Wade Knowles, co-owner of Knowles Restaurants, surveying the Calamondin orange trees that rise to the glass rooftop of Pleasantdale Chateau’s Orangerie.
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There may be freezing temperatures in the forecast and snow piling up everywhere, but for the Knowles group of restaurants, It’s perfect New Jersey weather for picking oranges.
On a bitter cold day in West Orange, Wade Knowles, co-owner of Knowles Restaurants, stood alongside the operation’s Farm and Grounds Manager, looking up at the Calamondin orange trees growing inside Pleasantdale Chateau’s climate- controlled “Orangerie.” This stunning indoor greenhouse conservatory showcases a wide variety of tropical plants, exotic flowers, and–as its name suggests–is also the host to an intriguing collection of fruit-bearing orange trees. Studying the masses of brightly colored ripened fruit replete within the canopy of green leaves and twisted branches overhead, they decided it was time–time to harvest the oranges.
A ladder, some pruning shears, and a few short hours later, the crop of Calamondins had been picked, cleaned, and hand-delivered to another of the Knowles family’s properties less than a mile down the road. Once at Highlawn Pavilion, the fine dining restaurant inside Eagle Rock Reservation known for it’s creative cuisine and skyline overlook, the diminutive fruits were quickly put to use by it’s executive chef. Prepped and placed in a heated sugar-water mixture, the chef began the process of candying the oranges. The next night the oranges would find a place on the plate of a new special on the menu. If you stop into Highlawn Pavilion soon–if there are still enough oranges–your waiter may offer you a Niman Ranch pork tasting of tenderloin and pork belly with baby vegetables, a side of creamy mashed potatoes, port reduction…and candied Calamondin oranges. It’s just one example of the restaurant’s attempts to bring hyper-local fruits, vegetables and herbs to the table any time of year.
For Wade Knowles, maintaining the orange trees and the entire Orangerie is a labor of love. “The history of Pleasantdale Chateau and all of its one-of-a-kind elements makes it a true New Jersey gem worth preserving for guests hosting special events with us. We’ve put a great deal of work into maintaining and creating compelling spaces like the Orangerie that are difficult to find elsewhere,” said Knowles. “But what makes it all-the-more rewarding is to have an Orangerie that truly yields and can supply our restaurants with its bounty even in the middle of winter.”
The six generation family business whose restaurant and hospitality operations include The Manor, Highlawn Pavilion, and Pleasantdale Chateau, all in West Orange, as well as Ram’s Head Inn in Galloway, NJ, continues to honor it’s long-held philosophy
of integrating fresh, local produce into the dishes that their restaurants serve. Long before the term “farm-to-table” was en vogue, their dining establishments were growing fruits and vegetables on their properties and working hand-in-hand with local farmers. When the Knowles family acquired Pleasantdale Chateau in 1994, it also revitalized the farm on the 40-acre estate to help service the needs of its restaurants. Originally Dutch farmland as early as 1835, the Knowles now operate their own farm as a means of supplying a broad range of ingredients to their restaurant kitchens.
The farm manager tasked with ensuring the health of the Orangerie as well as the maintenance of the farm and each of the properties’ gardens and grounds said, “It’s rewarding to see your hard work quite literally bear fruit. To know that we can create an environment that is visually appealing for our brides and other guests of the Chateau while also providing a green, local source of ingredients to our restaurants is encouraging.” In the latest season operating the farm, they have cultivated a range of crops from over forty varieties of heirloom tomatoes, to herbs, squash, cucumbers and much more. In addition to the farm’s orchard of plum, apple and pear trees, the farm also supplied the Knowles’ restaurants with several gallons of pure raw honey from the its beehives.
To see more photos of the Orangerie or to learn more about The Farm at Pleasantdale, please visit one of The Farm’s social media pages.