It's pretty hard to dine with us and not eat something grown on (or laid at) Paradox Farm. For years they have been one of our biggest suppliers. They are also a major player in the sustainable food movement in our area. Owner Mitch Wapner serves on the board of the Healthy Foods Co-Op & Market in town, manages the Lexington Farmers Market, and is president of the Rockbridge Farmers Alliance. He keeps pretty busy for a retiree--he used to be an equine vet. When we caught up with him recently at the farmers market, he could barely talk to us. He was phoning customer Julie who had left without taking her bag of melons and chatting with customer Peggy who knew a woman who rehabilitated feral cats. He was fretting about his egg shortage, as his chickens were slowing down with the start of fall ("They are seasonal layers.") but demand was still high. "Red Hen took three dozen of my eggs yesterday. They wanted more, but I can't do it until the CSA season is over."
Still, he managed to answer a couple of questions, like: What's with 2 Farmers and Jo? (Sometimes Paradox Farm produce appears on our menu as grown by 2 Farmers and Jo.) "That's Cat and Chad, my farm managers. Alli Jo is their dog." Cat and Chad spent last year working as interns at Paradox. They did so well they were promoted.
We also quizzed him about his produce. Paradox is known for its quirky veg. Unusual heirloom varieties, things grown from saved seed--stuff you can't buy in a supermarket. He had some fantastic purple string beans that turn green when you cooked them, but we decided to ask him about the wispy carrots we had photographed the week before:
"Well, they're grown with love and without chemicals!"
Paradox is a stickler for all-natural. They use no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. To do this, they concentrate on developing and maintaining healthy soil. They use compost as well as aged and composted manures. In their literature, they refer to themselves as soil farmers. Said literature also apologizes for the less-than-perfect appearance of their vegetables: Our Eco-friendly philosophy of growing food means that much of our produce may not LOOK perfect, but our concern is that it TASTES perfect in addition to being free from chemicals.
But does veg get any more beautiful than this?
What do you think?
Autumn in Virginia brings pawpaws, a.k.a. the Shenandoah banana, America's largest indigenous fruit. They have a cloying apple mixed with banana mixed with kiwi smell, a custardy flesh, and an elusive taste. Ask anyone to describe the taste of pawpaw and watch them struggle. It's a completely intriguing fruit. Yet nobody in the restaurant world works with them. To begin with, there are no commercial growers. The season is too short (weeks). The shelf life is too narrow (days). And the skin is too fragile (tears at the slightest bump). Suffice it to say they will never appear in the grocery store fruit bin. This, of course, makes them all the more appealing to us, especially since we have recently come across a pawpaw source! Wild groves are now available to us at Echo Valley Farm in Bath County. All we have to do is pick them ourselves....
On the drive home, we start talking possibilities: pawpaw pies, pawpaw sorbet, pawpaw drinks, pawpaw mixed with this and that. We decide the Red Hen will invent The Definitive Paw Paw Dessert...and then The Definitive PawPaw Cocktail. The grandiosity builds. We are going to put pawpaws on the map. We can't wait for people to come from miles around (and away) to eat pawpaws at the Red Hen. It is going to be awesome.
Pawpaws are about thirty percent seed. Black shiny nickel-sized seeds. It had been a few years since we had eaten pawpaw, and we had forgotten about this. Oops. Even worse, the seeds are distributed throughout the fruit, so you have to dig out each one individually or you won't have enough pawpaw left to work with. Chef Matt, a pawpaw rookie who had been excited to start working with them, cuts into one and has a small heart attack. Still, he peels them all and excavates every single seed (he is an amazing sport). It's a ridiculous amount of work for just a little bit of fruit. But Matt does wonders with it. He mixes it with eggs, vanilla and brandy, pours into a tart shell, and tops it with whipped cream and pistachios. The pawpaw cream tart is a winner. It's kind of like a banana cream tart, but more exciting. It has a citrusy flavor that you can't quite put your finger on. We could eat this every day! Unfortunately, the word "pawpaw" now makes Matt wince. The seeds.
A few days ago, Matt started making pawpaw wine. It will be ready in six months. We are not sure how it will turn out--or even, if it does turn out, whether it will appear on the menu. Matt is so over pawpaws.
But, oh, how we would dearly love to eat this again: