Maui offers a bounty for foodies

Michelle Young of Huntington Beach, Calif., talks to Michelle Young of Huntington Beach, Calif., talks to a friend from the pool at Grand Wailea Resort in Wailea, Maui, Hawaii. (Feb. 5, 2006) Photo Credit: AP

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When you order the mahi-mahi at Mama's Fish House on Maui, you don't have to wonder whether it's local. The menu is very clear: "caught along the north shore of Maui toward Hana by Mike Holley."

At chef Alan Wong's almost year-old Amasia, you get a list of local farm sources on the menu's first page. Even the tiny roadside Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop (run by Sheldon Simeon, who came in third on "Top Chef Seattle") updates a board daily with a list of its farmers.

The farm (or sea)-to-table movement is clearly flourishing on Maui, and it brings with it a new activity. Call it agritourism.

A tour of the farm

Which finds us on an early March morning teetering on a grassy slope at O'o Farm, a stunning 81/2-acre plot halfway up the slopes of Haleakala.

Orchard manager Ancil Clancy is talking coffee to the 25 visitors who've assembled to tour the farm -- one of a number on Maui that have opened their operations to give visitors behind-the-scenes looks. He promises a tasting later, then takes off over the rolling terrain to check out a bounty of crops that supply farm owner James McDonald's three Maui restaurants (I'O, Pacific'O and Feast at Lele).

Clancy stops at a young olive tree (the farm will have its own oil in a few years) before moving up through fruit and citrus groves -- Surinam cherries, cherimoya fruit that's popular in sorbet and pink lemons that generally end up at the bar and "give the bartenders something to talk about."

Along the way, Clancy lets guests sniff a leaf or nibble a berry, much to the delight of the kids in our group. He offers a brief recap of the farm's history before dropping us off in the open-air kitchen where farm chef JJ Johnson takes over. Johnson, a Seattle transplant who says his year at O'o has been "the best of my life," will prepare the lunch that concludes the tour. But first, he gives a rundown of some of the current crop of vegetables ready for picking.

Then, he sends us back to Clancy, and we head to the fields -- apparently, if we want salad for lunch, we have to pick it ourselves. We mingle with farm workers (including some participants in the farm's volunteer program) and fill a basket with fresh lettuce and spinach, cilantro and arugula, bunches of beets, bulbs of fennel and a bouquet of flowers that Clancy assures us are edible. As we wander back, Clancy takes us through the intricate composting operation, then up past huge avocado trees (so sad, nothing ripe) and past the coffee-roasting setup.

As fresh as it comes

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But the lunch bell beckons and the group hits the buffet, where Johnson has put out a spread of sauteed fish with Maui onions, grilled tofu and beets (even those of us who tend to turn up our noses at beets agree they taste better when just pulled from the ground), fresh bread and all those veggies, lovely with just a touch of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Most everyone's brought their own wine, and guests settle into an easy conversation about their Maui adventures.

After lunch, it's back to work -- we need to shell a pile of macadamia nuts to go with the chocolate truffles the chef has rolled while we were eating. The perfect ending -- freshly brewed local mokka coffee, which Clancy notes is always served within a couple of weeks of roasting.

The tour officially concluded, people linger a while before starting back down the mountain, perhaps to stop at Surfing Goat Dairy, one of only two dairy farms in the state. The dairy offers a variety of tours (see box) and a chance to taste multiple flavors of its award-winning cheese.

The real temptation, though, is to head straight to Lahaina and see how the farm's bounty transfers to the menus at one of chef McDonald's restaurants. On second thought, after all those truffles, perhaps another day.

If you go

O'O FARM Tours run from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday; $50 adults, $25 (children 5-12). The farm also will conduct personalized tours and events, and occasionally schedules recipe workshops and wine dinners; check website for details. 808-667-4341, oofarm.com

SURFING GOAT DAILY Stop by on the way down from O'o Farm and take a quick tour of the dairy operations. The casual, no-reservation-needed tour is $10, $7 for kids; the evening milking tour is $15, $12 for kids; and the grand tour, which includes feeding and milking a goat, is $25. Afterward, sample the award-winning cheese (a vast array of flavors, such as Olé with jalapeños and artichoke, and Mandalay with apples, banana and curry). The dairy will ship cheese home but, fair warning, beware those second-day Fed Ex charges. 808-878-2870, surfinggoatdairy.com

MAUI COUNTRY FARM TOURS Start off at Whole Foods in Kahalui for a 9 a.m.-to-2 p.m. (or 11:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.) tour that stops at a pineapple company, a cattle ranch, a winery, a lavender farm and Kula Country Farms; with lunch and refreshments, $120. Full-day and customized tours also available. 808-283-9131, mauicountryfarmtours.com

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