I pulled up to the address I had scribbled down and thought I had made a mistake. This typical suburban house in Kendall Park couldn’t possibly be the location for Pitspone Farm, a specialist in berries and small fruit plants. Just then a lanky, bespectacled man clad in overalls strode across the lawn to introduce himself.
Mike Brown had been described to me as a gentleman farmer. After unlatching the gate to enter into his backyard farm, Brown certainly proved he is a gentleman and offered me a cup of Turkish coffee in a delicate blue and white demitasse cup. But he is no gentleman farmer.
“I am out here every day at 5:15 a.m. with my cup of coffee checking on things before I go to work,” he says. “A gentleman farmer oversees things. I am out here doing it all myself.”
Today he has a thriving backyard nursery, selling his hard-to-find fruits to top New Jersey restaurants and his plants to home gardeners with a taste for the unusual, but as many gardening ventures do, it started small.
When Brown purchased the house, the backyard was a basic lawn. In 2007, he added some fig trees because his wife loves them and he thought he could sell the fruit. Then came heirloom tomatoes and herbs. Next he decided to grow something nobody was growing.
“I explore higher-end and less common fruits. I began expanding and fine tuning. I don’t think I’ve mown grass back here in two years,” Brown tells me, with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “I promised my wife from the front it would look like a normal house. In the back I am almost maxed out.”
Almost every available inch behind the tall fence is full of edible delights.
Pots of alpine strawberries line up neatly near the gate and on the deck. The small, elongated fruit with a bumpy surface smells as sweet as cotton candy and tastes like Pop-Tarts, according to Brown. I quickly dubbed them “crackberries” after tasting one.
“Sometimes I do feel like a drug dealer because I sell them by the ounce instead of the pound,” he says sheepishly, “because the yield is low and they take me so long to harvest.”
These berries are so delicious it is understandable that Princeton’s highly-acclaimed Elements is so addicted the restaurant claimed Brown’s entire supply this summer. (Fortunately, he sells plants to interested home gardeners.)
Further along the narrow path we stop near Mara des Bois strawberries. Highly flavorful and fragrant, this French everbearing gourmet strawberry has a nice texture and is a chef favorite.
Brown, a school librarian, uses his research abilities in the field.
“I want to help people and chefs be able to determine what tastes best and grows best in New Jersey,” he says, as he stops in front of a row of 15-foot tall European elderflower trees. Each umbrel of fragrant white flowers eventually turns into a bunch of purple berries that may be made into jam, juice or wine. The berries must be cooked before consuming. Liqueur and tea can be made from the flowers. The lacy blossoms can also be dipped in a light tempura style batter and fried.
The striking chartreuse hue of gooseberries will lure you close to the bush, but beware of its treacherous thorns. Careful extraction of the fruit rewards one with a slightly tart globe the size of a seedless grape. In England it is a favorite in summer desserts. In Nigel Slater’s cookbook “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard” (Ten Speed Press, $40), the recipes for honey polenta cake with elderflower and gooseberries and for gooseberry, apple, and elderflower pie beg for me to bring home buckets of berries to merrily meld with sugar into jammy perfection. The berries freeze well, so stock up.
The currant, another British favorite, can be found here, too. Long trusses of red or white berries invite you to idle a moment and have a sample. They make a gorgeous claret jelly.
More exotic specimens such as the goumi berry, which looks like an oblong cherry and tastes a bit like a plum, and the jujube tree dot his landscape. These fruits are popular in Asia. Brown hopes to be able to tap into that market locally.
The native serviceberry has captured Brown’s attention this season. He is assessing seven varieties for taste and yields. The berries taste similar to blueberries and make wonderful pies and jams.
Aronia, or black chokeberry, intrigues Brown because it is an antioxidant powerhouse and birds don’t care for the fruit. They make an excellent juice and substitute for blueberries in baking. The jostaberry, a thornless cross between black currant and gooseberry, is also on his one-to-watch list.
Brown’s living laboratory is full of surprises. “Something is just devastating my Kokuso mulberries,” he laments as he sips his coffee and speculates that a groundhog is the culprit. “But I saw a fox for the first time the other day.” A few minutes later we stop to watch a rabbit hustle between rows of rugosa roses that are grown for their enormous hips, popular for teas and syrups.
“I am making a transition to an edible nursery. Some nurseries have one type of gooseberry. That is like saying I grow apples and not being specific. I’m trying to be a source of more obscure plants and be able to tell people how to grow them in New Jersey.” (You can order plants through his website.
Ironically, Brown feverishly spends his summer growing his fruit and making daily deliveries to his clients but does not often cook them.
“I have to sell them,” he says ruefully. “I grow kale and tomatoes to eat but I don’t have a big enough supply of berries to eat them much. But I will walk around the garden while I work and I might munch.”
I hope he leaves some crackberries for the rest of us.
Rachel Weston is the chef at A Better World Café in Highland Park. “The Gutsy Gourmet” appears monthly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Star-Ledger, Savor/Today, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J., 07102. Twitter: @roxydynamite