The Food Life: Specialty Foods in the Neighborhood

In the fancy food world, there are cheese shops, charcuteries, prepared food counters, greengrocers, gourmet ingredient shops, wine boutiques, pastry shops, and artisanal chocolatiers.  While all these independent purveyors make for lots of intriguing stops for the food-obsessed among us, time and location can limit the ability to browse.

Every once in a fortunate while, all of these specialties can be found under one roof, hand-selected by a discerning uber-shopper who devotes herself to finding the best of the best  and bringing it all together in a fancy food paradise.  For food lovers in the Merrimack Valley, paradise is Abbie Batchelder’s Joppa Fine Foods in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The small-in-size market in the Tannery Marketplace was launched in September 2003 by partners Carolyn Welch and Renee Hardie, two former employees of Boston’s South End Formaggio.  Abbie was their first hire, starting as General Manager and shelf-builder extraordinaire the day before the store opened.  Around five years later, when Renee began planning to leave the area, she offered to sell her share of the business to Abbie.  “Ironically,” Abbie says, “at that same time, I was planning to hand in my notice to Renee and Carolyn.

“You see, I had worked at the shop for so long and I was as high up in the chain as I was going to be.  I loved it here, and I treated working here as seriously as if the store was my own, but of course it wasn’t.  And as Manager, there was nothing for me to promote to.  I felt I needed to move to a new job that would give me room to grow.

“And then Renee made her offer.”

Shortly after, Carolyn too decided to sell her share and, in January of 2009, Abbie became Joppa Fine Foods’ sole owner.   The transition from employee to owner, she says, has been a relatively easy one.  Staff already knew her as the boss on the floor, and she had much of the day to day experience of ordering and bookkeeping and scheduling under her belt.  The hardest part, she admits, may have been defining a role for herself in a business that two other people still felt ties to.

“Time, though, has taken care of that,” Abbie adds, noting that as the previous owners have become involved with their own new lives, she has “definitely made the store my own.”

The touches Abbie has added to Joppa Fine Foods have not been startling, but rather natural progressions from the store’s mission “to be the premier provider of high quality food products, cheese, and freshly prepared meals on the North Shore.”  But the changes she has brought – like the organic milk and farm fresh eggs for those shoppers who may be too busy to make a second shopping trip – are definitely noticeable to the long time customer.  Rounding the store out with new products “whether it’s the milk and eggs or a new cheese or a new ice cream, keeps Joppa fresh for the customers, the staff, and myself.”

Forward looking, Abbie has ideas for new services that will be responsive to customers’ needs and at the same time offer opportunities for staff development.  Her time on the staff side of the operations equation makes her acutely aware of the need for her employees to experience career growth.  She also hopes to partner more with local farms, expanding on the successes of participation in a farm-to-table dinner held last year at the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in Newbury, and the CSA share she purchased from local Arrowhead Farm for use in Joppa’s fresh prepared foods.  “Pursuing these new ideas will allow me to grow the fresh food aspect of the business, plus you get a fantastic feeling when you support local businesses and farms.”

Local is one of the larger themes among the ingredients here at Joppa Fine Foods, and Abbie defines local in two ways.  First, she says, local means really local – as in, within a 15-minute radius – when it comes to produce and eggs, even meat.  “In the broader sense of the word local, I would say it describes New England.  Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Western Massachusetts – it is hugely important to me to have a solid representation of items from all over New England in the store.”

To that end, she carries chocolates from New Hampshire, jams and pizza dough from Maine, and hors d’oeuvres, snacking nuts, and cookies all from small Massachusetts businesses.

And all that wonderful New England artisan cheese.

While the shop holds an astounding amount of European cheeses, the New England ones are some of Abbie’s favorites, so good that she hopes others in her community to have a chance to experience them.  “Local food,” she says, “is just so good.  It is fresh and clean and free of preservatives because it is made close to home to be eaten right away.  I get to know my farmers and producers, and feel lucky to have so many creative people making so many yummy things.  My favorite mission is to go as local as possible.”

At home, Abbie could not be without some of the store’s cheese, staples like the parmigiano reggiano and mozzarella di bufala.  And she seems to always have “some kind of Jeni’s ice cream, Vermont Brownie Company’s Dark Chocolate Chevre brownies, Ariston olive oil, Ragghi’s crackers, Panebelle whole wheat pizza dough, dried figs…truly, the list goes on!  I think I might have a problem!”

Myself, I might have a problem too, because it seems I can’t go too long without a fix of Joppa’s cheeses.  As I prepare to leave, I ask Abbie if she will suggest a selection of four for me to bring home for a weekend splurge.  Before long my basket is filled with a Valencay pyramid, a wedge of Twig Farm’s Square, a Seal Cove Pearl, and a small tray of Shy Brother’s thimble-size lavender bud Hannahbells, the lone cow’s milk cheese.  Abbie points out many accompaniments, all conveniently placed within arm’s reach of the cheese counter, and I pick up some dried red plums, dried pears, an Italian apricot jam, and both crisp bread and french bread to round out my cheese plate.

I get some tips and a couple of simple entertaining recipes at the cheese counter too, one of my favorite benefits of shopping at a local store.  My shopkeepers get to know me, what I like, what I’ll be willing to try, and, like Abbie, are extremely generous with their ideas and good will.

From Abbie Batchelder, here are Cheese Serving Ideas and Two Hors D’Oeuvres:

Cheese, especially goat’s cheese, pairs well with honey.  Try adding a warm nut-infused honey to your cheese plate.  Abbie recommends pan-toasting almonds and experimenting with all kinds of honey to find your favorites.  At home I took her advice, using toasted hazelnuts and lavender honey.

Try a soft cheese on your favorite dried fruit.  This is the Valencay on a dried plum, a winning combination.

Fruits in the form of jams or spreads or conserves also make a nice accompaniment to cheese.  Here, I topped french bread spread with the Casa Barone apricot jam and a slice of Pearl and came up with another winner.

Abbie loves to entertain and admits to being a “bit of a perfectionist” who tries to “plan menus so that everything complements each other perfectly.”   One of her favorite hors d’oeuvres, a fine example of complementary tastes, is a slice of Manchego topped with a sliver of membrillo (quince paste), both wrapped in a piece of Serrano ham then pan-sauteed.

She recommended that I try making a favorite finger food using the Hannahbells thimbles.  Here’s my interpretation of Abbie’s Hannahbells Puff Pastry Purses.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Roll out a sheet of thawed Dufour all-butter puff pastry to a 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut the sheet into several 2-inch by 2-inch squares.  Dot each square in the center with little honey.  Top each dot of honey with a Hannahbell cheese.

Bring the corners of the pastry square up and over the top of the cheese, press together gently and twist, forming a purse.  Wet your fingertips to seal any openings in the edges of the pastry.  Bake the purses for about 12 minutes on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Cool slightly before eating.

Chive tie optional.

Joppa Fine Foods

50 Water Street (The Tannery)

Newburyport, MA


Monday-Friday 10am-7pm

Saturday 10am-6pm

@2010  Jane A. Ward