CHOWDER boils in cast-iron pots, huge haunches of beef sizzle over a fire pit, and a blacksmith's hammer clanks on his anvil. These are some of the sounds, sights, and smells of a late July ``drover's roast'' at the Salem Cross Inn. The tastes come later, and they're equally appealing. The host of this yearly revival of a tradition that stretches back three centuries is the Salem family. They own the inn and operate it as a combination restaurant and ongoing historic restoration project.
The white, shuttered building, formerly a rambling Colonial farmhouse, crowns 600 rolling, wooded acres of central Massachusetts. Polled Hereford cattle can be glimpsed roaming a distant pasture. Nearer, a statuesque Morgan horse grazes.
``We do a lot of interesting things,'' says family patriarch Henry Salem, whose father bought the historic estate in 1950. The previous owners had held the land since 1705. The drover's roast is one of those ``interesting things.'' The Salems also stage wintertime hearthside roasts indoors. Guests are often recruited to help prepare some of the old-fashioned fare. There's also an annual apple-pie bakeoff here.
Mr. Salem, his brother, Dick, who manages the inn, his daughters, Nancy and Martha, and other members of the family and staff spend hours reading the history of their region. One of their discoveries was that William Pynchon, a man to be reckoned with in 17th-century Massachusetts, used to drive his cattle through here to market in Boston, some 60 miles distant. Along the way, the drovers would pause for a feast of roast beef and whatever else the summer harvest provided.
The Salems couldn't resist a re-creation of that occasion. Hence the flagstone roasting pit in a field adjoining the inn, the bulbous cast-iron pots hanging from tripods over open fires, and the artisans, such as blacksmith Robert Lyon, brought on for the day to help summon the past. Children gather around the bearded, stocky Mr. Lyon, who lets them pump his bellows and occasionally grasp his tongs to dip a red-hot hook or spike into a trough of water.
Just beyond a fieldstone wall, a haywagon drawn by a pair of sorrel Belgian draft horses takes another load of passengers for a slow tour of the Salems' back forty.
Over by the roasting pit, Dick Salem, sporting a brightly colored tam-o'-shanter, explains how the wind makes outdoors cooking tricky, since it blows heat away from the five 75-pound chunks of beef. It's now about 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The fire was started at 10 last night, he says, the meat spitted and placed over it at 4 a.m. Nearly a cord and a half of wood goes into keeping the thick bed of coals glowing.
Nearby, the inn's chef, Richard Alan Henrique, tosses a slab of haddock into the rapidly boiling chowder. Chef Henrique describes himself as a self-taught cook who learned his business from the bottom up, starting as a restaurant dishwasher at age 11. He's been at the Salem Cross Inn for 21 years.
Recipes for the roast and the inn's regular repertoire of Colonial cooking are in his custody. Some he'll share, some he won't. The formula for the baste that's being swashed on the beef with rope mops ``stays right in my billfold,'' says chef Henrique with a wink.
At about 5:30, roughly 280 people are called to the tables underneath a billowing green-and-white tent, and the feast commences. First, the chowder - a rich, flavorful concoction of clams, haddock, and potatoes. Then more roast beef, fresh vegetables - corn, cucumber salad, beets, potatoes, spinach, mushrooms - and baked goods than anyone can reasonably fit on a plate. Guests serve themselves, smorgasbord-style, and seconds, thirds, whatever, are encouraged. Dessert is a mound of fresh peaches and whipped cream over short-bread biscuits.
Those attending the drover's roast pay $35.95 a head. Even at that hefty price, though, the inn doesn't make money on the event, according to Henry Salem. The family puts it on for the sheer enjoyment of it, he says.
The menu for the roast shifts a bit from year to year, but some dishes are standards, among them: Clam and Haddock Chowder 1/2 quart of milk 12 large quahogs (or 24 large chowder clams) 1 large onion (10 to 24 ounces), cubed 1 large potato (10 to 12 ounces), cubed 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco 2 large haddock filets, skinned (about 1 pound) 2 bay leaves 3 ounces salt pork
Wash or scrub quahogs or clams, place in large heavy pot, and cover with two quarts of water. Bring to boil and let boil 5 to 8 minutes, or until they open. Drain stock and reserve. Cool off quahogs with cold water, shuck, and finely mince.
In a 6-quart heavy pot, add minced salt pork and saut'e over medium heat until lightly browned. Add bay leaf, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce. Add minced quahogs and reserved stock. Bring to a boil over high heat and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add the two fillets of haddock; stir occasionally until haddock turns a flaky white. Add 1/2 quart of milk. Taste to adjust for seasoning, and serve piping hot with a touch of fresh sour cream; garnish with parsley, if desired. Yield: 10 to 15 large servings. Spinach Pie 3 10-ounce packages fresh spinach 6 ounces mushrooms sliced thin 6 ounces white onions, diced 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese 1/2 cup olive oil 2 ounces dried bread crumbs Pie crust for one-crust pie
Wash spinach. In an 8-quart saucepan, add to one quart of boiling water and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Drain well. Place in large bowl and add all ingredients except bread crumbs and cheese. Toss well.
Lightly butter a 9-by-10-by-2-inch baking dish, sprinkle with bread crumbs, and reserve any excess crumbs. Place spinach in baking dish. Sprinkle with rest of crumbs; sprinkle cheese over top. Roll out piecrust to 1/4-inch thick and place over the top. Make an egg wash using the yolk of one egg and a tablespoon of water, and brush over piecrust. Bake in a preheated 350-degree F. oven for 1 hour. Serves 9.
Put 24 large peaches in boiling water 30 to 60 seconds and then in cold water. Drain and slip off skins. Slice and put in simple syrup of: 4 cups sugar 4 cups water brought to a boil 2 teaspoons lemon juice
Biscuits 12 cups flour (all-purpose) 8 tablespoons baking powder 2 teaspoons salt 1 pound lard, cut in small pieces 1 cup sugar 1 quart milk 1 cup sour cream
Mix and knead 20 to 25 times. Cut biscuits with 21/2-inch cookie cutter. Egg-wash tops, and bake in 375-degree F. oven for 15 minutes.
Whipped Cream 2 quarts heavy cream 1 cup sugar 2 tablespoons vanilla
Beat cream, sugar, and vanilla together until whipped. Assemble shortcake by splitting biscuits, filling generously with peaches, replacing top half, and garnishing with whipped cream.