Florida farm an organic gourmand's delight
CITRA, Fla. - The most "boaring" day of my life? That's easy: the afternoon I spent at Rosas Farms feasting on a wild boar extravaganza created by chef Al Rosas. We were served larb, a Laotian/Thai dish made with ground meat, mint, cilantro, lime, and hot peppers; South American pupusas, or stuffed pancakes; and mofongo, a version from Colombia, Rosas's heritage, with fried pork and yucca instead of the usual plantains. We topped many dishes with his aji, a piquant red sauce found on tables across South America.
This was my second time dining at Rosas Farms, just north of Ocala in central Florida, and I had learned the hard way to pace myself. The first time I ate a five-course meal here I had no room for dessert. I didn't repeat that mistake and was able to enjoy the boiled backyard pears served with a sharp cheddar cheese.
"Chef Al," 45, and Erin Rosas, 44, his wife and business partner, have owned this 100-acre spread, a former thoroughbred horse farm that had been in Erin's family, since 1989. Over the years the couple has turned the business into an all-organic livestock farm, as well as a tourist and corporate retreat.
Visitors can sign up for a gourmet meal or an overnight farm stay or a full gourmet weekend. The lodging is on a peaceful corner of farm property across a field and over the hill from the Rosases' home. As many as eight guests can stay in the four-bedroom double-wide trailer remarkably made over into a luxury getaway with reclaimed wood furniture, organic sheets, bamboo towels, wrought-iron beds, and state-of-the-art electronics.
The couple met in their home state of Wisconsin in 1985, when Erin took a job as a waitress where Al was the chef. "I gained 40 pounds the first year we dated," she said with a laugh. They left the farm in 1993, when Al worked as a traveling corporate food and beverage director.
"When we came back in 1996, I said I'm never leaving again," recalled Erin. The couple lives in a casual, well-appointed ranch home atop a hill just off Highway 301.
Farm field trips are just out the back door, where 600 laying chickens roam the property. Farther out in fenced fields are bison and cows, while the boar keep nice and muddy in their pens.
"We buy them from a trapper who traps boars that are displaced by development," Erin said. In high season "we sell three to four a week, so we also breed them."
While some meat and eggs are sold through their farm store that fronts the highway, much more is shipped to restaurants in Florida and beyond.
The couple has won numerous awards, including Florida Trend magazine's Small Business Best Practice Award in September for their organic farm practices and environmental contributions to their community. They also travel the country to teach "Pragmatic Organics," which relies on "the 80 percent solution," Erin said.
"Our family goal is to live as clean as possible but to aim for 80 percent organic. We don't try to pretend to be purists. When I'm speaking to people and I pop open a Diet Coke, they all go 'phew.' "
The first time I arranged for lunch at Rosas Farm, in the spring, the couple was hosting Noreen Kinney, an Irish food specialist and cookbook author. For the meal with Kinney, Al cooked turnip cake with sausage, shrimp, and mushrooms; quail eggs and smoked wild boar in a white sauce; larb with lamb; and shrimp (wild, from the Carolina coast) served in stone-ground white grits. For dessert, he topped an aebleskiver, or Danish doughnut, with homemade salted chocolate.
Before dining, guests sit at the granite countertop to watch the chef at work. Two decorative signs on the walls read "anticipation" and "family," words that resonate here. While Al enthusiastically describes what he's concocting, Erin cheerfully provides commentary on the health benefits of organics and the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, as well as hormones and antibiotics in milk.
Their 70 or so cattle are raised on grass, and produce meat devotees say is healthier and tastier.
One convert to all-natural meat is yearly seasonal guest Steven Keane of Hampstead, N.H. Keane and his wife, Beth Murphy-Keane, an equestrian, have an arrangement with the Rosases where they park their luxury RV and horse trailer on farmland and occasionally use the retreat space to house riding students and give lessons on the surrounding fields.
"I have a permanent grill there, so I'm always grilling Al's steaks," Keane said. "They are absolutely amazing."
During both my meals there, we took a break between dinner and dessert to tour the chicken and quail coops and the pig pens.
"Guests can help with the chickens, cows, and pigs," Erin said. "The chicken run in the morning, when they all go out at the same time, is pretty exciting to see, especially for children."
Diane Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.