By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
Dinnertime usually isn’t a “please pass the fried chicken and potatoes” occasion for Deborah Stone and her family.
“We’re better grazers than we are at sitting down to a meal,” said Stone, the owner of Stone Hollow Farmstead in Harpersville and The Pantry in Crestline. “We like to put out a spread of things like cheeses, olives, pickles and panforte, which is an Italian fruitcake.”
Stone has brought that “grazing” concept to The Pantry, her Crestline business that focuses on farm-fresh food. Customers can sit down and order from a seasonal menu or buy prepared dishes to serve at home. Bins and baskets are filled with fresh vegetables and fruits. The store’s shelves are stocked with items like pickled asparagus and ramps, homemade dulce de leche and other foodie-magnet goodies.
But it’s the cheeses, many made at Stone Hollow’s creamery, that are the centerpieces for The Pantry’s newest offerings, which Stone calls “grazing boards.”
While some of the grazing boards will have predetermined prices, customized versions are also available, Stone said. Customers can make their own selections or ask for advice based on their budgets and the number of people they want to serve.
“We like to do a mix of textures with the cheeses—hard, soft, washed rind and bloomy rind,” Stone said.
Washed rind cheeses, such as Gruyere, have a firm outer rind. Bloomy rind cheeses, like brie or camembert, have a growth of soft, white mold on the surface.
The boards aren’t limited to cheeses. The Pantry can add meats, fruits and veggies, olives, sauces, pickles—posh concoctions, not good old hamburger dills—and pair the foods with wine.
The grazing boards can be lifesavers for those hosting any size get-together, especially as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. But they aren’t The Pantry’s only holiday offerings.
Michael Celozzi, The Pantry’s cheesemonger, said demand for a particularly good farmstead Gruyere goes up this time of year.
“People like to use it in tarts and fondues—it’s an important cooking cheese,” he said. “But you can also put smaller portions on a cheeseboard.”
Celozzi also expects The Pantry’s pastry-wrapped brie to be a hit with busy hosts.
“While some people are purists about brie, it’s really good when you wrap it in freshly-made phyllo dough and pop it into the oven. You can serve it with a jam or jelly and make it sweet or savory,” he said.
While most kids today wouldn’t exactly be overjoyed to find oranges in their Christmas stockings, food lovers would likely be elated to receive some of The Pantry’s citrus fruits.
“In November, we’ll be getting in fruits like blood oranges from Florida, limes from California and Ponderosa lemons from a friend who grows them in his front yard in Apalachicola, Fla.,” Stone said.
The Pantry will also have hard-to-find and fun fruits like Buddha’s Hands, which, with their octopus-like shapes, looks like lemons gone wild.
“We’ll have calamondin, too. It’s a tiny, tart citrus fruit from the Mandarin orange family. We like to separate the segments and douse them in Stevia,” Stone said. “They’re good in jams and jellies.”
While Stone grew up on a farm near Argo, her first career was in a very different field. She was the owner of the very upmarket Deborah Stone Day Spa. She sold the spa in 1999.
Her family also includes her husband Russell, a certified public accountant who practices in Homewood, and the couple’s two daughters. Fallon, 31, lives with her husband, Chris, and their three children in New Mexico. Alexandra, 26, is her mother’s business partner; she manages The Pantry and also runs the social media and public relations aspects of the business.
“Alex and I are both ‘journey people’—we love taking dirt roads and visiting with small farmers to find new sources of products for The Pantry,” Stone said.
The family originally decided to buy its 80-acre farm in Harpersville so they would have a place to ride horses.
While the farm started out as a retreat—the Stones live in Liberty Park—that changed in a big way.
“At some point after 9/11, we realized that the only thing the farm lacked was milk and meat,” Stone said. “We didn’t think we could handle cows, so we got goats.”
As Stone Hollow Farmstead expanded, Stone began to look for a way to sell not only her products but others from small farmers.
“Alex and I opened The Pantry with the intent of it being a retail food boutique,” she said. “We were learning about clean, healthy food choices, and we were both juicers. Now, we’re a juice bar in the morning, a café for lunch and a retail food boutique all day.”
Helping small farmers means a lot to her, she said.
“When you have a small farm, your day might begin at 5 a.m. and end at 9 at night,” Stone said. “You have no time or the resources to market your products yourself.”
The Pantry first opened in Cahaba Heights in November 2011. About a year later, the store moved to 17 Dexter Ave. in Crestline Village.
The Pantry’s customers range from those who know a lot about food to those who “have no idea that there’s a big food movement going on,” Stone said. “We love talking with everybody. We can suggest simple, mild cheeses to those with developing palates, and we have aged, “stinky” cheeses for those with more seasoned palates.”
The Pantry team strongly supports the Community Supported Agriculture program, Stone said.
CSA has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from farmers.
Through the program, a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Those who buy the shares get bags or boxes of seasonal produce and other freshly-made foods.
Stone shares recipes for items in the bag, which can include not only familiar fruits and vegetables but sprouts, eggs, cheeses, homemade butter and edible flowers like nasturtiums.
“Of all the things we do, CSA is probably the most representative of who we are,” Stone said. “It’s a partnership of like-minded individuals.”
Stone Hollow Farmstead regularly hosts farm dinners to “celebrate the seasons,” Stone said.
“We try to have one in the spring and one in the summer, and we have Hollow Harvest in October, usually when there’s a full moon,” she said.
The next farm dinner is the Hollow Holler Nov. 1.
“It’s a celebration of artists. We’ll have a local leather maker and an iron worker who makes knives as well as other artists,” Stone said.
For ticket information, visit stonehollowfarmstead.com or call The Pantry, 803-3585.