Getting to know an area is as much about the local food as it is about the history and landmarks. That’s a concept that the Amelia Island Culinary Academy thoroughly embraces.
Before his market tour class arrives, Chef Bill Thompson has already been to the Farmers Market on Center Street in Fernandina Island. It’s just five blocks from the Amelia Island Culinary Academy, which is tucked down the same side street as 29 South and the Mermaid Bar/Florida House Inn. He’s cutting Florida-grown strawberries from the market, doing the last of the prep work before the class arrives, when I find him. “Of course I go to the farmers market early,” he says. “I’ve learned not to buy during the class, because it might be all waiting in lines, you never know.” Still, later on as he’s touring the market with the class, he can’t resist adding one more ingredient, once he sees that at that moment, Olive My Pickle doesn’t have a line.
Before we get to the market, as we walk the well-kept streets of Fernandina, he points out historic landmarks and slightly raucous bars, tells stories, and gives recommendations “Everyone comes for the fudge,” he says, telling us about the Michiganders who came to give locals and tourists alike a taste of something sweeter at Fantastic Fudge.
When we get to the market, he gives us tidbits about his favorites, pointing out the vendors that provided some of ingredients that we’ll later be seeing him use in the kitchen. One of those is Golden Olive Press, a locally run business which brings in quality olive oil from Spain. While olive oil is something that you can find locally, it’s a rare thing, and the places that sell it are often on back order, sometimes even before they pick the first olive. Golden Olive has already won awards, and it’s absolutely worthwhile.
Chef Thompson has already picked up fresh eggs for the Amaretto Zabaglione he’ll be showing us how to make later. He explains, “Eggs, if they aren’t washed, don’t need refrigeration. Those you see in the supermarket do, because they’ve been through a chemical wash.” The eggs here come in many different shades, because they come from a diversity of hens. Some of the eggs even have a green shell; it’s just the way that breed of hen lays their eggs.
He touts many vendors as we go by: Country Pies, with its handwritten sign and gorgeously crusted pineapple pie; B & D Hot Sauce, made from locally grown peppers; J.D. Beef; fresh poke from Sunshine Grindz; Cabbage Creek Farm out of Nassau County, and more. He points down towards the end of the market where a small trailer and truck is parked. It’s difficult to see, because there are so many people around it. This, he says, is where you should be getting your shrimp. Freshly caught, head-on, right in these very waters.
One of the Chef’s favorite ingredients is something he makes himself from the abundant harvest of lemons on the island. Like most things grown, they tend to ripen almost all at the same time, and no one can eat that many lemons before they spoil. So the Chef has a way to preserve them so that he can use them in cooking later: the citron confit. He gives us a quick run-down on how to pickle lemons ourselves, using only salt and fresh lemon juice, while in the class, but jars of it are also available to buy.
Back in the Culinary Academy kitchen, the class watches as the Chef starts a 3-course meal for us. And, in true Chef fashion, it’s not one recipe at a time—he multitasks. The dessert will be finished last, yes, but the strawberries need a little time to macerate—that is, to let out their juices, which he does by coating them with sugar, throwing in a blackberry brandy for good taste.
The strawberries aren’t the only thing that needs time—he also sets some cherry tomatoes to marinate, first cutting them in half for maximum flavor. As he cooks, he shares not only the steps, but tips and tricks involving the various vegetables and herbs he’s using, from the proper way to get skin off garlic with the minimum amount of fuss, to how to pick out an eggplant and treat it well. When it comes to dicing onions, he says, half-seriously, “I’m spreading the gospel of the French Onion cut.”
You can check out all the classes available (the shrimp class looks delightful!) on their website at ameliacooking.com or call the Amelia Island Culinary Academy at 515-6863. Among other classes, they hold the one featured in this story: the Farmer’s Market Tour & Class every Saturday starting at 10:30am for $40 per person. It’s a great way to get to know local flavor from a former Ritz-Carlton Chef with teaching experience.