AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Sourcing local ingredients is a hot culinary trend, not just here on Amelia Island, Florida but across America. Discerning chefs are purchasing produce and meats from local and regional farms, or seafood fresh from the docks, when feasible. More and more, innovative chefs are growing some vegetables and herbs in their own gardens, whether on urban brownstone rooftops or suburbia restaurant backyards.
On Amelia Island (and neighboring Cumberland Island, Georgia), there are chefs planning menus around seasonal, local garden bounty.
For the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton’s Executive Chef Thomas Tolxdorf, having a personal relationship with growers is essential. “Farm to Table” is a philosophy that Chef Thomas has ingrained into his culinary team, “we visit farms first hand to see how they grow their produce and discuss future trends.” Freshness, quality, regionally grown, and seasonally correct are words the chefs live by every day. It’s no small task given the amount of fruits, vegetables, meats and fish the Ritz chefs order weekly for the luxury resort located on Amelia Island’s Atlantic oceanfront at Summer Beach.
The Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton just hosted farmers at a special dining celebration, “Meet The Farmers.” It was an evening to mingle with farmers, seafood purveyors, and chefs. Those attending sampled shrimp and other local seafood, farm-fresh vegetables, regional meats, honey, house made charcuterie and more.
In the Fernandina historic district, 29 South is one local restaurant with a chef’s garden on the property behind the restaurant. On secluded Cumberland Island, the lone provider of lodging, the Greyfield Inn, cultivates the Greyfield garden and utilizes organic composting.
FARMERS MARKETS, SUSTAINABILITY & COMMUNITY-SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE
The Fernandina Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm outside on North 7th Street (entry at corner of Centre Street), is a microcosm of what’s happening in communities nationwide. This local Farmers Market has become a social hub to buy fresh regional goods, mingle with neighbors, and enjoy a morning out in the heart of the island, Fernandina’s historic downtown district. Chefs from the Ritz-Carlton have been on the Fernandina Farmers Market scene on occasion, offering their expertise and recipe demonstrations.
BUYING DIRECTLY FROM LOCAL FARMERS – CSAs
Another food trend is participating in the local farm harvest via a CSA (community supported agriculture). Those not familiar with Nassau County may not know that the county is considered one of Florida’s “rural” counties. For example, Nassau County (which includes Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Callahan and Hilliard), has farms and at least two offer a CSA program. Participants get their shares (usually a box of vegetables) direct from the farms weekly. Conner’s A-Maize-ing Acres in Hilliard (Elco Farms CSA) offer limited shares. For example, their 2011 CSA program (began in March), was $450 for a full share, a 20 week season. Another local farm offering CSA program is Cabbage Creek Farm, also of Hilliard.
In the past decade, the number of farms offering CSA memberships or shares has exploded around the country. Both Cabbage Creek and Conner’s frequent the Fernandina Farmers Market, as well as another Nassau County farmer, DelKat Family Farm of Hilliard, known for their all natural beef and pork.
LOOKING BACK & FORWARD, LOCAL OYSTER HARVESTING
Thousands of years ago, native Timucuan Indians picked the location of settlements based on life’s sustenance. They lived off the land and the sea, and here on Amelia Island, a major staple of Indian life was raw oysters. Archaeological digs on this barrier island reveal Indian oyster shell middens, the discards of these former island dwellers. Situated high on a bluff overlooking the Amelia River, one of the areas occupied by the Timucuan is now called “Old Town Fernandina.”
Oyster shells were also used in early building techniques. Tabby walls can still be seen in Fernandina’s Bosque Bello cemetery, located adjacent to Old Town, dating back to Spanish occupation of the island.
Nassau County, Florida’s history included oyster canning and shipping.“Fernandina is a good location, for the oysters are plentiful, the territory large, and the shipping facilities particularly good,” according to a book published in 1890, “The Secrets of Canning” by Earnest Schwabb (a practical guide for the canning business).
WILL OYSTER HARVESTING EVER REOPEN AROUND AMELIA ISLAND?
Not just a resort island, in this working town, it’s no secret that Fernandina has two paper mills and another large St. Marys mill was operating nearby in southeast Georgia (but has since closed). Along with the tourism industry, the mills supply many area jobs. Many decades ago when environmental regulations were more lax, the mills were a factor in degrading river water quality. There’s been a moratorium on oyster harvesting in the Amelia River Basin since 1984. We’ve heard, however, that water quality tests indicate a healing river. Another issue, at times, can be septic system leakage during storms/flooding.
However, one knowledgeable local mariner thinks it’s possible that delicious oysters will once again be harvested around Amelia Island. And at least one local official has been in contact with the Division of Aquaculture this past year, in pursuit of legalizing oyster harvesting here in Nassau County, Florida, as reported in the News-Leader.
Maybe one day again, locals and visitors will be eating not only the wild-caught shrimp that Fernandina’s famous for (as birthplace of the modern shrimping industry in America), but oysters, too.