A wine-country music series grows with homespun goodness.
You know it’s high time for a picnic when farm stands are heaped with an inspiring abundance of the season’s best, and backyard vegetable patches are fit to burst. Especially when your plans for a warm summer’s evening involve lounging on the grass with some good friends, listening to country music.
Every August, in a big field surrounded by vines at Castello di Borghese Winery and Vineyards in Cutchogue, Hugh Prestwood & Friends play a series of concerts as part of the BNY Mellon Wealth Management—sponsored East End Arts Council Wine Press concert. Prestwood, who is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, is a local guy; he lives in Greenport. So that, and the fact that he brings musician buddies up from Nashville to play, makes this concert a star on the local calendar.
And, every year, with no food concessions on-site, the picnics multiply and get more ambitious.
“This is just a picture-perfect evening,” says winery owner Ann Marie Borghese, surveying the scene, as the music starts and people spread blankets and set out wine and food. “It’s always such a delight to host [this concert], and it’s wonderful how picnics have become part of the tradition.”
This year, the picnics took on a decidedly local flavor, and just about stole the show.
There, in the center of a large group of people off to the right of the stage, was a huge, colorful, multi-dish spread that should have won some kind of prize.
“Everyone pitched in,” says John Kennedy, a private chef from Southampton, serving his family and friends. A handmade pizza crust was piled with grilled summer squash, onions and peppers. Sesame-seed hoisin sauce soaked cubes of pork tenderloin. The blueberries on a tart came from someone’s garden and the corn salad with wild arugula was “to die for.”
“The tomatoes were grown in our backyard in Greenport,” says Kelly Reardon. “Actually, my husband grows them. He’s very picky about his tomatoes.”
This is an important debate out here on the East End: whether to grow your own tomatoes or not. They’re so cheap at the roadside if you know where to look, if not actually free from your neighbors. But your very own sun-warmed backyard love apples can’t be beat.
However, not everyone grows veggies or farm-stand hops, or has the urge to whip up amazing fare. One older couple at the concert made do with Lay’s potato chips (sorry, Marty Sidor) and a supermarket crudités platter, complete with lathed carrots. No points there for creativity, but you can’t beat it for convenience.
Yet convenient and creative can coexist, with a little artistic imagination. The Baiting Hollow Congregational Church chicken barbecue to-go box makes the best picnic ever, according to artist Max Moran and his wife, Joy O’Shaughnessy. It seems this is not a big secret.
“It was all sold out!” Moran says. “We had to get scalped tickets.”
They bought four chicken dinners to go, for themselves and guests from Ohio. Settling in, they opened their Styrofoam boxes to reveal nicely greasy, herb-crusted joints of bird, coleslaw, corn and baked beans. A little bite proved it was indeed very tasty, with that special texture and flavor that only churches and fire departments seem to achieve. Plastic cutlery and little wet-nap packets completed the service.
Off to the left, under the tent, another group of mainly artists sat enjoying an amazing picnic. Nancy Muller and Don
Stewart, and Ellen and Allan Wexler and their friends went allout to create a local repast, with Krupski corn, husks blackened on the grill and the kernels inside bathed in herbs and butter, alongside Farmer Mike’s basil pesto pasta and a caprese made with heirloom tomatoes from Sang Lee. Wickham’s Fruit Farm fruit compote topped a cake.
“We don’t have a signature dish,” says Muller. “We just make it up as we go. It’s something different every time.”
The fried chicken, with its thick, crispy coating, came from the Salamander Café in Greenport. Even the pretty little bunch of hydrangea had been denizens of a nearby backyard. But the star of this particular spread was the “East End BLT” made with ciabatta bread from the Blue Duck Bakery in Southold, Harbes Farm tomatoes and goat cheese from Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic.
“Actually, we just took the best the North Fork had to offer and it turned out to be a sandwich!” says Alan Kahn, who lives in Cutchogue with his wife, Evvie. Their daughter, Cassidy, who did a stint at the Med restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, gets much of the credit for creating the sandwich, Kahn says.
“It’s a father/daughter effort,” he says, winking at Cassidy.
It seems that picnicking is the quintessential expression of us at our best—as creative, giving, cooperative and social creatures. Not so hard when the weather is warm and food is abundant.
Yet perhaps the most elegant picnic was defined by its minimalism and the sheer work it took to procure: the raw clams that Sue and Ned Micelli from Cutchogue wrested from the rocky bottom of the Peconic Bay a few hours before the concert.
“We just love clams,” Sue Micelli says, washing one down with a sip of chilled Castello di Borghese sauvignon blanc. “This is all we need.”
Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home in Greenport.