Friday, October 9, 2009

SLOW ~Anatomy of a meal in the Santa Ynez Valley

Last Sunday, Full of Life Flatbread hosted an inspired and inspiring culinary event. It was their first ever private dinner and everything, I mean everything, centered around local produce. The reason for celebration was the recent release of Douglas Gayeton’s photographic journey in book form – “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town”. Gayeton’s photo montage follows him through a food culture with a rich history and the farmers entrenched in thousands of years of tradition.

Doublas Gayeton's Book and reason for celebration

Those of you who know me, know of my fondness for Flatbread’s cuisine. Their attention to sustainability as well as uncanny prowess for surprising and delicious flavor combinations made substantially from locally-sourced ingredients never fails to astound me. I knew from the get go that this event would tickle my taste buds, what I didn’t know was that my taste buds would never quite be the same.

Clark, owner of Flatbread, and his staff set out to create a culinary experience both inspired by the book’s implicit philosophies and the local ingredient offerings of the Santa Ynez Valley, where Flatbread resides. Just as the book takes us behind the scenes of a meal – to where the ingredients came from and the people behind the harvest - Flatbread’s feast would make us sit back and ponder the dish’s process, beyond the fork to mouth relationship.

Enhancing the experience even further was the motley crew of diners, thrown together in a family-style setting, breaking bread with stranger and family alike. There were winemakers, fashion designers, family folk, magazine publishers and retired horse ranchers. The single commonality between all 28 guests was an undeniable and passionate love for good food.

We were a tough crowd and Clark had a challenge ahead of him if he was to wow us all. He was ready and packing some heat though, starting us off with beautiful table set in rustic simplicity adorned with homemade breadsticks, San Luis Obispo-grown breakfast radishes, fresh butter and salted almonds. Palmina Winery was there, pouring profusely throughout the meal and started us off with their Malvasia Bianca (2008).

The Splendid Table

Once the guests had settled into their seats and the author had arrived (post-toddler incident), Clark served up some of the largest figs I have ever seen. The figs were roasted to gooey perfection and topped with smoked blue cheese and bacon. I could have stopped here and been completely, utterly, abundantly satisfied (they were so good I took a second, despite having five more courses to go), but the Flatbread crew was having none of it…

Roasted figs - a love affair begins...

Next came the coal-roasted artichokes and pumpkin pisto. Pisto is similar to a ratatouille, a veggie stew if you will, and this one was surprisingly delightful. The juxtaposition of fresh artichoke and hearty pumpkin was stunning, especially when dipped in a bit of the roasted garlic romesco (garlicky goodness in oil). This dish was accompanied by Palmina’s Tocai Fruilano (2008), offering crisp flavor to even out the richness of the dish.

Pisto of pumpkin, fall is here

After this course Chrystal, co-owner of Palmina, stood up and offered up her take on wine’s place at the table. My favorite thing that she said is that “wine is part of the table, it’s an extension of the plate” – I found this statement to be resoundingly true both in practicality and imagery. Throughout the course of the dinner, Palmina’s wines stayed true to this adage, not acting simply as a tag-along flavor, but actually infusing their own flavors into the meal’s nuances.

Next up, was the wild arugula salad with proscuitto and potted egg. The combination of bitter arugula, salty proscuitto, creamy egg was subtle, but rich and paired perfectly with Flatbread’s “Shaman’s Bread”, a pistachio, rosemary and flax seed flatbread used for dipping in the egg. Palmina pulled out the stops for this course, serving their Nebiolo (2005 - the only nebiolo grapes grown in California).

Eggs in pots - delicious!

And, yes, another dish followed that one, this time Whey-fed Rinconada Pork leg, slow-roasted in Flatbread’s oak-burning pizza oven and served with a fennel seed sauce, pomegranate and roasted grapes. Now, I have never thought to pair pork with grapes – prunes, plums and other stone fruit yes, but grapes?!?! And I have to tell you, the combination was exquisite, especially when punctuated with sips of Palmina Barbera (2007).

Palmina's bounty

Next up we had a cheese plate of local Rinconanda Pozo Tomme and other Chaparral Cheeses. Cheese plate accoutrements included paper-thin persimmon slices, Santa Ynez valley sage honey with black pepper and whole honey comb. Though I am a die-hard cheese lover, it was getting difficult to fit anything else in…but don’t worry, I managed a few slices of these semi-hard cheeses which were heaven when dipped in the honey with black pepper.

The cheese plate, certainly not to be missed

And not to be outdone by the other courses, dessert came out in all its goat milk resplendence. On the plate was a scoop of each chocolate and vanilla goat milk ice cream, surrounded by a moat of Cajeta sauce (a caramel made from goat’s milk) and poached figs. Though I was full, I was not so full that I didn’t lick the buttery Cajeta sauce off my plate…yes, it is that good.

Goat, goat and more goat

Though flirting with a food coma, at the end of the meal I was still conscious enough to appreciate the words of Steve Clifton, Palmina’s other owner, where he told us about the uniqueness of Italian varietals found in California wines. He claimed that producing Italian wines here is like “translating an Italian phrase into English, it will undoubtedly change in mean and context through the process.” I liked this idea of taking on age-old traditions and making them our own – though still paying homage to the foundations that make them so good, but also allowing for renaissance and revitalization.

The author and storyteller at work, flatbread oven in background

After this meal, I certainly found myself revitalized, though slightly ruined because every subsequent meal for the following few days left me unsatisfied. However, I was inspired to rethink my own kitchen and its products and to seriously ponder the farms and farmers who work to put food on my grateful table.

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1 comment:

  1. Crazy! I got my dad the Slow Life in a Tuscan Town book for Christmas!!

    I wanna come see you soon--I miss me some Alelia!