I apologize for the tardiness of this post. It took some time to recuperate from the Farm to Table Heritage Tomato Festival out at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm compound Saturday night. It was, needless to say, an experience.
We were guests of the event, invited to come and represent the Arkansas Times and the Eat Arkansas blog. We were late - these things happen when you’re married to someone who’s married to a radio job. But no worries. There were plenty of things going on. We were guided towards a choice of tours -- of Smith’s house or gardens or a walk along a ridge to a tomato tasting. Well, you know where I was going to head.
A short walk later and we entered the garden, where a long tent had been erected. Underneath, a table with different stations of tomatoes to try. We sampled several: Japanese Black Trifele, Druzba, Cherokee Green. I found myself drawn to two varieties in particular, the Cherokee Purple and the Black Cherry. The setting in the garden provided a unique atmosphere and a view down to where the new rose garden is being put in, overlooking the Arkansas River. Attendants offered water and wine.
We took a mule-drawn carriage back to the main area and proceeded to the back of the house, where people wandered about gawking. My Yankee husband had to find some place not to melt in the 100 degree heat, so we followed others into the basement of the home, where the AC was on high and the company was friendly.
I left him there and did my usual curious gawking through all four floors of the structure. The lovely suite above the roof with the beds for the children was charming. I laughed at the Romanesque statue with the fedora in the master bath and marveled at the kitchen wing, airy with three sides of windows and a gigantic island. I want that kitchen.
After cooling down a bit we joined others outside under the big tent where the dinner was being set. Unfortunately the seats on the shaded side of the tent were already taken, so we found a couple across from each other on the sunny side. I found myself using Paul as a sunblock to the evening light coming straight in my direction. The tables were set out in a giant U shape and covered with burlap sacking. Spaced out amongst the diners were different varieties of tomato and several watermelons.
At each place there was a tiny dish with two watermelon balls and a spicy material. We’d later find the melon to be super sweet, and the spice to be a cayenne blend -- very spicy and a great counterbalance. It’s another idea I have to steal!
There were also aluminum foil covered cast iron skillets here and there. Within were cubes of cornbread. We also found ramekins of what turned out to be an herbed butter. The cornbread was just slightly sweet, of the yellow meal variety, very soft (I’m guessing shortening had been used in the preparation) and tasty enough. The herbed butter, though, really elevated the cornbread with flavors of tomato and paprika.
The tables filled in and wine was served. The wine came from Presqu’ile Winery in California, which I found had ties to El Dorado through its winemakers. Our hosts spoke and shared with us what we’d be eating and more information about the homestead and the event, which was sponsored by the Oxford American, a fine publication I rather enjoy (and might eventually be good enough to write for, if I'm lucky). I won’t bore you with it all -- there’s a lot of information about Moss Mountain Farm on the website; eventually, I’d like to get back there with a professional photographer and bring you a much better story about the facility. Back to the event.
Wait staff brought us our soup course, a gazpacho made from heirloom tomatoes, pickled peaches and cucumbers and what tasted like a little dill. The cool of the soup was so welcome with the deepening of the sun in the sky. By this point we were all sweating, the near-100 degree heat still permeating every surface. The lovely 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was somewhat refreshing and well matched with the soup, but I found myself returning again and again to my water glass.
We struck up a conversation with a couple next to us, and discovered that they were involved in the Heritage Poultry project. Fascinating, what you discover about things. We discussed my unfortunate pork allergy, and how genetic blandness and lack of deviation might be to blame (I still have no idea a certain cause to my allergy, just that I don’t have the same allergy for wild boar). The Moores (I hope I heard their names correctly -- it was loud and hot!) are out of Fort Dodge and had come down the night before from Lee’s Summit, MO for the event. They shared Iowa talk with my Iowa-born husband and I shared places they could visit in Arkansas.
The local bluegrass group Runaway Planet struck up and entertained us with ancient favorites from our state, completing the feel of the farm. I could hear toes tapping under the conversations around me.
Our next course arrived, a cheese and salad plate featuring a hand-pulled mozzarella stuffed with a handmade mascarpone cheese, served with a dry-cured country ham and purple and cherry tomatoes. I was thrilled that it was served in a way that I didn’t have to worry about my allergy. Paul told me the well-aged ham was just salty enough with a nice smoky flavor that well complemented both the sweet and meaty tomatoes and the slightly salty and sweet cheese. I loved the cheese. The warm saltiness of the mozzarella paired so well with the light and cool mascarpone inside -- yet another idea I want to steal and make myself. I loved the balsamic vinaigrette on the plate, just enough to add tang to the dish.
