Countdown to the food awards: Dinner From The Family Garden


Thursday, May 16, 2013    

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Rebecca Harper is on a mission; an ambitious one to boot. But one that has already started to bear fruit and reduce unemployment in the community she fondly refers to as The Family Garden.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the oft-used adage 'it takes a village to raise a child' is to be believed, then The Jamaica Observer Food Awards judges who made the trek up Jack's Hill a few weeks ago to a farm-to-dinner-table were in for an education on what dogged determination can spawn. Not to mention the joy of making a salad at a table from scratch.

Harper is a proud, enthusiastic farmer and gushes as she speaks to the birth of The Family Garden. "We are registered with RADA and grow cooking herbs, lettuce and other unique vegetables using hydroponic farming," she explains. Her honest-to-goodness approach is revealed when she explains that "all the systems were built and designed with the aid of YouTube, Google and research. Those who figured this upper St Andrew Jamaican was a victim of ennui and would soon, in between cups of tea and scones, add her own voice to the 'all that's wrong with Jamaica' chorus were in for a rude awakening!

Last June, the fledgling farm of living lettuce, cut herbs, Swiss chard, kale and cherry tomatoes won the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) IDEAS Energy Innovation Contest for Renewable Energy) competition. A grant that would, according to its recipient, "allow us to give farmers and the school in our community hydroponic farms".

There was, however, more to share. "We started building in October 2012 and I'm happy to say [we now] have 12,000 sq ft in the Jack's Hill community with a central packing house... we want to prove that we can work together and produce not only quality food for Jamaica but the export market, too. Our dinner from The Family Garden to the table, complete with a sweeping view of the city, commenced with cocktails courtesy of Lascelles and Wray & Nephew. Food Awards judges enjoyed Appleton Genesis Jamito, a refreshing blend of Genesis rum, orange juice, cranberry juice and The Family Garden Mojito mint.

This was followed at the table -- set family-style and designed by the team from SHINDIG -- a tasty kale of codfish bisque with a wonderful surprise at the bottom of our bowl: a burst of roast salt fish that took Food Awards judge Gregory Mayne back to Melrose bypass, where the tastiest roast yam and salt fish can be had.

The salad course provided another treat as each of us retrieved a pair of scissors tucked away elegantly in cases made of crocus (thanks for the help, Nevada) and from the elegant vases pulled the ingredients to create our own salads. This novel idea would certainly work at a dinner party allowing the host (Harper certainly made use of the moment) the perfect opportunity to speak to the joy of food harvested fresh from the land. Our salads comprised lettuce, cherry tomatoes, living herbs and nasturtiums. Elegant bottles of vinaigrettes came in three flavours: guava, sorrel and June plum, and Sandra McLeish, yet another farmer, spoke eloquently of her SpringVale product and of the idea borne from her property in Fruitvale, Portland, as judges added vinaigrette to their salad. McLeish explained how she had "supplied local coffee processors with coffee beans" but could not help noticing the absence on the supermarket shelves of locally made and produced salad dressings. She added, "I developed a keen interest in using the local fruits to create a new and Jamaican-inspired set of vinaigrettes."

The result -- sleek bottles of "fresh-sourced" produce (fruits, herbs and vegetables that have been recently harvested) -- was in our hands. The vinaigrettes, which are made at Bureau of Standards-approved production facilities in rural Jamaica and can also be used as marinades for meat and other protein dishes, is available at several supermarkets.

Wine consultant Marilyn Bennett introduced the evening's organic wine offerings courtesy of Lascelles and Wray & Nephew -- dinner was, after all, from The Family Garden -- The Naked Grape Pinot Grigio: light-bodied and crisp white wine with aromas of pear, lemon and honey.

Pinot Noir: Medium-bodied and rich smooth red wine with aromas of black cherry and blueberry.

Let's just say that a rip-roaringly good time was had, what with the altitude, wine and a competition ( we're still trying to figure out the question Bennett posed that prompted Gregory Mayne to strip, but not another word will pass my lips!)

The Observer Food Awards is 15 years old and the many who've been part of this journey will know just how close the students of UTech's Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management are to us. Indeed, not only do we have two scholarships listed by the university, but we look forward to the day when students who work with us at the event itself will accrue points towards their final degree.

Harper used the students as well as chefs/lecturers Simone Walker-Barrett and Yvonne Stewart. We're delighted to convey that they equipped themselves very well.

Culinary artist Oji Jaja of Ashebre handled the entrée: pan-seared snook fillet atop a yellow yam ragout, sautéed rainbow chard and grape tomatoes with a saffron cream sauce. The snook came to the table courtesy of FRESHmonger Gina May Mair of EatFRESH. Food For the Good Life.

The meal came to an end with white chocolate mousse with cherry tomato and rum compote and carrot cake created by the UTech team.


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