At Sheppard Mansion, a delicious experiment in farm-to-inn-to-community

August 2, 2011

Embroidered on a hat that executive chef Andrew Little likes to wear is a credo he shares with his employers at the Sheppard Mansion: “Know Farms, Know Food.” It’s the name of a Facebook group he created, and it’s the focal point of a vibrant symbiosis connecting inn, market, restaurant, farm and community in Hanover, Pa.

The concept is not new: Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Virginia’s Inn at Little Washington come to mind. But Sheppard Mansion’s lack of airs is what sets it apart. One of its slogans: “Local is luxury.”

In that vein, Little combines the discipline of French culinary technique with an appreciation of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and his own sense of playfulness. He treats the pork-and-polenta staple known as scrapple the way other chefs do foie gras, basting it in herbed butter and serving it as an appetizer. Schnitz und knepp (ham and apple dumplings) become potato gnocchi with rabbit, country ham and apple gastrique. And he celebrates Hanover’s status as a snack-food capital (think Snyder’s of Hanover and Utz) by making a buttered-popcorn semifreddo with a salted pretzel crust.

Clearly there’s more going on at this inn, with its grandmotherly lace curtains and white roller blinds, than meets the eye.

Kathryn Sheppard Hoar converted the 1913 Colonial Revival building, her great-grandparents’ home, into a six-room bed-and-breakfast in 1999, after it had sat dormant for almost 40 years. In 2006, she added a 65-seat dining room and a jewel-box bar. Last year, sister and co-owner Heather Sheppard Lunn turned the brick-and-cobblestone carriage house behind the inn into a market that promotes goods sourced from within 100 miles of Hanover.

The sisters and their husbands, children and parents live two miles away in separate houses on the 1,600-acre Sheppard Mansion Farms. That’s also where, last year, Little planted a 10,000-square-foot culinary garden that now supplies the restaurant with 90 percent of its produce needs between May and October. Whatever he doesn’t use goes to the market.

The connections continue. Besides managing the market, Lunn oversees a herd of 160 Scotch Highland cattle. Three of the animals are slaughtered each month. The offal from all three and the primal cuts from one animal go to Little; the rest gets packaged and sold in the market. Other meat comes from area farmers.

What helps make the business model work is that the two owners can afford to hold off paying themselves regular salaries for running the inn and market/farm. That translates into huge savings, labor-wise.

In Little, they struck gold. A Hanover native, he had gone to high school with Hoar. But in the intervening years he had decided against a career in music, attended the Culinary Institute of America, externed with Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington and completed a stint at Evermay, an upscale inn in Bucks County that has since closed, before coming on board at Sheppard Mansion in 2006.

Hoar, 36, and her chef “both bought into each other’s vision,” says Little, 37. “If you had been brought to the dining room blindfolded and had no idea where you were, you should be able to determine where you were and what season it was just from looking at the menu.”

That’s certainly true at his restaurant, where you could start dinner with a bag of house-made potato chips and end with a plate of chocolate bonbons filled with caramel and pretzel bits. Pretzel croissants layered with house-churned butter are sold in the market, and pretzel rolls show up in the bread basket. You can even tell the season by the scrapple: In the summer, Little makes it with yellow cornmeal and wheat flour; in the winter, he uses roasted cornmeal and buckwheat flour. 

 Like many urban chefs, he’s a fan of offal, filling an eggshell with barely set custard and topping it with bits of barbecued pig’s feet; dusting pork tenderloin with powder made from a pig’s stomach lining; combining beets with beef tongue.

“To make something out of something that someone might have thrown away is very gratifying to me,” says Little, beaming. “We want people who are traveling to get an honest taste of the food we grew up with and to provide locals with different twists of things they’ve had for over 60 years.”

In the not-offal category, Little zings spaetzle with horseradish and uses monkfish, instead of pork, for schnitzel. Brown butter and the pickled vegetable relish known as chowchow, two Pennsylvania Dutch staples, are used to make mayonnaise and vinaigrette, respectively, often to accompany dishes featuring vegetables from Sheppard Mansion’s garden, Little’s pride and joy.

“I harvested over 200 pounds of tomatoes yesterday,” he boasts. “Purple Cherokees, Brandywines, lots of varieties. We will be going crazy canning things in the next month to use in the winter.”

Growing crops rotationally has resulted in steady flows, at various times, of broccoli, leeks, peas, cauliflower, beets, green beans, cucumbers and more, with melons on the horizon.

Many of the seeds Little sows come from Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the proliferation of treasured heirloom varieties. It’s a preservationist philosophy that appeals to the inn’s owners, who restored the building to period detail and who learned conservation from their parents.

“My mom is a huge local activist for water resources, watershed management and city planning,” says Hoar, 36. “They’ve put it in our minds that we are just stewards.”

To that end, Lunn is fairly strict about stocking only local items in the 1,600-square-foot market. (Some exceptions: gift items such as tableware and linens, olive oil, maple syrup.) The list of suppliers reads like a Pennsylvania map: pastured poultry, free-range eggs, Berkshire pork and several artisan cheeses from Rettland Farm in Gettysburg; dairy products from Apple Valley Creamery in East Berlin; honey and bourbon peaches from Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg; fruit from Boyer Nurseries in Biglerville. Little’s kitchen supplies baked goods and soups; Sheppard Mansion Farms provides beef.

What’s tricky at the market and the restaurant, Lunn says, is maintaining a balance in price and product that keeps the city folk interested and the locals not intimidated. She estimates that 50 percent of the restaurant trade and 80 percent of the market’s customers are local.

The Scotch Highland cattle, a breed their father brought in 35 years ago, are good foragers that are quite docile, low-maintenance and easy to work with, Lunn says. Because they have a thick, hairy hide and don’t carry a lot of fat, she maintains, their meat is lower in cholesterol and higher in protein and iron than Angus and Hereford beef.

Steers used for meat roam on 160 acres of pasture for about 2 1/2 years and are finished on hay for three weeks, which keeps strongly flavored greens from permeating the beef. The animals are then slaughtered and processed at a USDA-certified organic butcher in Littlestown, aged for three weeks to enhance flavor and packaged. 

The meat is antibiotic- and hormone-free, but Lunn says she doesn’t feel the need to pay for the privilege of organic certification. The breed, after all, doesn’t lend itself to the type of treatment common on industrial feedlots.

“You can’t make a souped-up Highlander,” says Lunn, 33. “It’s better to know your farm and know your food, as Andy says.”

RECIPES

Summer Scrapple

Chowchow Vinaigrette

Brown Butter Mayonnaise

Buttered Popcorn Semifreddo

Sheppard Mansion (117 Frederick St., Hanover, Pa., 877-762-6746; www.sheppardmansion.com) is 80 miles from Washington. Dining room open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Tasting menu, $75 (with wine pairings, $130).

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