers’ markets.
All the alchemy of cheese-making happens in a building less than 1,000 square feet, from milking to forming the cheese—by hand—to aging. “We had to invent minimalism,” David says, “getting the entire operation down to the basics.”
David refers to Bleu Sunshine, his savory signature cheese, as “decadent,” a veined blue so butterfat rich that it melts on the tongue, the kind of cheese that elicits an involuntary hum of delight. Seasonal changes in feed, from grass to hay, mellow the flavor, and some customers look forward to a sharper grass-fed spring blue.
The Greens and their new baby girls live on the farm, but the cows own it. One named Beatrice stuck her head in the car to check out my stereo as I was leaving. I thanked her for her work.
Olde Hearth Bread
I’m a dough snob, and around here, when a ciabatta or sourdough impresses me, it usually comes from Olde Hearth Bread Company in Casselberry.
Shannon Talty started Olde Hearth in 1998. You know his work if you’ve enjoyed a flatbread at Harmoni Market, or a roll at Ruth’s Chris.
Talty, who started as a chef in San Francisco, has a realistic view of his trade. “I’m an artist,” he says, “but I have to look at this as a business.”
As we go from mixing room to baking area (my first experience wearing a hair net), there is a constant flow of activity. Some of Talty’s 45 employees weigh dough, feed the ovens or shape chocolate croissants. Talty’s partner, Janice Brahm, is filling sheet pans with a deeply delicious granola mix.
I notice a giant, computerized machine designed to automatically mix and shape loaves of bread. It’s sitting inactive along one wall. Talty laughs. “It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Turns out it can only make one kind of bread, and not very well.” So next to the high-tech machine is the low-tech line of people, making bread as bread has always been made.
“You can’t substitute what goes on with hands,” Talty says. His goal is not to shun modern technology—the huge stone-lined ovens are state of the art—but to follow simple techniques because they’re still the best way to do it. The result is bread with a crisp, toothy crust and firm crumb (“bread shouldn’t dissolve in your mouth,” Talty says), rye with the aroma of real dough, and baguettes with a snap and taste that would make a Frenchman swoon.
Jaime Niemann, marketing director at Harmoni, says the staff at the restaurant/market is trained to point out locally sourced items on the menu. “Local bread is a way we can stand out,” she tells me, “and it’s working; people come back and ask for it.”