NJWFF Food – Jersey Proves Its Culinary Prowess
By Julianne Clancy; Photos by Sean vonLembke
Any wine and food festival worth its salt (and fat and sugar and spice) guarantees one thing—that you will leave completely stuffed and completely satisfied. The New Jersey Wine and Food Festival (NJWFF) did not disappoint when it came to drink and atmosphere, but it especially excelled when it came to providing plenty of fabulous eats. Even before the extravagant Grand Tasting began, the NJWFF food portion of the event was filled with a series of delectable tastings and lessons that had us struggling to save room for the fantastic edibles to come.
To get going on the best that the NJWFF food events had to offer, we began our morning off the way that any perfect day should start—with breakfast and booze. Prosecco and Pancakes, featuring Avissi Prosecco, was the first activity of the day and set a whimsical tone for what was to come. The free flowing bubbly was served alone, as a Peach Bellini, or as a Traditional Mimosa. The prosecco itself was crisp and dry, which allowed it to pair easily with the variety of pancakes offered. The mimosas were refreshingly sweet, with just enough juice to add flavor without overpowering the prosecco. The Bellinis, though, were truly a treat, made with a thick, rich puree that burst with fresh peach flavor.
The pancakes were offered up at two separate stations—one sweet and one savory. On the savory side, Buckwheat Pancakes and Corn Pancakes were served up alongside Habanero Jelly, Crème Fraîche, and Charred Citrus Rind. The Corn Cakes were pleasantly mild, for the less adventurous eater, tasting like a slightly sweeter and drier traditional pancake. The Buckwheat Pancakes were extremely earthy, which I felt, personally, held up better to the explosion of flavors from the toppings. The Habanero Jelly was surprisingly hot, which made it incredibly addictive. Paired with the unctiousness of the Crème Fraîche and the bitter and sour notes of the Citrus, it was a captivating flavor combination that had me going back for seconds and battling the urge to get thirds.
The sweet side served up, of course, a traditional Buttermilk Pancake with Butter and Syrup—a well-executed classic with a slightly chewy, slightly sweet cake that would make any New Jersey diner proud. The second sweet cake was a fascinating Ancient Grain Pancake (gluten-free!) with Caramel Sauce and Apple Butter. The cake itself had an interesting mouth feel—slightly eggy with little pops and crunches from the toasted grains. Paired with the rich caramel and fruity butter, the whole experience was like eating melted Apple Caramel ice cream with a granola crumble on top. The entire crowd kept going back for more of the inventive and delectable combination.
After our breakfast, we took a quick spin up to the flagship restaurant of Crystal Springs: Restaurant Latour (named for Crystal Springs founder Gene Mulvihill’s favorite wine). Located on the top floor of the main clubhouse, this decadent and intimate dining establishment looks over the rolling hills surrounding the property, a truly stunning view to accompany a five-star meal. We also took the opportunity to stroll by the Chef’s Garden restaurant, featuring food cooked in wood and coal fired ovens and herbs picked right from the garden where the guests sit. The chefs there were already on hand preparing some delicious smelling slow-cooked smoked meats, another of the NJWFF food offerings that would be served up at the Grand Tasting After Party. The heavenly scents of burning wood and sizzling barbecue had our mouths watering and our stomachs ready to begin our next course of tastings.
A Taste of Italy showcased three fabulous Castello di Gabbiano wines, but it also was one of the tastiest and most inventive NJWFF food activities of the day, giving lucky attendees a sample of some of the best bites Italy has to offer. We were treated to rich, decadent olive oil from Fattoria San Leolino, a Tuscan estate that makes only 3,000 liters of oil per year, allowing them to focus on their high quality and high purity. We were also provided with a spread of dried meats were from Salumeria Biellese, a family business founded in Brooklyn in 1925, with locations in New York, Hackensack, and St. Louis. Their traditional custom salamis are made slow-cure style, with no additives, making for a much richer flavor without the metallic tang salami can have. The Hot Soppressata, Salami Soppressata, and Prosciutto were all stand-outs among their kind, but it was the traditional Tuscan Finocchiona that blew me away—sweet and spicy with a strong fennel flavor and a richness that coated my taste buds beautifully, this was truly the best salami I’ve ever had. All of this was served on and sopped up by Calandra’s Bakery’s Bostone Semolina and French Baguettes—satisfyingly chewy breads with crisp crusts that gave no question as to why New Jersey is known for its Italian cuisine.
As we’d only been focused on finger foods, it was definitely time to eat a proper lunch. The geniuses behind the NJWFF food events always offer a Marketplace Lunch, a sumptuous spread served in a rustic rotunda room with stone floors, a soaring ceiling, and stunning views of the New Jersey countryside. The large open space was filled with a variety of fantastic buffet style stations, featuring a mouthwatering variety of cuisines and cultures. There was a taco station with an Asian flair, featuring sweet and spicy beef with lots of lemongrass, crunchy, light tempura shrimp, and a wide variety of toppings ranging from tamarind sauce to pickled vegetables to fresh herbs, guaranteeing an endless amount of combinations to satisfy any palate.
The Latin table featured Whole Roasted Pig, beautifully charred with crisply rendered skin and juicy tender meat. The sides were equally tantalizing, with freshly Fried Yucca, meltingly soft in the middle and satisfyingly crunchy on the outside; perfectly done Tostones, lightly sprinkled with sea salt and not at all greasy; and beautifully caramelized Maduros to round out the plate with a touch of sweetness.
I am a sucker for mushrooms, so having an entire table dedicated to Giorgio’s wild varietals of the fantastic fungi got me super excited. The Baby Bellas were meaty and assertive, bursting with umami flavor—a perfect contrast to the creamy and mild Polenta on which they were served. The Risotto with Hon Shimiji Mushrooms was much more delicate, with an intriguingly woody flavor to the mushrooms which complimented the butteriness of the Risotto wonderfully.
For those craving a bit more fried food to round out their midday meal, the Oyster Shooter with Horseradish and Chives was a not-to-be-missed bite. The Oyster itself had a lovely light fry on it, but it was the creamy sauce with an incredible spicy kick from the horseradish that made the dish. The verdant and slightly onion-y flavor of the chives rounded out the shooter with a fabulous hint of freshness.
The main draw of the NJWFF food events may be the Grand Tasting, but for culinary aficionados working with a budget, the activities throughout the day are a great way to sample some of the best the festival has to offer without breaking the bank. The morning and afternoon had lots of fun, lots of tastes, and some interesting food-related education that would leave any foodie full and happy by the time they left for the day.