The light was fading now, and the temperature finally started to drop. Wait staff darted back and forth, filling water glasses and offering a nice buttery 2008 Chardonnay that went so perfectly with the cheese. It was round and robust for a white, very drinkable. Paul and I also discovered its delicious ability to pair well with the large plate of cherry tomatoes that graced our table. We shared our discovery with others, and the cherry tomatoes were passed back and forth between us all.
As the light fell out of the sky, Venus became apparent in the western sky. Waiters flashed between us and lit candles on the table, and wine stewards graced us with a 2008 Pinot Noir, its deep red tones reflecting a little purple against the burlap in the candlelight. As the heat ebbed away there was a sigh through the crowd. Conversation continued, and anticipation built.
Our dining companions were telling us about the chicken for the main course. Chef Joshua Smith (the chef from America’s first farm-to-table restaurant, Local Roots Café, had already told us about the savory preparation we’d be experiencing -- heritage farmed chicken that had been brined, grill charred and then baked at 200 degrees for four hours with potatoes from gardens on the ground, locally grown corn, leeks and onions from the garden on site. It sounded fabulous. When asked where this chicken came from, our companions were not just able to tell us where the chicken came from (a specific heritage farm just outside of Kansas City) but what sort of bird we’d be eating (a breed called the Jersey Giant).
We were expecting more plate service, I guess, but what came to the table were large ceramic bowls full of the prepared chicken and vegetables, with spoons for serving. We served ourselves and each other family-style from the bowl, which was emptied quickly. After my mandatory shots (more taken just because it was very dark and I wanted to make sure there were shots you could see too, dear reader) I poked my chicken with a fork and came back with meat that fell off the bone.
And I have to tell you something. I have eaten a whole lot of chicken in my life. I’ve eaten it fried, boiled, roasted, broasted, grilled, barbecue and fresh out of a tandoori. But the flavors I encountered with this bird were like nothing else I’ve ever had. I’ve been blessed with another opportunity to try heritage bird but the slow roasting and care given to the preparation had apparently rendered this bird something ethereal, so savory and with a depth of flavor I hadn’t encountered before. The concentrated flavor of the bird carried over to the vegetables and likewise back to the poultry. The flavor of leek was evident in the skin. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a piece of chicken quite like that in recent memory.
The quickly emptied bowl sat there for a few minutes, and we mentioned to each other how we wish there were more. Like genies out of the darkness waiters appeared at our elbows with more bowls and more bird, more to share and lust over. I guess I went kinda crazy. Though the heat had previously zapped me and curtailed my appetite it had risen with the cooling winds and I found myself with more meat on my plate. I think my total came to a couple of thighs and three legs, three long legs you’d never encounter at a grocery store, almost as long as turkey drumsticks. Yes, my friends, the chicken was that good.
I had been skeptical about the pairing of a deep red with chicken, but it was a good pairing, certainly due to the rich flavor the heritage poultry holds within. But I did keep finding myself drawn back to that Chardonnay. It was splendid -- which is saying something, since I’m just not much of a wine drinker.
A bonfire had been started on the east side of the compound, and some of the diners were floating that way. I couldn’t go, though. I’d listened closely when Chef Smith had addressed us, and I was looking forward to his interpretation of a Goober cluster. It had taken much strength within me to keep myself from gorging myself further on the chicken, but I had to save enough room for this final course. Finally it was delivered, and in the low light I could only tell it was a mousse of some sort. A shot with the camera revealed the light meringue to the side, the lovely layers of chocolate mousse and the introduction of both peanut butter mousse and a fine malt powder. It was so delicate yet so well balanced. I craved more.
And I got more. A few minutes after everyone had been served the wait staff came around again with another round of the same dessert. Was I good? No, I was not. I consumed a second one with vigor and happiness. It was excellent and I would easily order it again.
The evening was waning. I was surprised to consult my timepiece and discover it was after 10 p.m. Unfortunately, our childcare time had run out and we needed to return home. We made our salutations and headed back out across the field to our vehicle. As we pulled out onto the gravel road that would lead us back to civilization, fireworks popped in the air behind us, white and pink and accompanied with the appropriate contented sighs of a well satiated crowd.
Yes, it was hot. I found that my dress had become somewhat plastered to my skin by sweat, and I know I wasn’t the only one. But the concept was sound, the meal was excellent and the setting was beautiful.
There will be another chance for you to enjoy the experience coming up this October. I bet it will be absolutely perfect. For more information, keep an eye on P. Allen Smith’s website.