Merriman showcases Big Island farmers
Great chefs always have great creations simmering on the burner. One of Peter Merriman's most tantalizing offerings, however, was cooked up outside the kitchen.
If you go ...
What: Merriman's Farm Visits and Dinner
Meet at: Merriman's Restaurant, 65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea, Big Island
Offered: 2:15 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays
Cost: Four-course gourmet dinner: $135 per person
Call: 331-8505 on the Big Island or toll-free 800-464-1993 from neighbor islands
Web site: www.hawaii-forest.com
Notes: Participants must be at least 8 years old. The tour is limited to 20 people (10 per van). Guests should wear closed-toe walking shoes and bring a light jacket. Although the walks at each stop are short and easy, participants should be able to walk over uneven terrain.
"I've been really blessed to be able to get to know the farmers and ranchers in Hawaii," says Merriman, the operating partner of Hula Grill Maui, and owner and operator of Merriman's Restaurant and Merriman's Market Cafe on the Big Island. "They're smart, hard-working, humble people who contribute a lot to society. Whenever I visited them, I would come away with the same thought: If other people could see what these remarkable folks are doing, they would love it! I'm so fortunate to spend time with them; how can I share the experience with the public and also make it beneficial for the farmers and ranchers?"
A pioneer of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Merriman mulled over the idea of launching a Big Island farm tour. Too busy to organize it himself, he made the leap a few years ago and hired a full-time employee to pull it together. Merriman's Farm Visits and Dinner debuted in January 2005 through a partnership with Hawaii AgVentures, a program conceived by the Big Island Farm Bureau to develop and promote "agtourism," visits to farms representing a wide range of crops, backgrounds and geographical areas.
From corn, cucumbers and onions to lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries, virtually all of the produce used by Merriman's Restaurant is grown on the Big Island. Most of the chef's suppliers are located in secluded spots tucked in hillsides or at the end of roads off the beaten path. The tour gives visitors a way to see them.
"To me, one of Hawaii's really interesting and inspiring subcultures is its agricultural community," says Merriman. "When farmers share their story with visitors, it enriches their lives and strengthens the movement to perpetuate Hawaii's agricultural lifestyle."
Many long-term relationships, Merriman says, could be generated from farm tours. Farmers who sell products on the Internet find a new base of customers who continue to purchase goods long after they've left Hawaii. Meanwhile, visitors appreciate the opportunity to meet the entrepreneurs who grow the quality food they enjoy during their Big Island stay.
"Connecting with the food sources enhances their vacation experience," Merriman says. "Many participants tell us they intend to come back and do the tour again."
COURTESY OF HAWAII FOREST AND TRAIL
Travelers curious about where their Big Island meals come from get an eye-opening experience through Merriman's Farm Visits and Dinner. Above, visitors walk through Honopua Farms, where foods are raised organically.
HAWAII FOREST & Trail, the Big Island's biggest outfitter, recently began handling marketing and reservations for Merriman's Farm Visits and Dinner. The five-hour guided tour includes stops at Kahua Ranch, a working cattle and lamb ranch, and Honopua Farm, where organic vegetables and flowers are raised.
The finale is a gourmet four-course meal at Merriman's Restaurant, prepared from fresh products from those and other Big Island farms. Menus are subject to availability of ingredients; the current one features Honopua Farm Spinach and Roasted Beet Salad with a Pear Vinegar and Ginger Dressing; Grilled Fresh Big Island Mahimahi in a Lemon and Sorrel Pesto Baste, served with Jasmine Rice and Nakano Farms Vine-Ripened Tomato and Olive Salsa; Braised Kahua Ranch Lamb accompanied by Hamakua Alii Oyster Mushroom Pasta and a Sweet Onion and Parsley Salad; and Long Ears Coffee Cheesecake.
At Kahua Ranch you'll get a glimpse of everyday life through the eyes of a paniolo (cowboy). Founded in 1928, it sprawls over 8,500 acres on the western slope of the Kohala Mountains, a lush, cool 3,000 feet above sea level. In addition to taking in the stunning coastal views, you'll learn about the ranch's efforts to raise lambs organically and how often it must rotate its 2,000 head of cattle into different pastures for grazing. The cattle carry Angus, Charolais and Wagyu bloodlines - the latter known commercially as Kobe beef, the prized well-marbled Japanese delicacy that costs $100 a pound.
COURTESY OF HAWAII FOREST AND TRAIL
The tour finale is a gourmet meal incorporating produce from farms visited, but it isn't only edibles that are raised. Fields of lavender, above, contribute to a market for soothing bath and body and home products.
From there you'll head to Honopua Farm, home of renowned lei maker Marie McDonald, who was named a native Hawaiian "living treasure" by the Smithsonian Institution. Nearly 30 years ago, she and her family transformed 10 acres of overgrown Hawaiian homelands into an oasis of asparagus, spinach, chard, kale, lettuce, parsley, lavender, protea, wauke (paper mulberry) and more.
You'll pick, sniff and taste crops as you stroll through the grounds with McDonald's daughter, Roen, and her husband, Ken Hufford. Their innovative organic growing methods include using ground coral as fertilizer. Honopua's blue-ribbon vegetables, cut flowers, bouquets and lavender essential oils and teas can be purchased at the end of the tour.
"Because the farmers are so passionate about what they are doing, I've had a number of participants tell me that they need to change their lives or find another job that they like doing," says Stacy Davis, project coordinator of Hawaii AgVentures, "The farmers are pursuing something they are passionate about and find very fulfilling, and they inspire people with the idea that the daily grind of a job you hate isn't what life is all about."
She recalls an engineer from the San Francisco Bay area who had never harvested a fresh vegetable in his life.
"He was truly amazed," she says. "He enjoyed his visit to Honopua Farm so much he wanted to come back and work there for free."
COURTESY OF HAWAII FOREST AND TRAIL
Some big-city visitors never get this close to the land. One San Francisco resident was so enamored of the farming life that he wants to come back and work for free.
DAVIS BELIEVES agtourism is an effective way to preserve the Big Island's beautiful rural landscape.
"Buying from local farms keeps land in agriculture production and ensures that future generations will enjoy seeing green open space, barns and livestock," she says. "It's a great way for agriculture and tourism - two major sectors of Hawaii's economy - to unite with respect given to the communities that surround the farms.
"I believe agtourism can be developed in a tactful manner that is sensitive to those who oppose it because they wish to maintain their privacy."
As Merriman's Farm Visits and Dinner gains in popularity, Davis envisions developing itineraries spotlighting other farms, which are producing products such as honey, vanilla and fruits.
"No other tour on the Big Island offers visitors a chance to visit the farms that support Hawaii Regional Cuisine followed by a meal that showcases the farmers' labors of love," she says. "It's a wonderful option for those who want to see more of the Big Island than just the ocean and beaches, and for kamaaina and repeat visitors who think they know about everything the island has to offer."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.