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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sheepish Dining

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: A trip to Washington County’s Dancing Ewe Farm for dinner rewards you with both figurative and literal tastes of Tuscany.


ALTHOUGH THERE’S GREAT APPEAL in the artwork of Florence’s narrow, crowded streets, the true spirit of Tuscany requires a farm. A flock of sheep dotting the hillside helps.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The twisty-road drive into Granville, east of Lake George, not far from the Vermont line, sets the scene for a visit. The farm—purchased 15 years ago by Jody Somers’ family—needs only terra cotta roofing to complete the look of an Italian hillside spread. Sheep dot the fields, grazing slowly; beside the large main barn are smaller buildings for the cheesemaking and an in-progress salumeria.

You’ve probably met Jody and his wife, Luisa, at the farmer’s markets in Troy and Saratoga Springs; they’re also in Rhinebeck and, until recently, Union Square. But they gave up the lucrative Manhattan market to have more time for the at-home events.

“We started doing the dinners last May,” says Luisa, whose lightly accented English reveals her true Tuscan roots. “The idea started when customers asked us what they should do with the ricotta we sold them, because we put it in one-pound baskets.” (It’s a sheep’s-milk ricotta that’s so rich and flavorful that Mario Batali became one of their customers.) “We wrote down recipes for them and put the recipes on our website, but we wanted to show them how versatile ricotta can be.”

She’s a native of Manciano, a Tuscany town almost midway between Florence and Rome. Jody spent time near there in 2002 after a sudden decision to learn the craft of making sheep’s-milk cheese. He found a program offered through the University of Pisa that landed him at La Parrina, a farm where Luisa was working. They became friends. But that’s all.

A year later, she called Jody for advice about putting together a trip to the United States. He invited her to his farm. That’s where the romance took off, a romance that you’ll swear gives an even happier color to the happy experience of visiting the farm and dining there.

Last year’s season of two dinners per month sold out quickly. More events have been added for this summer.

Jody Somers arranges apps.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Saturday dinners are four-course meals with a bottle of wine. A typical menu starts you with a selection of Dancing Ewe cheeses: pecorino stagionato, pecorino fresco and pecorino al tartufo, all made with sheep’s milk and then processed and aged accordingly. The capocollo and salame also are made in-house, and the recipe for crostino maremmano (chicken liver on toast) comes from Luisa’s family.

As does the olive oil used throughout. Her family’s farm has olive trees that were in danger of being neglected, so Luisa and Jody have taken over the extraction process to produce an excellent Tuscan oil.

Ricotta figured into the next course (as well as dessert): Cannelloni ai funghi e ricotta. In this case, the cannelloni isn’t pasta: it’s a crepe, a Manciano specialty called ciaffagnoni. Using a recipe learned from her mother, Luisa rolled the ciaffagnoni around a mixture of ricotta and mushrooms, and finished the delicate entrée with a besciamella (béchamel) sauce.

Farming always imposes a punishing schedule, and this one includes a herd of sheep that need twice-a-day milking, a cheesemaking operation to be monitored, the upkeep of an old property that presented some burst pipes last winter—and a son who is nearly 18 months old and has his own ideas about how things should be run.

If you don’t see Luisa at the market, it’s because she’s prepping a dinner, a meal she cooks in the small kitchen installed in a corner of the barn section that’s otherwise the banquet hall.

Up to 40 guests can be accommodated at a series of long tables, and it’s possible you’ll be sharing a bench with a stranger, united by your love of cheese and sense of adventure. “People come up from Manhattan for these dinners,” Luisa says, “but most are from Albany or Troy or Saratoga. People who see us at the markets. And their friends.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
As twilight eased over the hilltop and the little lights strung around the dining room took on more sparkle, another showcase for the pecorino fresco and capocollo emerged, borne to the tables by Jody and Luisa and the helpers they engage for these occasions.

Involtini di vitellone con capocollo is an Italian roulade, wrapping the cheese and processed meat with a thin slice of beef eye round, each little roll individually tied. The recipe for pisellini con pancetta, the side dish, came from Luisa’s grandmother, who sautéed peas with onion and garlic and carrot before adding pancetta and simmering the mix for an hour. And the pancetta, of course, was another of Dancing Ewe’s own meats.

“The only recipe that didn’t come from my family was the pannacotta,” Luisa confesses. “I’m always looking for new ways to use ricotta, and I asked Gina di Palma.” She’s the pastry chef at Mario Batali’s Babbo, and wrote the popular dessert book Dolce Italiano. “She suggested I try it in pannacotta. I’d never worked with gelatin this way before, but she coached me through it.” The result was a delightfully light end to a richly flavored meal, good fodder—conversationally as well—for the long drive home.

Other Dancing Ewe events include apericena—a three-course meal—and Sunday dinners. The next full dinners take place June 28 and July 12. For the July 26 dinner, the seating moves out under the stars. A full roster of events is updated on Dancing Ewe’s website.

Metroland Magazine, 26 June 2014

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