Monday, December 3, 2007

Mountain Feast

After a short break in the season (some time for us all to catch up with the rest of the world and not have to think about the dinner next weekend) it's amazing how easy it is to get back on the horse and into the swing of purveyors, chefs, tables and chairs.  

We look forward to this event every year since the first in 2004: the Foraging Feast.  Hosting us this year is Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail of a great project called Pie Ranch.  The "Rural Center for Urban Renewal" is located about 40 minutes north of Santa Cruz, right off of Hwy 1 in San Mateo County and they devote themselves to educating people (especially youth) on farming, community and local food systems.  Their beautiful old barn will house our table and dinner guests for the potentially chilly early December event.

Setting up their kitchen on the Ranch is Chef Sean Baker, who reigns from Jim's old stomping grounds of Gabriella Cafe.  Gabriella is actually where the idea of Outstanding in the Field was born, when Jim would bring the purveyors of his menus into the restaurant and feature them at "Farmer Dinners".  This eventually grew into having the diners in the farmers' fields and Outstanding in the Field as we know it today.  Chef Sean has actually joined us before for an Outstanding dinner, as part of Eric Tucker's Millenium crew at Mariquita Farm in 2002.  This year, he is the one leading the pack, bringing his acclaimed local fare from the cottage-like Gabriella, out to the barn.

As guests arrived to Pie Ranch at about two o'clock, they were directed up the hill to where the fields and forest meet and Denis Hoey of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard awaited with his Grenache Rose and Tempranillo.  The weather was comfortable for a coastal December day, however the wind had joined us in full force and made us happy that we had the barn as shelter for later on.

And now to introduce to you the star or our foraging feast: David Chambers, a master forager of the Santa Cruz Mountains and traditional "host" of our December events.  This photo from last year's dinner (thank you to Jerry Chacon) has David showing off a deadly Death cap mushroom.

On a scouting mission a few days prior to the dinner, David and Jim had discussed and decided on the extent of our foraging trek.  However David, with his excess of boyish enthusiasm, abandoned these plans all together and pushed further:  heading up a steep hill with our dinner crowd trailing behind, huffing and puffing.  The reward at the summit was a spectacular view of the forest, the Pacific and a far offshore island.  David shared stories about the difficulty of finding mushrooms this year due to lack of rain in the area.  He did relate the finding of a 6 lb. boletus edulis mushroom (a.k.a. porcini) 100 miles north, where the rains had been plentiful.  After the talk the group moved closer to the edge and with the beautiful view, everyone fell silent.  Jim broke this with a "Let's eat!" and everyone made their way down the hill through the Eucalyptus and Monterey pine, back to the barn.  If there ever was one, this was the dinner where everyone had definitely worked up an appetite by the time they reached the table.

Now filled with the tables and chairs and nicely warmed with a few area heaters, the barn was transformed into a cozy dining room.  Jered and Nancy had the space decorated with brightly colored decorative squash and strings of dried corn cobs lined the rafters.

Once everyone was settled in, platters of Sean's grilled squid and Scott's Point mussels with wild mint and chili made their way to the tables, greatly satisfying our hungry hikers.  The other family-style courses included a lamb's tongue, pig's ear mushroom and endive salad and then sable fish with fennel, chanterelles, hedgehogs and stinging nettles from nearby Bonny Doon Road.  Finally, Sean and his crew individually plated an heirloom bean ragout in a winter squash ring with seared queen boletus on top, for a beautiful presentation.  See the full menu here.  The atmosphere inside the barn was warm and homey, with guests enjoying their meal and chatting with the neighboring diners at the long tables, creating a pleasant buzz in the barn. 

After finishing up with a delicious "winter luxury" pie (winter luxury is suitably the name of the pumpkin variety), the guests made their way back to their vehicles by lantern through forest and field.