In potpies, this must be perfection

Posted: September 23, 2007

PRINCETON - The creation of the Griggstown Quail Farm's blue-ribbon chicken potpie is a painstaking, three-day affair involving (on Day One) the roasting of hundreds of pounds of the farm's larger, fresh-killed chickens, (Day Two) the roasting of big trays of vegetables, including cremini mushrooms, fennel and spicy parsnips, and (Day Three) the assembly, for which a house-made chicken stock and two types of dough - a pliant bottom crust and buttery puff pastry - have been made and reserved.

I guess if you've got three days, you could watch the whole deal. The morning I dropped by, the 60-quart stockpots were already simmering (fragrant with celery and cremini mushroom trimmings, heads of garlic and bay leaf, tomato and thyme). The prep crew was peeling snowy parsnips, one by one by one. And whacking a mound of fennel bulbs.

At the end of the process, the pies are frozen and boxed and you can pick one up (a one-pounder that, with a salad, feeds two for $9; a 31/4-pounder that feeds three or more for $17) at the market just outside the prep kitchen, or at weekly farm markets from Upper Makefield to Moorestown; West Philadelphia's Clark Park to the new Sunday market in the city's reactivated Head House shambles at Second and Lombard.

That's where, intrigued by the buzz in the aisles, I picked up my first one. Well, slap my face! These are not merely decent potpies. They are so at variance with the gloppy sad sacks that populate the genre - and even their newer-age updates - that one struggles adjectivally. (Gourmet is not quite right. It connotes a delicacy at odds with their robustness and parsnip bite, their crackling crust, and generous chunking of white and dark meat.)

It's three years since Griggstown's intense, young chef Matt Sytsema made the first batches with his mother's borrowed Cuisinart. (It burned out after three months.) Now they've got a cult following, and their own urban legend.

At a nearby Kingston, N.J., produce stand, the proprietor confided that the secret of the crust was lard. (Not true.) The pies themselves, he said, were developed by "a four-star chef" - another bit of truth-stretching. At 25, Sytsema is a serious-minded Culinary Institute of America grad, and veteran of an apprenticeship at the acclaimed Ryland Inn, but he still gets his hands dirty weeding the butternut squash and cheese-pumpkin patch outside the kitchen.

Still. The pies are indeed right off the farm. The chickens - housed apart from the signature quail and pheasant and heritage Red Bourbon turkeys - are clucking around the barn just days before, although the vegetables are bought on the conventional produce market.

And while one of my tasters wished for more gravy, the clear majority were as impressed as I was: One who'd sampled a starchy loser from Applegate Farms voted the Griggstown model the best bet for "an earthy, hearty [dinner] to have in front of the fire on a cold night."

Princeton, if you go by box labels, is home to another chicken pie-maker - Twin Hens - which also boasts no-antibiotics chicken (it's from Bell & Evans), no preservatives, and a filling of organic carrots, peas and onions.

But since its kitchen in Linden, N.J., burned more than a year ago, the pie-making has been done in a facility in Biddeford, Maine, that cranks out a whopping 10,000 a month (to Griggstown's 2,000) for Whole Foods and other upscale grocers across the country.

It's a cut above, for sure, but it lacks the intensity of flavor and quirky originality that are the hallmarks of the jumbos from Griggstown Farm.

Their blue-ribbon award? It comes from me.

For a chicken pie, finally, that lives up to the hype.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or Read his recent work at

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