Historic Bristol offers old and new delights
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

By Gail Ciampa
Providence Journal Food Editor

Justin Squizzero prepares jonnycakes from an early American cookbook at Coggeshall Farm. True to history, the cakes are cooked over ashes. -- The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo

BRISTOL -- Culinary tourism is all the rage, with cooking vacations abroad and visits to wine-making regions all around the world.

But food adventures need not be so far-flung or pricey, with all that Rhode Islanders have in their own backyard.

Consider Bristol for a moment. This small quintessential New England town sits on a peninsula shaped like a lobster claw. Joan Roth, 82, affectionately described by some as the unofficial mayor of Bristol, starts any discussion of her beloved hometown with that description. How could it be anything but a food hot spot?

It's home to Coggeshall Farm, a working farm museum that harks back to the 1790s to enlighten as to how and what food was prepared in the early days of the nation. It's attracted an interesting variety of eateries, from clam shacks to white-linen restaurants, with chefs who hail from culinary schools and far away lands. It hosts wedding feasts at its mansions like Linden Place. And it offers picnickers the beauty and serenity of Colt State Park.

Cindy Salvato, a chef, teacher, cookbook author and lover of all things food, looked at Bristol and knew it was the place to expand her Savoring Rhode Island tour business. She started guiding people behind the scenes on Federal Hill back in 2003 and, earlier this month, brought her first tour, both culinary and historical, to the East Bay with the charming Mrs. Roth at the head.

"The food draws you in and the history makes it richer," said Salvato.

Here's some of what I saw and learned.

Historian Justin Squizzero, wearing an 18th-century costume he sewed, cooked at a hearth on Coggeshall Farm, preparing jonnycakes not the way grandma used to, but the way her great-great grandmother might have. With a fire blazing in the hearth, he fried the jonnycakes not on the logs, but on a pile of ashes he pulled out from the fire and placed just in front of the hearth. That, he explained, is how the farmers who originally inhabited the homestead would have done it. The more things you had to cook, the more ash piles you'd make.

"Cooking this way really teaches you to use your senses," he said. There were no thermometers.

His jonnycakes were the perfect breakfast for the spring season when all the food stored over the winter would be in short supply. His recipe only required some milk.

A typical farm breakfast would be served at 8 or 9 a.m. after hours of work and chores had already been done. During the summer and harvest, meat, fish and eggs would provide the protein needed to fuel more work until sundown.

"People living here were directly linked to their environment," Squizzero said.

Sunday breakfast would be a feast of fishcakes and beans. He said no work was done on Sunday, part of the strict Congregationalist rules. That spirit that still decrees that Bristol's premier July Fourth parade will never be held on the day of rest, Roth explained.

Squizzero had a pot of peas with a hunk of bacon simmering. That would be served for dinner. Dried fish would be stored and reconstituted as needed.

In contrast to the tough life for the tenant farmers at Coggeshall Farm, life was pretty good for all the DeWolf and Colt family members who lived in the Linden Place from the time it was built in 1810 until 1989, when a descendent sold it to The Friends of Linden Place. Four presidents visited there — James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester Arthur.

On Salvato's tour, Cindy Elder, proprietor of Bristol Harbor Homemade, serves scones and other treats from her line of dry mixes. A sailor, she is a local food entrepreneur based on need. Since you can't keep much on a boat, she blends mixes that require adding only butter and water for home-baked treats such as biscotti, tea cakes and cookies.

She serves from Linden House's conservatory, which was the home law office for Col. Samuel Palmero Colt, one of the home's residents. But it was a space also rented out as a barber shop during leaner times for other residents.

From the very old to the very new is a stop at Thames Street Landing. It was a lumberyard and now houses The Bristol Harbor Inn and the acclaimed DeWolf Tavern with chef-owner Sai Viswanath.

When the lumberyard was being dismantled, an enormous barrel from the rum distillery days in Bristol was unearthed. It sits in the lobby of the building.

At the DeWolf Tavern, stone walls add to the charm exuded by Viswanath, who demonstrates cooking in a tandoor oven for those on the tour. He places a piece of naan, Indian flatbread, along the wall of the hot, round ceramic oven. It fluffs up and cooks and comes off easily, ready for Viswanath to add toppings such as arugula and Parmesan cheese, truffle oil and balsamic vinaigrette to make a delicious version of Indian pizza.

The Tavern was named one of nation's best restaurants by Esquire magazine in 2005, just a year after it opened. An upper deck overlooks Bristol Harbor, and "dock and dine" will commence this summer.

For something completely different, there is Redlefsen's, the Guertler family restaurant on Thames Street, which serves eclectic bistro fare. But the restaurant celebrates many European traditions and hosts German dinners for Oktoberfest.

Tour guests belly up to the bar to watch Joe Folk prepare Redlefsen's signature calamari, which is served with yogurt dill sauce. They also enjoy a tasting of pecan-encrusted pork tenderloin with a maple cream sauce.

This area is also home to Quito's, a stellar clam shack, and the cozy Beehive Café. State Street is where diners will find Champe Speidel's Persimmon with his seasonal menu using local ingredients.

But it is the beauty of the town that stars in any visit to Bristol.

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