Martha's Vineyard, a Seafood Heaven, 'Sea to Table'
Aquinnah Cliffs, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Seafood, seafood, seafood. As if you'd need another reason to want to visit Martha's Vineyard, the small, picturesque island off Massachusetts' Cape Cod. It is nearly inundated by tourists come summer with a population that swells by more than six times to over 100,000. I had the good fortune to visit in mid-May, right before the crowds, to tour the awakening island with chef Christopher Gianfreda who had returned for his seventh season of cooking here. (Full disclosure, he is my great nephew, the son of my niece Liz Manning.)
The lanky 27-year-old who says he has islands in his blood, started his culinary training in the Virgin Islands and later honed his skills by working with chefs such as Jean Georges and Jim Burke in New York, Frank McClelland in Boston and Susan Spicer in New Orleans. This year, he takes over as chef at The Outermost Inn, a quaint hotel and restaurant owned by Hugh and Jeanne Taylor of James Taylor singing family fame. It is located up island on the rural western tip near the lighthouse in Aquinnah and its famed red cliffs. And, miles from down island and the honky tonk of Oak Bluffs and upscale boutiques of Edgartown.
Gianfreda's menu features seafood ranging from lobster and sought-after Katama Bay oysters to black bass and sea scallops. The Inn website promises Gianfreda will shadow the fishermen for the best of their labors. And, indeed, that was where we headed on one of our first stops. We followed winding roads edged by scrub oak forests to Menemsha, a quintessential New England fishing village on the Vineyard Sound. Its working harbor was featured in that the movie Jaws.
Chef Gianfreda on Martha's Vineyard; photo by author
Only a few buildings in the typical weathered cedar shakes lined the docks. We first stopped at Larsen's, which sells prepared seafood. Gianfreda said we needed to sample some of the freshest lobster in the world. That and squid were then being caught, the live lobsters floating in tanks, some of them probably brought in on the early morning catch. The owner, Betsy Larsen, clad in work clothes that included apron and rubber boots, her smile wide, was eager to share that she was the second generation running the shop. She said she has never missed a day without at least a taste of lobster for all her life.
Her openness and willingness to talk was characteristic of most of the year-round inhabitants I encountered during my visit. This eagerness to stop and enjoy life that Gianfreda said matched the spirit he felt back in the Virgin Islands. At least at this pre-season moment.
Gianfreda recommended ordering the hot butter lobster roll over the version mixed with salad. A sprinkle of hot sauce, dab of horseradish and we took our lobster rolls outside to the docks where we sat on empty lobster crates. Imagine, succulent chunks of lobster, steamed and then finished off in butter, sitting in a plain old white hot dog bun. Didn't matter the bun, just the conveyor for the best lobster I ever had in my life. A fistful of it. Juices flowing down my wrist.
There was plenty more back in the store if you wanted. We just looked. Smoked bluefish in a cream cheese blend, oysters, to enjoy on the half shell raw. Littleneck clams you could eat raw or cooked. Next door was our real reason for coming here: The Menemsha Fish Market was where we were met by employee Mikey Rottman. He explained that the market is the wholesale purveyor for most of the catch coming into the harbor. "We call it 'sea to table,'" he said. The goal is to sustainably sell as much as possible to local restaurants.
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