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Food and Wine Take Center Stage at Opera Gala

Jerome Hines sang and it didn't stop them. Roberta Peters spoke and they didn't miss a beat.

While it might have been the love of opera and the chance to hear the renowned Hines sing that brought 400 people together at Drumthwacket on Sunday, food most definitely took center stage.

As the crowd ate and drank its way, through a food and wine sampling of 21 New Jersey restaurants and five wineries to benefit the Opera Music Theatre International (OMTI), there was as much talk of what the chefs were serving as there was of music.

I just adore these blinis," said Lidia Markham of Bernardsville, taking another bite of the Perona Farms' offering. The cornmeal blini was topped with smoked salmon and a dollop of dill and sour cream, and Markham noted that the Andover restaurant had won "some other prize or other for their salmon. No wonder it's so good, but did you get to the Auberge Swiss table yet?"

Not waiting for an answer, she and a friend were off in search of other culinary delights, stopping first for a glass of Country Blush from the Cream Ridge Winery's display. What Markham didn't realize, was that Cream Ridge's cherry wine, Ciliegia Amabile, had been the "Governor's Cup Winner" in the 11th Annual New Jersey Wine Competition this year, and Perona Farms had been named "World's No. 1 Rated Smoked Salmon" by "Cook's Illustrated Magazine" this past December.

"What you have here today is just a small sampling of the best of what the state produces," said Arthur R. Brown Jr., New Jersey's secretary of Agriculture, whose 1983 "Jersey Fresh" marketing campaign has brought about increased awareness for the state's bounty of produce and wines. The department, along with the New Jersey Restaurant Association, helped coordinate the Celebration of New Jersey Treasures, a feast of food, wine and music to aid in the productions and scholarship programs of Hines' Newark-based OMTI, created in 1987 and in residence at Symphony Hall. This year, the renowned basso marks his 50th year in opera and 42 consecutive years at the Metropolitan Opera.

Hines called the afternoon a "magnificent occasion" and praised the chefs for not only donating their time and talent to the event, but for supporting agriculture in New Jersey. In fact, almost all of the chefs were using at least one locally grown ingredient. Cherry Hill's La Campagne used locally ground cornmeal for its blinis, topped them with farm-raised duck, and garnished it all with mosh, or lamb's lettuce, grown in the Garden State. The Bernards Inn, Bernardsville, combined local butternut squash and pears to top its Ravioli of Wild Mushrooms.

Still, it was The Pubhck House, Chester, that set the tone for the event with the table--a bountiful autumn harvest display of sweet potatoes, apples, peppers, squash and Indian corn. Their offerings of Country Sweet Potato Soup, with pralines, and Grilled Swordfish, with farm-fresh corn relish, had guests lining up for seconds.

Francis Schott, co-owner of New Brunswick's Stage Left: An American Cafe, said using the state's vast array of products has consistently enhanced his seasonal menu. "We use local whenever we can," he said. "Today, we're serving Pheasant and Wild Mushroom Ravioli, in a mushroom reduction with almonds; the mushrooms come from a grower in southern Jersey, and the pheasants are raised at the Griggstown Quail Farm."

In a nod to our colonial ancestors, who knew a thing or two about living off the land, Stage Left is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first American cookbook, called "American Cookery," by Amelia Simmons. The book was the first to mention corn, squash and other native American staples, and all through November, the restaurant will offer dishes inspired by the original recipes; local produce and game will be used whenever possible, Schott promises.

Simmons, who first introduced Johnnycakes--cornbread, as we know it--as a delicacy, might have been surprised to hear today's cuisines called "eclectic," "contemporary American," "French Provincial" or, as David Kiser describes his restaurant's menu, "new Bistro." His nine-month-old Church Street Bistro, in Lambertville, was serving Confit of Chicken, with a sweet squash puree and cranberry emulsion--squash courtesy of the state's autumn harvest.

Then there were Creamy, Spicy Carrot Soup from Hopewell's Soupe du Jour; Jersey Corn and Lobster Chowder from Totowa's Bethwood Manor, and Smoked Loin of Pork, glazed with maple syrup, spaetzle, and red cabbage, locally grown, from Auberge Swiss in Berkeley Heights.

With such an abundance of food, it was only natural that the wineries in attendance were also keeping busy. One of the state's newest, Unionville Vineyards of Ringoes, will produce 8,000 gallons in its third season. Winemaker John Altmaier suggests people interested in wine ought to tour one of the area's vineyards and see how far the industry has come in technique and talent. Over at the Triumph Brewing Co. table, the Princeton brewpub staff suggests touring their facility, if you like micro-brewed beers.

Now, before you get the idea that all these well-dressed folks--who paid $150 each for the honor--came just to eat and drink, things did settle down nicely when the musical program got into full swing.

Soloists such as soprano Eileen Strempel sang "Che'il bel sogno" from "La Rondine" and "Villia" from "The Merry Widow." Baritone Yalun Zhang performed "Votre Toast" from "Carmen," and another homegrown talent, Hopewell Township's Wenonah Brooks, a jazz vocalist, sang a selection of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and others.

Perhaps few appreciated the uniting of food and opera as did Daniel Cannizzo, owner of 40 Main Catering in Millburn and vice president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. "I spent six years singing with small opera companies, and I still adore it," said the coordinator of the restaurants for the event. "Food is an art, and the coming together of New Jersey's finest culinary talents with its finest musical talents is really the story today."

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