Monday, September 26, 2011
You know how you sometimes day dream about the perfect meal? Well, at least I do. I think if you cook and eat a lot, your mind tends to wander off into table territory quite often.
Have you ever thought about having a picnic in a vineyard? At a long table, draped in white linen, sipping Chianti as the sun sets and smoke from grilling bistecche fiorentine wafts through the vines? I was at that dinner the other evening. And it wasn’t a dream.
I had the extreme pleasure of attending a meal organized by Outstanding in the Field . Outstanding in the Field was started in 1998, by chef and artist Jim Denevan, as a way to connect people to the land. They organize farm based dinners, set amid fields, vineyards and orchards, pairing farmers with local chefs. They have taken their traveling bus across American, putting on hundreds of meals, from Hawaii to Florida.
This year Outstanding came to Europe, with stops in England, France, Spain and Denmark. The Italian stop was at La Pietraia, a small organic, biodynamic agriturismo in Chianti. All of the produce for the dinner came from their farm, as did much of the wine. Susan McKenna Grant, the extraordinary chef who owns and runs La Pietraia with her husband Michael, prepared most of the meal. The main course, local Chianina beef, was prepared by famed butcher and chef Dario Cecchini.
We started out with a flute of prosecco, drizzled with blackberry syrup that Susan has put up earlier in the season. Flute in hand, we wandered over the farm, through the plots of vegetables and over to visit some very happy looking pigs, rabbits and chickens all raised in a fenced in area of the nearby woods.
We then headed up the hill, to arrive at the crest of the vineyard where a long table followed the curve of the land. As the sun set over the rolling, vine-covered hills, course after course of exquisitely prepared food made its way magically to our table.
The vegetable courses were prepared by Susan, and reflected her attention to detail. A colorful mosaic of serra e selva (cultivated and wild) vegetables was first. Beets, radishes, squash and eggplant mixed with wild malva blossoms and misticanza. Each bite was as intensely flavorful as it was colorful.
My favorite course may have been the tomato water gelee. Served in a glass, the half inch of gelee was embedded with a wood smoked tomato. Guests were asked to crack the egg (which had been cooked sous vide for two hours) directly atop the gelee. Fun to do, delicious to eat.
Between courses, which also included a pumpkin flan with sage and parmesan fonduta, guests got up, wandered amid the vineyard, chatted with table mates and - most exciting - inspected the main course: The Meat.
Even though I’ve been to many a butcher and walked my share of markets around the world, even I was bowled over by the incredible display of pink, glistening meat that Dario had brought with him from Panzano. I was thrilled to see my favorite, his ‘sushi di Chianti’ which is more or less Dario’s version of tartare. Next up bistecca panzanese and huge, hulking, too-big-to-be-true bistecche fiorentine. Cooked - just barely - over a charcoal fire and served so rare I thought they were going to moo.
The pairing of somewhat introverted Susan, and her incredible attention to delicate vegetale detail, with completely extraverted Dario, and his he-man cooking of cow with fire, was brilliant.
By the time desert came around the sun was setting. We nibbled our apple and quince tart, sipped our home made mead, and then wandered down the hill, our path lit only by the stars, the day dream ending as we headed off to bed.
Want to attend an Outstanding meal? Visit their website for upcoming events or sign up to receive their newsletter.