Another production year in the fields is winding down at Claverach Farm, but there’s a lot to look forward to in 2014 and beyond. For many years, Claverach Farm has had a presence at area farmers markets and as a produce supplier to a few of St. Louis’ popular restaurants, including Sidney Street Cafe, Stellina, Oceano Bistro and Farmhaus, just to name a few. But in more recent years, operations on the Eureka farm have grown and expanded, with great promise for the future.
The farm’s beginnings take us back to Clayton, where John Boland, the great-grandfather of current Claverach Farm co-proprietor and farmer Sam Hilmer, was raised on the original Claverach Farm (now Claverach Park and home to a good number of Claytonians). According to Hilmer, Boland purchased the current property in Eureka in the 1890s and named it Boland Farm.
Fast-forward about a century when Hilmer returned from Tulane University with a degree in anthropology. “I was not formally trained in agriculture,” Hilmer notes. “But my study of anthropology really piqued my interest in food production in the sense that it looks at the different cultures and civilizations around the world, and part of that is eating. I realized that I always loved to grow things, as we always had a garden here at the farm.” However, by the 1990s, the property was no longer a working farm—but that didn’t stop Hilmer. “I started to grow different vegetables, and one thing led to another,” he recalls. “I just thought, Wow! I could make a living growing food!, because a small garden grew into a larger garden, and that garden grew into a farm over a three- to four-year period in the late 1990s.”
Deciding on the name for the new operation wasn’t difficult. “The name Claverach Farm was certainly a nod toward our ancestry,” Hilmer explains, pointing out that ‘Claverach’ in Welsh means ‘clover field.’ “Clover is a plant that naturally grows here on the property, and because it’s a legume and will take nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, we use it as a cover crop to enhance the fertility of the soil.”
Then, something really exciting happened: Hilmer hit the streets and started knocking on the doors of area chefs. “I explained to them what I was doing, and at the time, the concept of farm-to-table really wasn't much of a big thing yet,” he says. “But I did find a few supportive chefs out there.”
Next, Hilmer, along with co-owner Joanna Duley, who oversees the greenhouse operations, began looking for a way to actually serve the crops of Claverach Farm on-site. The solution: Restore the 100-year-old barn that Hilmer played in as a child as a space to offer ‘Sunday Suppers at Claverach Farm.’ “In the spring of 2011, we brought in a series of chefs, whom we had worked with in the past, to get the ball rolling.” And the following year, Hilmer and Duley took over the food preparation for the Sunday Suppers. “Joanna had worked in restaurants for about 15 years, so she had a lot of experience in restaurants and catering,” Hilmer recalls. “For me, when it comes to growing and cooking food, I am very passionate and have learned as I've gone along. So, we are basically two farmers who are very passionate about putting delicious food on plates!”
Sunday Suppers at Claverach Farm run seasonally from March through December, with one remaining 2013 event in its Solstice Supper on Dec. 22. Of course, what is served for dinner is seasonal, with crops that include potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, greens, cucumbers, squash and herbs, as well as some more unusual crops like 'Chicago Hardy' fig, 'marina di chioggia' squash, 'lacinato' tuscan kale and wild arugula. “Sometimes, we don’t decide on our menu until two or three days before, because we want to serve what is growing fresh in the field at that moment,” Hilmer says.
Other aspects of the Sunday Suppers include communal tables with seating for about 80, family-style service and live music.
Along with the farm-to-table fare served at the Sunday Suppers, Claverach Farm wines are gaining recognition. Hilmer clearly has put a lot of thought into the grapes that he grows and the wines that result. “It's unusual because it's almost like a nano-scale experiment in wine production, and we only keep what is delicious. The rest goes to our vinegar and saba (grape syrup) production.” Hilmer adds he is trying alternative farming methods to enhance the flavors of the grapes while utilizing an ideal soil for the vines. “Typically, 500 to 600 vines are planted per acre in Missouri,” he notes. We’re planting 2,500 to 3,000 vines per acre, and we’re finding that we get less fruit per vine but a much more concentrated flavor.”
At the moment, Claverach Farm’s wine is only served from kegs at its Sunday Suppers, going back to a traditional European-style of service. “When traveling in Europe and going to little taverns and pubs in little towns and villages, they have their local wines in kegs and in barrels sitting right on their bar tops, and that’s how they serve wine,” Hilmer says. “So, it’s not a new idea.”
Overseeing the fields at Claverach Farm is a passion for Hilmer, but that passion certainly doesn’t end there. “I love having the ability to go out to the field and pick something that's at its absolute, most perfect expression,” he explains. “But then to prepare it with respect, put it on a plate and then to see peoples’ reactions—because a lot of people have never really experienced something like that before—that's what keeps me motivated.”
In 2014, Claverach Farm will continue to grow with plans to add even more Sunday Supper dates to its calendar. To be added to its distribution list, contact the farm at firstname.lastname@example.org.