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Elegant dinners bloom in West Cape May as Beach Plum Farm grows to full potential

Besides its bucolic special-occasion dinners, this 12-year-old dream project produces 20,000 pounds of vegetables, 2,800 chickens, 230 pigs, and 500 turkeys for five restaurants.

Dessert is about to be served to guests as they experience the Farm To Fin dinner at Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May, N.J. on June 28, 2019.
Dessert is about to be served to guests as they experience the Farm To Fin dinner at Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May, N.J. on June 28, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The chickens strutted with a bold swagger past the chefs at the fire pit and pecked their way into the garden along with the guests at Beach Plum Farm just as the butlered hors d’oeuvres got underway. Had it been the Wednesday night farm-to-table dinner or the casual Sunday BBQ, I doubt this flock of gray-feathered Ameraucanas would have been so smug.

They would have been on the menu.

But this was Friday night, Beach Plum’s weekly summer “Farm, Fire and Fin” meal, an homage to the fact that this destination dream farm in West Cape May also sits just a few miles off the sea. And so while the hungry crowd eagerly devoured the glorious chicken eggs that had been deviled into irresistible nibbles, their vivid yellow yolks smoked into creamy stuffings topped with bacon jam made from the farm’s heritage pigs, this meal was anchored by gems of the local seafood industry.

Sweet Amalia oysters, meticulously cultivated by Lisa Calvo in the bay off Cape May Court House, were roasted oh-so-briefly over the crackling wood logs, their crunchy bread crumbs soaked in herb butter. I ate half a dozen, then half a dozen more raw on the half-shell, splashed with a tart mignonette filled with smoky minced nubs of roasted kohlrabi.

Huge sweet sea scallops, sourced from the Gold Digger, a boat that docks at the nearby Lobster House, were seared in thyme butter and lemon over a cast-iron griddle. They were then sent on large platters to a long farm table set with linens, sunflowers, and glowing string lights, where two dozen strangers chatted, shared BYOB wines and craft beers, and settled in for a lovely five-course dinner illuminated by a parade of the farm’s freshest produce: more kohlrabi (whipped into a smoky hummus); charred green onions; edible borage blossoms and nasturtiums, picked yards away just before service, that fluttered down like a flower show over the plates.

Beach Plum was founded in 2007 by Cape Resorts developer Curtis Bashaw with the goal of raising high-quality produce and heritage meats for the larders of his hotels and restaurants, including the Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall and the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel in Cape May.

“I was this idealistic hotelier who said, ‘Let’s just grow food for our restaurants!’ ” he said. “But then you quickly realize it requires a lot of knowledge to raise good blackberries and asparagus. The first years were bumpy, and the chefs wanted to order more consistent stuff from Baldor. But now we’ve found our rhythm.”

Beach Plum’s 19 acres of farmland and 15 acres for grazing livestock now produce enough in season — 20,000 pounds of vegetables, 2,800 chickens, 230 pigs, and 500 turkeys — to help feed 1,000 people a day at Cape Resorts’ five restaurants, according to farm manager Christina Albert.

The farm itself has only come into its own as an eating destination in the last couple of years, with the 2016 construction of a kitchen for the farm’s market building, which initially focused on breakfasts and lunches. But with its dinner events now entering their second year, Beach Plum has fast become one of the Shore’s most unique dining experiences. There are three distinct evening events covering a range of ambitions, from the casual Sunday BBQs with à la carte plates ranging from $12 to $26, to the $112 four-course Wednesday farm-to-table meals focused solely on farm-grown ingredients, to the Friday “Fin” feasts for $124 (including gratuity and tax) supplemented by local seafood.

They are a splurge by any measure, but the bucolic setting is extraordinary and the evenings are unique. That’s true even as these meals, driven by the spontaneous whims of the farm, are still being fine-tuned. The young cooks led by executive chef Josh Liwoch struggled to master this year’s new fire pit — as well as the rain-moistened logs that stubbornly smoldered as the crew tried to stoke them hotter.

The food, however, did not suffer. Shredded kale topped with feta and the season’s final strawberries was brightened with a dusky fresh oregano vinaigrette. Chilled beet soup, already sweet and earthy, was streaked with smoked yogurt. A hearty bulgur wheat salad was greened with fistfuls of fresh herbs. Slow-roasted pork from Beach Plum’s Berkshire hogs was rubbed with a tangy Mexican-inspired blend of farm-smoked chipotle peppers. And freshly dug new potatoes cooked directly over the coals were served with rosemary and Pecorino cheese beneath a mountain of shaved summer truffles.

