Blue skies and blue water today created an almost ridiculously ideal setting for James Beard Award-winner Gabrielle Hamilton
, chef and owner of New York’s Prune
and author of “Blood, Bones and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,”
to set up a makeshift kitchen with Rappahannock’s executive chef, Dylan Fultineer, at Merroir, the small restaurant on the Middle Peninsula that looks out over the oyster beds of the Rappahannock River.
Fire, Flour & Fork
promises each year to bring some of the country’s most notable chefs to town — and the event delivers. Hamilton, however, is a particularly spectacular guest to snag. “Blood, Bones and Butter” is the kind of memoir that resonated with readers when it was published in 2011. At times, it seems as if Hamilton is speaking directly to you, eloquently and with a sly humor that’s fatally endearing. It’s hard to get a table at her tiny restaurant in the East Village, but she has a cookbook — also named "Prune" — so that you can make a few of her deeply savory dishes at home if the wait gets to be too long.
Fultineer brought her the breadth of autumn’s Chesapeake Bay bounty — rockfish, speckled trout, soft shell crabs and Rappahannock oysters that disappeared as quickly as they were opened. A few things stood out — the whole rockfish, grilled over a wood fire, came to the table blanketed in leeks, lovage and fish peppers, along with big bowls of mounded braised greens sharp with vinegar that were hard to stop eating.
And a pale green puzzle arrived at the table, too: Hayman sweet potatoes. They tasted nothing like the cloying sweet potatoes that most people eat at Thanksgiving for the marshmallows on top. Instead, they had a soft, delicate flavor — gently nosing up the sweet factor without losing the savory. The Hayman is a heritage variety that originates on the Eastern Shore. And it turned out that the farmers who grow them were seated next to me. Bill and India Cox of Casselmonte Farm
explained that although the Hayman was popular in the 19th century, its more attractive, bright orange cousins eventually pushed them off American tables. Fortunately, chefs, dedicated fans and the famers who supply them have kept the variety going.
Susan Winiecki, co-organizer of Flour, Fire & Fork, says that Merroir’s exceptional setting was the lure that she and Fultineer used to entice Hamilton to Virginia. Instead of the large festivals to which she was accustomed — and a little weary of — the two devised a smaller, intimate meal outdoors for a couple dozen people who could have a moment to talk to the famous chef while she handed them a fried soft shell crab still sizzling from the big pot sitting on the grill behind her.
At one point, Hamilton turned to Fultineer. “Is this how it always is in November in Virginia?” she asked.
“Absolutely not,” said Fultineer.
Correction: Originally the title of this article mixed up the order of words in the event's name. It is Fire, Flour & Fork.