Dancing Ewe Farm
For many years, the exquisiteness of their artisanal, small-batch sheep’s milk cheese was enough to capture the interest of Jody and Luisa Somers, the husband-and-wife duo who have run Dancing Ewe Farm in Granville for the past nine years. It’s not that the couple isn’t devoted to the creative process of making their famously creamy ricotta and four varieties of pecorino: They’re the first to admit their love of it, and all the arduous tasks that go with it, ranging from tending their 100 sheep to hauling product to area farmers’ markets in the pre-dawn hours on weekends.
However, it became clear that in addition to their love of cheese-making, something more was calling to them, and it had everything to do with the way life is lived in Luisa’s homeland, an ocean and a few time zones away in Italy.
“In Italy meals are occasions and not rushed,” Luisa explains. “We wanted to showcase that philosophy as well as our food so we began giving farm dinners, which replicate a rustic Tuscan dining experience that is very relaxed and family-style.”
While the couple’s ultimate aim is to showcase their line of small-batch cheeses and some of Luisa’s favorite family recipes, Jody says an evening of dining out at an unhurried pace as well as drinking in the rural beauty of the Washington County farm is also part of the experience.
“We start with the aperitivo, where people have the opportunity to visit with one another,” says Luisa, who was raised in southern Tuscany. “When Jody takes them on the farm tour, they visit some more. And when our guests come back to the tables where dinner is served, they are no longer strangers.”
Ironically, it was the hurried pace of the farmers’ markets that inspired the couple to begin doing farm dinners in 2013. “We always got a lot of questions as to how to use our cheeses, and at the markets, your hands are tied because you have no kitchen,” she recalls, adding that her love of cooking made it a natural evolution of their business.
Dinners begin at 6pm with appetizer trays of sliced sheep cheese and olive oil–drizzled crostini and conclude nearly four hours later with a ricotta-based dessert and deliriously satisfied customers filing out of the barn to their cars under the star-filled country sky.
Preparation for the Saturday dinners begins on Thursdays, with Luisa making dishes such as manicotti or lasagna ahead of time. Part of Fridays are spent transforming the barn’s elongated tables into elegant, well-dressed islands aglow with twinkling lights, tablecloths and vases filled with wildflowers. Jody and Luisa rise at 5:30 Saturday morning in preparation for farmers’ markets in Troy and Saratoga Springs. After a brief afternoon respite, it’s time to welcome the Saturday dinner visitors.
Clearly, it’s a team effort with Jody greeting arriving guests and later touring them around the farm while Luisa remains busy in the barn’s industrial-size kitchen, plating the night’s pasta dish.
Usually, the guests are too enthralled with the aromatic plates of appetizers to notice her working methodically behind the barn’s glass window.
The Somers’s most recent additions to their edible offerings are cured meats such as cacciatorini, cappocolo, bresaola, pancetta and salumi. Dancing Ewe’s meats are sold at farmers’ markets and served at the farm dinners. Prices for their cheeses and cured meats start at $22 per pound.
“We do the breaking down of the pigs into desired cuts or from selected cuts from other local producers and then we cure them at Dancing Ewe Farm,” Jody explains. “We use traditional Italian dry-curing techniques and recipes, specifically from Maremma, as every region has its own technique.
Originally, the couple had purchased from a company in Italy aging cellars and the computers that control the temperature, humidity and ventilation.
What sounded good on paper also meant having no adequate technical support in the States when a technical malfunction arose. “Now, we have Chris Callahan, a friend and engineer who works for University of Vermont, helping out. He literally dissected every part, relay switch, contactor and wire within the system. Now we can say we are finally getting to understand how this Italian system works. Thank God we found Chris, because we were ready to start from the top again.”
With the glitches behind them, the Somers are ready to kick salumi production into high gear this year. “‘Salumi’ is a different word than ‘salami’,” says Jody. “‘Salumi’ is a word that describes the whole lineup of Italian cured meats. ‘Salumi’ is the Italian word ... ‘charcuterie’ is the French word. ‘Salami’, on the other hand, comes in a million different sizes, shapes and flavor combinations.”
Lunch and Dinner, Maremma-Style
For those who prefer a day-trip to the country, Sunday lunch is now offered. The midday meal is the same menu as the Saturday dinner, minus the meat course. The dinners, sched- uled for most Saturday evenings May through early December, are priced at $75 for a four- course meal. The three-course Sunday afternoon meals are $55.
Luisa says the most popular dish is her family’s risotto recipe, and for dessert, the beloved panna cotta di ricotta, a light, creamy confection usually topped with fresh fruit in season. “The dessert recipe was given to us by one of our first customers in New York, the late Gina DePalma from Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo. Gina became our friend and was often called upon to help us out with different ideas and traditional recipes,” says Luisa.
Luisa also cites her family’s traditions as the inspirations for some of the dishes served at the farm dinners. “My grandmother’s gnocchi and my mother’s cannelloni are two of my favorites,” she says. “It’s also important to note, many dishes have several similar names or completely different names, depending on the region of Italy, but we really specialize in the piatti tipici from Maremma where I’m from. Some of these plates are made completely differ- ently as well, as in the case of the cannelloni. Of course, our ricotta is used, but the pasta part is made from a Tuscan-style crepe that I make the day before the cannelloni is assembled.”
And even though dishes such as Luisa’s family cannelloni hark back to her Maremma ancestry, Jody says they bear an undeniable local flavor as well. “Most, if not all, of the pasta we use is made on the farm using eggs from our chickens” he explains. “We go through more than 100 eggs per week.”
A Famiglia Affair
Jody’s mother, Joanne Krause, helps to run the farm, as do Carol Conklin and Rob Bailey. They handle day-to-day operations such as milking, rotationally grazing the 100 sheep in the spring and summer and caring for the sheep in the winter when Jody and Luisa visit Italy.
Their three months in Luisa’s hometown are spent working the land to produce their own line of olive oil and fruit jams. They also import a line of wines from the region. Along with cheeses and salumi, the olive oil and jams are sold at some area farmers’ markets as well as at the farm in Granville and via Dancing Ewe’s website. The Tuscan wines, available for order online, are served at the farm dinners.
“Currently, we have about 24 different wines, but because we are the sole importers of the wines, it makes it hard to carry a huge inventory because we have to purchase all the wines ahead of time and organize the shipping and federal label requirements; it’s not as easy as just calling up a local distributor to order more when inventory gets low,” said Luisa.
As the Somers gear up for the 2016 season, they anticipate the work ahead not with dread but with enthusiasm. “We love these dinners because most of the people have been supporting our efforts for years and it’s our way to show appreciation,” says Jody. “It’s like having 45 close friends for dinner. And that drives us to do the best job we can.”
To find out more, visit DancingEwe.com.