A new definition of eating local is sprouting up across the country
A gentle breeze is blowing; sending forth the competing fragrances of barbecuing lamb, grapevines, and the mineral-laden earth beneath our feet. We’re seated at a forty-foot-long table perched on a ridge between seemingly endless rows of Rousanne and Viognier grapevines. As we await the first course, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the panoramic views of the gentle rolling hills that lead to the sinking sun.
Jim Denevan raises his wine glass to welcome the sixty-five of us who have come to share his midsummer ‘full-moon’ dinner al fresco. “We have a passion for sharing the story of the farm.” The forty-four-year-old model turned chef has brought diners together for another ‘Outstanding in the Field’ farm dinner.
Denevan’s goal is to promote the aesthetics of food by combining the freshest, local, ingredients with the creativity of culinary professionals. Dinners are held where the food grows, helping even the most ardent city dwellers appreciate the connection between what they eat and where it comes from. In a country where most produce travels 1,300 miles from field to plate, the chance to feast on ingredients grown inches from one’s feet is rare indeed. So too is the resulting intimacy that blossoms among a group of strangers who share the bounty of the table.
Denevan’s interest in gastronomy began as a child picking apples and pears on his older brother’s farm, one of California’s first organic enterprises. By his teens, he began working as a cook. But it was while Denevan was living overseas that his farm dinner idea took shape. “I spent a long time traveling through northern Italy and France witnessing how powerful the food culture is”, he says. “There’s a whole infrastructure supporting the connection to farms.” The experience inspired Denevan to trade in his cook’s apron for chef’s whites upon returning home to Santa Cruz.
As a chef at Gabriela’s restaurant, Denevan developed relationships with local farmers that inspired him to host ‘Farmer Dinners’ in the mid 1990s. “The growers would come with their families and friends and we’d compose a meal around what the farm produced. The farmer would also give a talk, which the customers loved.” Ultimately, Denevan thought, why not bring the table and the kitchen directly to the field?
That was in 1999. What began as a local California event quickly spread to other areas of the country. Past farm dinners have been held in Colorado, upstate New York, and the Berkshires. And though the basic concept remains unchanged, the talks have expanded to include winemakers, cheese makers, bakers, and other ‘artisans of the table.’
Typically, the experience begins in late afternoon with a farm tour. In this case, it’s Barbara and Bill Spencer’s Windrose Farm. Upon arrival we’re seduced with dryland almonds roasted in Spanish paprika and garlic accompanied by slow-roasted Blenheim apricots, still sensually warm. Sipping a glass of Vermentino under a sprawling, old oak tree makes the ninety degree heat barely noticeable “especially once we learn it’s about twenty degrees cooler than normal.
After a few minutes, Barbara rings a bell to signal the start of the tour of her seventy-one-acre farm. “This place is not merely a food producing machine”. she tells the group. “That’s why we’ve opened the farm to share with people. We’re firm believers in organic farming because we’ve seen the land change. We’re formed by having lived here. Diversity comes from the land to us.”
This is most apparent as we tramp through rows of winter squash, okra, tomatillos, posole (hominy), dry beans, olives, carrots, and beets as well as more than fifty varieties of tomatoes, and forty varieties of apples.
After the tour of the farm, it’s on to Las Tablas Vineyard for another tour that culminates at our open-air dining room. Before sitting down, we gather the dinner plates that we’ve brought from home, fulfilling what Denevan calls, “The tradition of the plate”, a perfect icebreaker before the first wine, a rich Rose is served.
“So what’s the story of your plate?” the gentleman on my right, a surgeon from San Diego asks. “It was the first thing I could find”, I reply. More interesting is the story of the veterinarian sitting across from me with his colorful Christmas tree plate. “It just showed up mysteriously at my house one year. Now I take it everywhere I go hoping someone will identify it”, he tells me.
A yellow gazpacho with cilantro oil drizzle heralds the start of the meal. Five luscious courses served family-style follow, each with a different wine and nearly as many interesting discussions on everything from how stressing the grape yields better flavor and why the lamb was raised without hormones or antibiotics. Most memorable however, is Ciro, the breadmaker, who leads the table in frequent football fan-like sound ‘waves’ between bites of garlic bruschetta, ceviche, roasted lamb, and heirloom beans.
All of which arrives in generous portions. Sure, at $140 each, you won’t be doing this every weekend. But rest assured, the money is well spent. This particular dinner was a fundraiser for the local Slow Food chapter. Part of the profits were destined to a local school’s ‘edible schoolyard project’, and the rest of the proceeds went to help a farmer attend an International Food Symposium in Italy.
As for the moon, it didn’t appear until after the last piece of stone fruit crostata was gobbled up. Yet as I drove away, I noticed a big orange sphere rising through the cedars, the second full moon of the month. This ‘blue moon’ wasn’t just a rare astronomical occurrence; it was the fitting conclusion to an equally rare gastronomical event.
For more information on Outstanding in the Field Farm Dinners and Tours visit www.outstandinginthefield.com
Grilled LambTom Fundaro, executive chef Villa Creek. Serves 4
1 rack of lamb
1 cup dry red wine
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 white onion, sliced
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped mixed herbs. i.e. (rosemary, time, oregano, parsley)
salt and pepper
In a large non-reactive bowl, mix wine, garlic, onion, olive oil, and herbs. Lay rack of lamb in glass pan and cover with marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Heat grill. Grill lamb until it is medium rare, turning frequently. Allow meat to rest and serve with organic roasted vegetables.
GazpachoTom Fundaro, executive chef Villa Creek. Serves 6
5 lbs. heirloom tomatoes
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
3 cloves garlic
1 small white onion
4 tbs. sherry vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
tomato sorbet [see recipe below]
Puree tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, garlic, and onion in a blender until very smooth. Slowly add vinegar and olive oil to blender until emulsified into soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve ice cold, garnish with tomato sorbet.
5 lbs. yellow tomatoes (pureed)
2 shallots, sliced
5 tbs. red wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
salt to taste
Cook tomatoes and shallots on low heat in medium saucepan for about ninety minutes until it concentrates, then let cool. Add remaining ingredients and puree until smooth. Pour into ice cream machine and follow operating instructions. Serve over gazpacho.