Turtle Rock Farm’s Goal: Health–“for the soil, the community, the food system, and our bodies.”
Thanks for your patience during tomato season,” says Jenn Legnini of Turtle Rock Farm, in getting back to me about this article. She’s busy preserving some of the 8,000 pounds of tomatoes she processes each year. “Summer tomatoes are my favorite thing to eat on a winter day,” she says. “I don’t know if I sound like a broken record or a good Italian (said in my grandfather’s voice in my head just now), but I love tomatoes!” Turtle Rock Farm isn’t just a farm, though. It’s a commercial kitchen where Jenn turns the bounty of Maine’s growing season into products that can be enjoyed all year long.
Come winter, Turtle Rock’s offerings will not only include canned whole peeled tomatoes and passata, a raw tomato puree, but also jars of applesauce from her own certified Organic apple orchard and relish from her garlic scapes and sweet peppers. Her farm is small though—only 3 production acres. So, the other three-quarters of the tomatoes she preserves come from other organic local farmers in Maine. In order to do this, Jenn says, “We work with farmers to purchase from them throughout the year and have designed products to keep the market open for them throughout the year.” Tomatoes aren’t all she gets from other farmers, though.
Turtle Rock’s blueberries come from Burke Hill Farm in Cherryfield, for example. “Wild blueberries always have been and always will be my favorite thing to work with,” she says. “There is just something about the beautiful and classic Wild Blueberry Spreadable Fruit that is a total joy to make.” And her Mermaid Olives come from an Organic sea farm in Gouldsboro. They aren’t actually olives at all, but are instead the stipes, or stems, of Sugar Kelp seaweed. Jenn calls this collaboration a “crop-portunity,” where she and a farmer are able to work together to create something beautiful, delicious, and healthful.
Preservation is not always a simple affair. You have to pay close attention to time and temperature. But Jenn tries to keep things simple in other ways. She focuses on minimal processing and adding as little sugar and salt as possible in order to celebrate the natural flavors of the ingredients. “I believe the most critical thing is to keep it simple and not overcomplicate things,” she says. While simple, her products are delicious—everything from Blueberry Cardamom Spread to Peach and Pepper Chutney. They are so good that they earned Turtle Rock Farms a 2016 Good Food award.
Keeping it simple also means keeping it healthy. Not only does she minimize the addition of salt and sugar, but she also often chooses to freeze certain products rather than to can them in order to maintain the highest nutrient density of the produce. “Our principles are based on the Soil Food Web, which is that the nutrient and health of the soil translates all the way through the fruit to the plate you have for dinner. Health is surely our goal—for the soil, the community, the food system, and our bodies.”
The community connection is a key piece to Jenn’s work. She had been part of the Brunswick Winter Market for seven years or so, which operated out of a building on the Topsham Fair Grounds. When the opportunity to move the market to Brunswick Landing, formerly the site of the Naval Air Station arose, she and other farmers worked together to make that happen. They spent time constructing a greenhouse next to the building that houses Turtle Rock’s kitchen in order to provide a sunny warm place for people to gather. “Eight farms pulled together to pitch in every Wednesday over the course of two months during the busy growing season, eager to create the space and welcome our Brunswick Landing Farmers Market customers to spend Fridays with us enjoying food, music and all of the year round local goods,” says Jenn. The resulting Winter Market opened in November of 2018 and provided a place where, on a raw January day, you might find someone playing banjo in the cozy seating area set amidst the vendors or offering samples of local cheese or vegetables. Jenn also opened up a small café space outside her kitchen where people could sit and enjoy freshly made soups and sandwiches—and even cold beer from nearby Flight Deck brewery.
This winter, however, will look a little different at Turtle Rock and at the Winter Market since they don’t plan to open due to the pandemic. Instead, they are offering the space up to farmers to use to deliver produce to customers. “We want farmers to know that this space is available for them to reach their community and CSA (community supported agriculture share) members,” says Jenn. Though it is far from winter yet, Turtle Rock has already started using their space to help get fresh food from farms to customers. On any given day, you might see people picking up a CSA from Harvest Tide Organics or fresh fish from Gulf of Maine Sashimi, a group operating out of Portland to get fish from fishermen directly to consumers.
