Beyond N.J. beaches, fertile fields serve up a bounty

Tuesday July 1, 2014, Fincas del Mar Farm one of a growing number of farms in West Cape May growing high end organic fruits and vegetables for the local farm to table restaurant market. Here, farm hands set stakes along the rows of tomatoes. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
Tuesday July 1, 2014, Fincas del Mar Farm one of a growing number of farms in West Cape May growing high end organic fruits and vegetables for the local farm to table restaurant market. Here, farm hands set stakes along the rows of tomatoes. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
Posted: July 13, 2014

WEST CAPE MAY - Chef Lucas Manteca is on his farm this weekday morning with a lot of catching up to do.

He has named this patch of 10 acres Fincas del Mar - farms of the sea - and that's what it is: unusually fertile soil, tucked in by ocean, the bay, and a canal, and tantalizingly close to the gourmet restaurants spawned by the Shore scene.

"I discovered this completely different world that nobody knows exists," he says. "It's like the Riviera, almost. Italy. I would say Mediterranean."

With long blond hair, flip-flops, striped board shorts, a strong cup of La Colombe coffee, and an appointment with the World Cup later in the day, this Argentine surfer-turned-chef at the Jersey Shore walks his land with a farm manager. There are lots of gestures, pests, and problems.

This is the practical side of a farm that, as he promises diners at his Red Store restaurant in Cape May Point, will help his menu tell a story. For instance, the "First Fincas sun gold tomato salad, rooted arugula, pickled baby cucumbers, grilled Spanish rock octopus" - an Octopus's garden, if you will.

"We are surrounded by water and wildlife," Manteca says. That environment acts as a muse for the menu, he adds; customers are "seeing these fields, how everything grows, the feeling of having the water that close, the humidity, the salt, the energy," which supplies Red Store and his Quahog restaurant in Stone Harbor.

The infusion of chef energy in West Cape May has refreshed and deepened the flavors of this obscure hamlet deep in the Cape May Peninsula. It's a place where wild turkeys cross roads lined by orange day lilies, where farmland once monopolized by commercial lima bean production - halted in 1995 when Hanover Foods moved operations to Guatemala - has begun to yield to a movement of curated, sustainable farming.

Manteca's farm, which also houses chickens and bees, took its place this spring near Beach Plum Farm, established in 2007 by Manteca's former boss, the estimable hip hotel magnate Curtis Bashaw of Congress Hall and Cape Resorts.

Up the road is Willow Creek Winery (and cheese, goat, and chicken farm, and soon to be wedding venue) and other ventures: a hay farm, an alpaca farm, and a horse farm, which sends a parade of Clydesdales twice daily to and from carriage duty in Cape May.

"If Cape May was the sibling that dressed up, West Cape May is the sibling that's always wearing flip flops," says Bashaw.

Bashaw bought his land in 2007, while Manteca was his executive chef at the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel. His guests use it as a bicycle destination - his restaurants so close, you want to picture the Berkshire pigs just walking down the road whenever an order of pulled pork shepherd's pie is ordered at the Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall.

It is this microclimate that has enthralled Willow Creek winemaker Kevin Celli. The mix of sand and soil helps drainage, he says. Cross winds from the bay and ocean help keep leaves dry on the vines. The reflection off the water intensifies photosynthesis.

He says the climate echoes the great wine regions of Bordeaux, France, and Piedmont, Italy.

"Malvasia Bianca, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, those grapes love our microclimate," says Celli. "They have no idea they're in New Jersey. They believe they're in France."

The West Cape May scene has even caught the interest of heavy hitters elsewhere at the Shore, such as Cookie Till of Margate's Steve & Cookie.

"You don't want to exploit it," Till said, "but it's definitely untapped.

"I never even knew," she added, "that West Cape May existed."

Last Tuesday, Leslie Rea, 79, sat at his table at the West Cape May farmer's market. A cherry tomato's throw away was Fincas Del Mar's stand, with recent Temple grad Shayla Groven crossing off a blackboard list of vegetables as they sold out.

The farmers' market scene in West Cape May is busy, indicative of its growing outpost hipness. Empanada Mama's beet-garlic-hummus special could stand up against any Philly Food Truck slinging pork belly taco.

The Reas have no blackboard, but their giant zucchinis went in a heartbeat. They also bake bread and pies and can pickles and jams.

The idea of a new farming movement does not impress them. Like Beach Plum and Fincas, they also do not spray chemicals, ever since Les got sick from them.

They are not romantic about the place once known as the lima bean capital of the world.

In the early 1900s, when Les' grandfather George came to homestead, the Rea family farmed 1,200 acres of lima beans, though they owned little of the land outright. After production was shifted to Guatemala, most of the land was sold off.

For the Reas, these new fancy farms represent competition they'd rather not see. Rea and wife Diane still work the farm themselves and have seen their ability to make a living dwindle. They sold development rights to become a preserved farm - but, to be honest, wouldn't mind more customers.

"The ground grows good stuff," Rea says. "It goes like this: We need more buyers."

For now, at least, West Cape May sits apart from its overdeveloped Jersey Shore surroundings, impervious, its long-standing farming heritage still exerting a tidal pull. Before lima beans, the farms were diversified and supplied the old hotels.

The Willow Creek Winery is on land owned by Barbara Wilde, whose original plan of $20 million homes yielded to a winery inspired by her days near Napa. It has a building for weddings, now that the state approved weddings on preserved farmland.

Bashaw talks of building a house for himself on his land.

Tom Rossi, who owns the land of Fincas del Mar and has partnered with Manteca and farm manager Jaime Alvarez adds his own: "It's a beautiful piece of land. You get out there and feel like you're in heaven."



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