Every now and then, you come across a little hidden gem that you should have known about already. That is what happened a couple of weeks ago when a friend invited me to a birthday celebration at Urbana Farmstead in the Landmark community south of Little Rock.
Following my GPS to get there, I pulled off the beaten path onto a fairly nondescript road. Arriving at 2400 Kerrie Drive, I found a quaint one-acre farmstead selling some unique items — in addition to homegrown vegetables, which you would expect at a farm.
Inside the Farm Stand shop was a wealth of preserved foods, jams, jellies, chow chow relishes and sauces. Imported risotto, olives, olive oil and balsamic vinegars lined the shelves, and the freezer was full of meatballs, beef liver and salmon.
A recent addition was a line of 13 of the owner's own seasoning blends, including Margie's Mediterranean Blend, Smokey Spice Salt Rub, and Lemon Rosemary Garlic Sea Salt. Tinctures and tonics, lotions and salves were also available.
Margie Raimondo is the brains behind this operation, which has been in its location for almost four years. With a strong Italian heritage, Raimondo loves food and growing at least some of what she eats. Her goal is to live sustainably in as many ways as possible, using what she has access to while she shares her knowledge and love of food with others.
Her enthusiasm is contagious.Gallery: Urbana Farmstead
She took a somewhat circuitous route to get here. Born to first-generation Italian Americans and raised in California, she grew up in a sheltered, traditional Italian household. After marriage, children and a career in the corporate world, she left that life in 2006 to move to Mountain Home with her family.
They wanted a simpler life, so they bought a resort on Lake Norfork.
In addition to running the resort, she started teaching cooking classes on the side and operated a little market that sold olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine.
Wanting to learn more about small-scale farming, in her mid-50s she embarked on a Farm Away apprenticeship program. In 16 months on farms in Italy and Spain, she traded work in fields and kitchens for food and lodging. By far the oldest apprentice — and one of only a handful of women — she soaked up as much knowledge as the farmers had to offer.
One of the most important lessons she learned during this time was that food preservation was key to farm life in Europe. Her knowledge of food preservation was limited, and she thought it mostly consisted of jams and jellies. What she learned is that you take what you have on hand but can't use fresh, and process it in some way for future use.
The processing could be in the form of chutneys, a combination of different fruits and vegetables that can be used as a condiment or side dish. Or it could be dried herbs that can be used in seasonings, poultices or rubs. It might also be accomplished through vinegars, sauces or pickling. Some items will be savory and some are sweet.
In Europe, these preserved foods are also used to barter with neighbors for other items a farmer might need. Nothing is wasted. Sustainability is important.
She brought what she learned back to Arkansas, landing at Little Rock and starting Urbana Farmstead. After a brief restaurant stint where she used produce from her farm in her offerings, she decided to concentrate all her efforts on the farm, putting in a huge industrial kitchen; shop; high tunnels for year-round vegetable production; raised beds for vegetables, herbs and flowers; and a chicken coop with free range chickens — from which she only uses the eggs.
She built the separate farm store, and a room off her kitchen is used for classes and shared Sunday meals, which she hopes to offer monthly, post-pandemic.
Her passion for sharing her knowledge led her to offer classes every other Thursday from March through September, and also in November. (She spends October in Italy every year, visiting family and finding new products to share and knowledge to import.)
One Thursday a month is a food-preservation class, and one Thursday is a cooking class. She teaches two classes on those Thursdays, from 1-4 p.m. and from 6-9 p.m. Currently she limits each class to six people. Registration costs $40 per person for food preservation and $50 for cooking.
The preservation classes are hands-on, and participants go home with whatever they learned how to preserve that week (on a recent week it was pesto and blistered peppers put up in oil and vinegar). Cooking participants help in the cooking, and they share a three-course meal and a glass of wine. Pre-registration is required and information can be found on her website, urbanafarmstead.net.
READY TO DEVOUR
Urbana Farmstead is not just about produce and preserved foods. Raimondo is a trained chef and loves to cook. Food has always been her happy place, and she loves to share her talents with others.
Each week, she posts prepared food items on her website, and you can order and pay online, then drive out and pick up your foods.
She makes her own cheese — all soft cheeses — with three cow cheeses, one goat cheese and even a vegan cheese made with cashews and almonds.
She orders in 25-35 pounds of fresh fish weekly. She posts what she has to offer on her website on Mondays, and you have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to order the amount you want. You then pick up your fresh fish on Saturday morning. A recent purchase of corvina (a fish I had never heard of) was amazing.
Raimondo grew up poor but says she never knew it because there was always plenty of food on the table. Food was the family's language of love.
Her time spent in Italy each year gives her the opportunity to make a connection to her heritage and to recharge and learn from others. Many of the places she has visited are small, but they use whatever space they have to grow what they need.
She hopes to show others that you don't have to have 20 acres of rolling hills to have a farm: You can grow food in your backyard.
Her vision for the future is to live and work toward sustainability for her family and for others. She wants to teach others how to grow their own produce, preserve what they have and work with plants to make marvelous meals. She hopes others can learn to appreciate the essence of the plant and learn how it can be the star on the plate.
Urbana Farmstead is not glitzy and perfectly manicured, but it is real. It is a small, working farm in the middle of an urban area.
Recently named Pulaski County Farm Family of the Year, Raimondo and her Urbana Farmstead have a lot to offer. Besides reading recipes and information on her website, you also can visit the farm. It is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. The farmstead is closed on Sunday and Monday.
Janet Carson's blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.