Another collaboration she is working on is Merry Meeting Kitchen, a group of producers that can sell through their Marketplace directly to customers who can pick up a box of goodies outside Turtle Rock’s building. “Offering our community a direct weekly connection to what is available locally enables us to serve as a hub of local food resiliency created through community connection,” says Jenn. The Marketplace offers a wide array of products—everything from Activated Charcoal Goat Milk Soap produced by Copper Tail Farm to Za’atar, a Syrian spice blend created by Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants. Products are ordered ahead on the website and are available for pick up each Friday.
In addition to preserving food herself, Jenn also loves to share the benefits of food preservation with others. That includes farmers like Ben Whatley of Whatley farm, who uses her kitchen to process his Organic pestos and roasted peppers. And it also includes her customers. Jenn creates DIY products like Pickle kits and Tomato Canning kits for those interested in trying out simple techniques. “Starting with the simple structures and methods and just committing to those as baselines, people quickly start to see, after a season or two, where there IS wonderful possibility for creativity!”
Going into this winter, Jenn is sure to be well-prepared and to share ample opportunities for others to be as well by preserving the goodness of the Maine growing season for the chilly days ahead. As for what she will be eating this winter, she says, “I love to braise local Organic meats in broth, tomatoes, and dried herbs. It is the best health support I feel I can offer myself in the wintertime! It feeds my body and soul, no question!” It’s no doubt that all those tomatoes she’s busy preserving, along with the other delights of summer, will help to nourish many other bodies and souls this winter as well.
Simple Tomato Sauce
Makes 1 quart
The simplicity of this sauce makes it best both for an abundance of garden tomatoes as well as a base for any winter time sauces—grab a jar from the pantry and easily add cooked vegetables, meats and herbs for delicious summertime tomato flavor all year round. You can scale this recipe up by as many tomatoes as you have or as many quart jars that you would like, just make sure you keep the amount of each ingredient as the same ratio—so if you have 8 lbs of tomatoes and you multiply them by 2, multiply everything by 2.
4 pounds ripe plum or paste tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, optional
4 fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 quart jar or 2 pint jars
Food mill (optional)
Basic water bath canning equipment (pot and jar lifter at a minimum)
1 – Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby ready to blanch the tomatoes after cooking. While the water is boiling, cut a small “X” in the bottom of each tomato, this will help them loosen from their skins for a silky smooth sauce. Plunge the tomatoes into the water after it has come to a boil and leave undisturbed for 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the tomatoes to the ice water bowl and let cool.
2 – Here’s a choose your own adventure opportunity! If you want a very smooth sauce, drain the tomatoes and then pass them through the food mill fitted with the disc with the smallest holes. For a pulpier sauce, drain the tomatoes and peel off the skins. Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds and discard in the compost. Coarsely chop the tomatoes.
3 – In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the garlic is fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes, being careful not to let it brown. Pour the tomatoes in carefully so they don’t splatter. Stir the tomatoes to combine with the oil. Raise the heat to medium high and bring the tomatoes to a strong simmer. Once simmering, reduce to medium low and simmer gently until the tomatoes have richened in color and lost their raw flavor but still have that unbeatable fresh tomato flavor, about 30-40 minutes. Season with the salt if you choose to and continue to cook until thicker to a sauce consistency, another 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and now stir in the basil.
4 – Pour 2 tablespoons lemon juice into each quart size jar or 1 tablespoon into each pint size jar. While still hot, funnel the sauce into the jars, leaving 1/2” headspace.
5 – Screw the lids on tightly and process for 35 minutes in a boiling water bath. Remove the jars and set them upright on a clean kitchen towel. Let cool to room temperature before storing in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Refrigerate after opening and use within 1 week.
For this same Simple Tomato Sauce without the peeling and canning, substitute 2 of Turtle Rock Farm’s 18 oz jars of Whole Peeled Tomatoes and follow instruction only in Step 3. Use for pizza sauce, combine with roasted vegetables or seasoned cooked meat for an entree sauce or enjoy simply with fresh basil! Buon apetito!