At A Taste of Granor, in the southwest corner of Michigan, a soaring windowed greenhouse immerses guests in the sights and tastes of the nearby fields of Granor Farm. Or sometimes, it’s the feel and smell; the FAQ’s on the website asks people to wear farm-appropriate shoes, because “sometimes a chicken or duck will leave an unwrapped present for you.”
A Taste of Granor is a true dining experience. With regular dinner service reserved for Friday and Saturday nights, the family-style tasting meals accommodate 40 people at communal tables. The whole leisurely affair last between three and four hours. Tickets can only be purchased in advance and they often sell out. This ensures Chef Abra Berens can base the menu not only on what is fresh from the farm, but on the dining needs of those who will attend. “It is sort of like a fancy dinner party, but at a farm,” she explained in an interview.
The farm’s original focus was to offer a summer camp experience for kids, and that educational mission still runs deep in the dining room. After an optional pre-dinner tour, farm staff share, over appetizers, about what guests will be eating fresh from the fields, and the care that goes into the cultivation of this food.
Each eight-course menu, defined as modern midwestern cuisine by Berens, changes nightly. The opener is appetizers at the table, such as blistered shishito peppers with dipping sauces. The next course is plated and designed to be a stunner, like gazpacho topped with fried basil and an olive relish. The next three courses highlight fresh vegetables grown on the farm. Served family style, they might include a summer tomato plate with smoked whitefish mayo or wood roasted carrots with pickled raspberries, beet crème, and cocoa nibs.
Next is the main course: braised pintos with kale, sweet corn and chow chow or paprika-braised pork shoulder with burnt honey. The meal concludes with a local cheese course and a seasonal dessert, served with coffee and an outdoor fire to encourage lingering.
Berens loves seeing a transformation in the guests over the course of the evening. At first, their cell phones are out as they snap photos of the elegantly plated food. But as they sink into the farm, the meal, and the company, devices are often put away for the night. People become very present. Often, folks who just met at a communal table will exchange phone numbers or visit at each other’s houses after the meal.
A Farm-focused Chef
Berens grew up on a large-scale pickle farm. When she came of age, like many farm kids, she couldn’t get away fast enough. She stayed close to food, though, working in restaurants and loving their collaborative nature. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor was her first training ground. When she realized she wanted to seriously pursue kitchen work, the chef at Zingerman’s recommended cooking school.
Berens chose Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland, partly because of the travel opportunities. She didn’t realize how formative the school’s garden-focused kitchen would become. While both the United Kingdom and her native Midwest USA are big food producers, both have a reputation for bland flavors.
“Ballymaloe crystallized a lot of ideas I was having about food,” said Berens. “It prompted a redefinition of what midwestern cuisine could be.”
Ballymaloe inspired her to develop dishes that celebrate the diverse agriculture of her home region. Upon returning to the States, most of her cooking experiences have remained close to the land. In 2009, she co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm where she farmed and cooked for eight years. In 2017, she joined the team at Granor Farms as the founding chef for A Taste of Granor.
Having had hands in both the soil and the kitchen defines Berens’ perspective on food. She knows that even something as seemingly mundane as onions take months to grow as farmers nurture them from seed to plant to bulb.
“I have an appreciation for the amount of work [it takes] to bring even the most banal ingredient to the table,” Berens said. “I want to honor that in the kitchen.”
At the end of one growing season at Bare Knuckle Farm, the land was providing only three ingredients: kale, carrots, and eggs. They were her diet staples for two weeks. She learned two things. One, with her creativity she could make a myriad of dishes with limited ingredients and not get bored. Two, her body felt good when most of her diet was composed of fresh, local vegetables.
As a result, her menus are built around simple and nourishing preparations of the bounty of produce from the nearby fields. A Taste of Granor meal is a celebration that gives primacy to vegetables.
Practical Guides for Good Food
Berens is making an impact on American food culture through her acclaimed cookbooks. An English major in college, she was always drawn to write about food as well as prepare it. She began writing food articles for the local paper while at Bare Knuckle Farm. Those columns became the foundation of her first cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, published in 2019.
She followed in 2021 with Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes. The expanding grain production of Granor Farm was part of her inspiration. It has grown from a hobby project to encompass 400 acres of certified organic land. The 12 varieties of grains and pulses go to the local distillery as well as the farm store and kitchen.
More than a catalog of recipes, Berens begins each section of the cookbook with an essay that contextualizes the ingredient: how it’s grown or connects it to a larger issue in our food system. She shares stories from her own farming experience and other seen and unseen workers who labor to bring food to our tables.
These are practical guides rooted in education. The easy-to-follow recipes are careful explanations of cooking techniques. They include a myriad of variations meant to be a launching point for home cooks to create their own nourishing dishes. Sidebars include tips, like how to eat black beans for a full week and not get bored.
Through her meals at Granor Farms and her cookbooks, Berens aim is to elevate the humble: by artfully preparing staples like vegetables, grains, and fruits, and by lifting up the hard, creative work of farmers. Ultimately, she wants to inspire home cooks to have their own kale, carrot, and egg moments.
Berens’ Breakfast Fritters
Berens struggled to find recipes for split peas to put in Grist. She is not a fan. But she believes almost everything is falafel-able and these breakfast fritters made the cut.
- Soak 2 cups split peas for at least 4 hours. Blend in a food processor with 2 sliced onions, 4 cloves garlic, 4 pickle spears, parsley, dill, cumin, coriander, and salt into a coarse but even paste.
- Heat 1 inch oil in frying pan on medium-high heat. Scoop about ¼ cup bean mixture per cake into oil and flatten with spoon. Brown, about 4 minutes per side.
Topping suggestions: a fried egg, sautéed greens and smoked yogurt; ratatouille, basil, and fresh mozzarella; or spinach salad with a bacon vinaigrette.