What do standing in a field, naming a chicken, meeting an organic farmer, eating food from one of San Francisco’s top chefs and making new friends have in common? Outstanding in the Field, that’s what.
If you’re not familiar with Outstanding in the Field, it’s a stylish, boots and straw, get back to the dirt and enjoy the finest food and wine, type of an outfit. It aims to create a stronger bond between foodies, the food that lands on our plates and the amazing producers who make it all possible. How? By hosting gourmet dinners on farms all over the country.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a recent OITF dinner, almost in my backyard at County Line Harvest farm just a few miles from Petaluma, by my dear friend and author, Porter Gale. Side note: Porter has just published her new book and you should rush out and buy a copy right now.
After days of 80 degree heat, on our assigned dining in a field day, the rain clouds gathered and our dreams of actually eating in a field were thwarted. But these people have seen it all, so the property’s beautiful, ageing, red barn – usually home to swallows and an owl – was hurriedly dusted-off, fairy lights were strung, electricity was made to work and straw was strewn. All so we would have a roof over our meal.
On this occasion the menu was conjured up by Mark Liberman of AQ restaurant in San Francisco. Our gathering started with some hearty, palate-tantalizing appetizers and free flowing wine. Hot pink radishes from the farm were paired with cultured butter, sea salt and wild fennel. A terrine of braised beef was topped with horseradish jam and green strawberries. Young onions were stuffed with goat cheese, and we tried not to over-stuff ourselves too soon in the proceedings.
The bites were punctuated by laughter, introducing old friends to new ones and getting to meet David Retsky, the tenacious farmer behind County Line Harvest, who has worked long and hard to consistently bring organic lettuces and tomatoes to our tables. Turns out that Farmer Dave is also a chicken whisperer, although he may not have been aware of his own talents had Porter not asked him to capture the curious hen who was checking out the latest foodie gossip.
After much merriment, and ceremoniously naming our new chicken friend, Porter, Farmer Dave led about 140 of us, inappropriate city shoes and all, in and out of a few plowed rows of the 40 acres he rents from the Dolcinis who own the land and raise beef cattle.
As we carefully stomped amongst thyme, Early Girl tomatoes, arugula covered in a special sheet to try and keep the bugs off, and a bedazzling array of lettuces, we learned firsthand just how much it takes to bring these goodies to market. Weather, pests, water, seed quality and more, all dictate the end result. I won’t bemoan paying a few extra dollars for organic produce again, and neither should you.
Shoes dusty, tummies rumbling, and the edge of our hunger sharpened by snacking on a few of the bright red strawberries that caught our eye in the fields, we made our way up to the barn. One of the fun traditions of these dinners is that you bring your own plate to offset the plain white starched tablecloths, glassware and silverware that’s laid out on really long tables.
We got to know our dining companions, a fascinating crew. It turned out that most of us are involved in marketing in one way or another, go figure. But most intriguing of all was the truffle grower who’s nurturing these sought-after black jewels and breeding truffle dogs, in a top secret location somewhere in the U.S. I can’t say anymore than that or he’ll have to kill me. Although I did learn it can take 7-10 years for a truffle orchard to start producing. Makes growing lettuces look like child’s play (sorry Farmer Dave!).
Our meal started with rustic bread, set down on the table, accompanied by pale, creamy butter sprinkled with sea salt. Really, I could have called it a day right there but that would have been foolish. What followed next was my favorite dish of the night: tartare of carrots, exotic spices & currants, smoked egg yolk, sheeps’ milk, salad of just picked kales, flowers & cress.
Smoked egg? Yes, smoked egg. One of my new friends, Christy, was smart enough to ask the waitress how exactly you smoke an egg so now I can tell you. Crack the egg and extract the yolk only; place in a special egg water bath (I’m sure you have one of those) and set the heat to precisely 68 degrees for one hour. The yolk will be set, but not too runny, gooey but not hard. Then smoke said eggs over hay grass. It’s as easy as pie. The resulting flavor is out of this world. Oh don’t forget to push your carrots through a meat grinder, just as you would with beef for traditional tartare.
With the dimming light (even with the gorgeous tea-lights handed out by the beautiful girl) I wasn’t able to photograph the rest of our meal, but it was filling and inventive. A stew of earth and sea with potatoes, red wine braised lobster and broccoli. Lots of beef from grilled and sliced, to smoked sausages and beef haggis (which was a little stodgy) with grilled country bread. A palate cleanser of beef consommé with garden flowers and herbs.
To finish, strawberry and root vegetable cake accompanied by mascarpone, strawberry purée and toasted pine nuts. Sadly I had to eat mine on the way home in the car because of an early morning flight to New York, so my photograph just shows the beautiful Heath plates schmeared with strawberry puree and ready to go.
All in all, it was a beautiful gathering and one I’ll remember for a long time to come.