“If only my neighbors would share,” I thought, watching anxiously as the barefoot woman wearing a hand-twisted crown of flowers beside me made everyone pause for a giant table selfie, then, along with her date, greedily scraped huge portions onto their plates before passing the platters on.

“Anyone want some Sriracha?” her date offered to the suddenly quiet crowd as he dumped the couple’s personal stash of hot sauce packets onto the table and proceeded to drown their meals in spice.

So much for the subtlety of seasonal farm freshness. But with the family-style seating, dinner companions are as unpredictable and wide-ranging as the capricious micro-seasons that guide Beach Plum’s produce, from Zephyr squash to Atomic Grape tomatoes.

“I think I just saw Tina Fey,” gulped my son, who returned wide-eyed from a midcourse stroll to the farm market building where, in fact, the SNL pride of Upper Darby was hanging with her children and visiting Bashaw for cocktails at one of the farm’s new cottages.

“Tina literally almost came to dinner, but they changed their minds,” Bashaw later told me, noting the farm’s secluded nature has become a draw for celebrities. “Oprah stayed there already.”

At $5,000 a week in season (or $800-plus a night), those cottages aren’t for the faint of wallet. And neither are the pricey dinners, though thankfully there were plenty more scallops to come once my neighbors were done. And there is an undeniable magic to eating just a few yards from where the food is harvested.

Turning a working farm into a dining destination is not a new idea, but it’s still rare enough because of the considerable financial resources required to create such a self-sustainable ecosystem. Beach Plum’s program has a ways to go before it can match the luxurious rustic elegance of Blackberry Farms in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, where I ate one of my most memorable farm dinners ever. Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., is the nation’s gold standard for the self-sustainable farm-restaurant. But it benefits from the Rockefeller wealth of its owners, and currently charges $278 for its fixed-price restaurant menu.

By contrast, Beach Plum is a relatively fair deal, even in its infancy as a concept. Bashaw was first inspired to buy the 67 acres of long-fallow farmland after a trip to Mount Vernon piqued his interest in the historic possibilities of an extensive kitchen garden. Childhood memories of visits with his father to custard stands attached to several farms in Cherry Hill, now long demolished to make way for strip malls, fueled a nostalgic impulse to reinvest in South Jersey’s endangered farming legacy.

The additional realization that one of Congress Hall’s previous owners, Henry Miller, had also owned a farm that fed the historic hotel in the 1850s sealed Bashaw’s mission to repeat history and push it forward, despite some early challenges.

“We planted 5,000 crowns of asparagus the first year and I was so excited — and then, overnight, all these beetles came and covered the whole patch,” he said. “It taught us to respect those farmers of old, before the commercialization of farms, when they were experts in multiple crops.”

As the project has matured over the last dozen years, the investment has been considerable: “It’s absolutely cost me more than I dreamed it would be. But it’s equalized by the value and delight it gives our [hotel] guests. It reaffirms for me that people really are deeply curious about where their food comes from, and we’re helping to satisfy that curiosity.”

Bashaw, who loves to ride along the back of the tractor planting, cherishes the cold days in the green house “where the oxygen is so cleansing and you feel the hint of spring before it’s warm.”

Those experiences, along with raising animals for meat, have instilled in him powerful spiritual lessons.

“You can’t separate death and birth when you live on a farm,” he said. “You’re really connected to the rhythms of life. And there’s an accountability when you participate in the whole cycle of a food system.”

Bashaw can’t say how much further Beach Plum’s food system will grow, though he recently purchased an additional 80 acres in Goshen, about 20 minutes north. Albert, who already oversees 100 different crops with almost exclusively organic practices, would love to see Beach Plum become a “full diet” farm, producing grain and dairy as well: “It’s a vision!”

For the moment, as the dusk settled over our dinner table, the fire pit turned to glowing cinders and we became eager for dessert, which arrived in heaping platters of just-picked blackberries and strawberries mounded beside clouds of fresh whipped cream covered with garden mint. As I dived into that bounty of sweet summer fruit, then passed it along to other happily sated strangers at my table, it was clear Beach Plum has already begun to fill a vision that was rare and beautiful, indeed.