Outstanding In The Field 8/14/09

Burlington, VT 8/14/09: Having given the history of our involvement with Outstanding In The Field in last year's entry, I will try to minimize repetition. This years destination is Half Pint Farms in Burlington, VT with food by The Kitchen Table Restaurant in Richmond, VT, just outside of Burlington. We made the 3 hour drive for what could easily become an annual event for us. The schedule is announced around March and once the tickets are bought, you just wait for details to be released and emailed to you. This year, El and I were joined by a good friend of ours who is as interested in dining experiences as we are.

We set off on the trek to Burlington around 11:30am to make the 3:00pm "reservation". We made it in fine time after getting a little turned around in the downtown Burlington area, a quick phone call to the farm righted us and we arrived with time to spare. As with last year's experience, we introduce ourselves at the wine table and are told to leave our plates on the side table, and to enjoy a glass of wine while we wait for everyone to arrive. The wine is La Cresent, Cayugu, Seyval Blanc, Lake Champlain 400th Anniversary Bottling and is served by one of the owners of Boyden Valley Winery that produces it. Now, last years dinner was held on a 160 acre farm, and as we walked onto this farm it looked a little smaller (we just couldn't tell how much smaller), but we know we will get a tour before we dine to explain what we are looking at. As we stand to the side, choosing to mingle only among ourselves, we enjoy our wine, taking in the surroundings and relating what we see to our experience a year ago. In no time, the "treats from the kitchen" start to come around. Passed around on hors d'ouvres trays by servers seemingly as excited to offer the morsels as we were to eat them, everyone started to get a sense that we were in for some more culinary treats as the evening progressed. The starters were plates of deviled heirloom tomatoes with a tomato aioli ; cubes of game hen salad topped with an heirloom tomato on top; and seared liver and bacon on top of toasted bread. I tried them all and the liver was nowhere as liver-flavored as I expected. Good for a bite, but I wanted to save myself for more of the other offerings. The bite was more about the bacon flavor than anything else, making it at least acceptable. The deviled tomatoes were most excellent and every time we saw them come around we made sure to grab one from the offering plate. After about an hour of milling around, we are called to gather around near the wine table in the shade (as we were close to the 90 degree mark). With only 93 attendants, the group is not unmanageably large and with a little projection, Jim Denevan is able to welcome us and explain the history and concept of OITF to the folks who have not experienced it before. He goes on for a few minutes before introducing the owners of Half Pint Farms on which we stand. Spencer and Mara Welton are the owners of the farm and I especially loved Spencer's story of how his education was primarily in the area of classical languages and not in agriculture. He related a story of how he had once read a passage in a history book discussing the soldiers who had returned from the Punic Wars who were granted a two acre plot of land to farm as as their compensation for the service they had given. The passage went on to doubt the possibility of a family being able to sustain itself on the bounty of just two acres.

Spencer, then took this statement by some long dead writer, writing about some long ago time, as a personal challenge to see if it was indeed possible to sustain a family on the bounty of just two acres. After the brief introduction to the farmers and their philosophy, we were split into two groups for our farm tour. We were in Mara's group as she expanded on the actual workings of the farm, answered questions and confirmed that Spencer's story of taking on the personal challenge of sustaining on just two acres was the complete truth of how and why they got into the farming business and are doing what they do today. We got the full scale tour, including the tomato houses, quail cages and the covered vegetation that has a better chance of survival because of the covers, than if they were not. It was also explained that the farm, in keeping with the scaled down size of the farm, actually specializes in baby vegetables. As we get ready to wrap up the walking tour, Mara points out that even though we can see sizable growing fileds all around us, the two acre perimeter of the farm is abutted by fields belonging to the neighboring farms, really putting into perspective just how small the Half Pint Farm is. And, to make this farm's accomplishments even more impressive, with the exception of just 2 part-time farmhands, Spencer and Mara are the only full-time employees doing everything from administration, planting, harvesting, planning and selling at the local farmers markets. It was exhausting just thinking about the work that goes into running a farm. As the walking tour ends at the dining table everyone chooses a seat, as there are no assignments. We wind up close to the head of the table and are soon introduced to our dining companions for the next several hours.Before too long, the first round of wine is poured which is followed quickly by the first course of food. We start with chery tomato, cucumber salad with feta cheese with a side of heirloom baby lettuces and radishes tossed with a sherry vinaigrette. The dish is visually appealing and tastes as just as good as it looks. The wine is East Shore Vineyard "Traminette" from Grand Isle, VT.

Even though I didn't need it, I thought the only addition I would have made would have been some bread with the course. Otherwise, a very pleasent opening to the meal. As we eat, a representitive from the vineyard comes around to the table introducing himself and gives a little talk about the wine we are drinking punctuated by some vineyard history.The next course is grilled game hen from Half Pint Farms on a bed of braised chard served with a side of sweet corn and tomato succotash with a tarragon vinaigrette. The chard was...well, chard, but the game hen was cooked perfectly and tasted wonderful. The side salad was also excellent. Tarragon can be a difficult herb for me to eat. It is so easy to get too much and ruin a whole dish, but the right amount can be an enjoyable addition to a dressing. There was not one sprig extra in this succotash where the hint of the tarragon actually enhanced it. They called it succotash, but with the absence of lima beans and the addition of anything except corn, I am doubting their termenology, but loved the taste nonetheless. The wine with this course was from Pine Ridge Winery in Clarksburg, CA. It was represented by the gentleman who told us about the last course's wine. One of the benefits of sitting at the end of the table was sitting nearest to the preparation tent and having the grill smoke waft towards us, not in an annoying way, but in the way a bakery shop smells invitingly as you walk by.Up next was the grilled Vermont pork loin with a red wine reduction and cipollini onions with a side of new potatoes, "colorful carrots" and baby squashes.

The dish, ironically, looks like the potatoes and not like carrots. If they used regular orange carrots, it would have looked like potatoes and carrots, but the "colorful" carrots are closer to the color of the potatoes. Both perfectly prepared for optimum flavor. One of the features that make each dinner unique is that every guest is asked to bring their own dinner plate while everything else is provided including glassware, linen and silverware. It was a little bit difficult to cut the pork loin with the butter knife that was supplied, but it was a minor inconvenience quickly overshadowed by the quality of the course. The wine was Gemtree Vineyards "Shiraz & Voignier" from McLaren Vule, Australia.

One of the things I found appealing with this year's dinner was how accessible the menu was, to most people, but especially to me. There was a couple who did not eat pork and they were served a portion of grilled fish in its place. I did not notice anyone else making any dietary requests. This did not really surprise me, as anyone who has done

any research on OITF, knows that the menus are created on the days leading up to the dinner, depending on the freshest ingredient availability, and there is obviously no way to predict that menu at the time the reservations are made. This aspect of the dinner always makes me a little anxious as I have to mentally prepare myself to eat whatever is served. The rabbit terrine last year was a significant hurdle for me, but with the exception of the seared liver and bacon on toast points hors d'ouvre or the crumbled feta, I was not presented with anything that I would not ordinarily enjoy.By now, the sun has begun to set behind some clouds on the horizon. The temperature lowers dramatically to a most comfortable level as we finish up our entrees and ready for the dessert course. Between this time, the servers come around and take everyone's plates, wine glasses and flatware, replacing them with a dessert fork, small plate, and balloon glass for the Eden Ice Cider "Ice Cider Calville Blend" from West Charleston, VT that was served with the dessert course. As we start to sample the wine, a representative from the company that makes it comes around to give her spiel regarding the dessert wine. It it produced in Vermont and the makers can not ship it out of state. It tasted like apple juice concentrate, but with the viscosity of any other wine. I don't know that it necessarily paired that well with the berries, but as an after dinner drink it was most enjoyable. Very sweet, like an apple candy.

The dessert course is served. It is presented as a sliced wedge of cream cheese poundcake with blueberry sauce and fresh berries on the side. A bowl of vanilla bean cream is served as well. The taste was fantastic, although the group felt there was not enough sauce to adequately drizzle the cake. But, asking one of the servers for more, we were given plenty for everyone to be satisfied. A minor annoyance was that the utensil was a standard cake server with a flat blade that made it difficult to scoop the blueberries in an efficient way. A serving spoon may have been a better choice. By the time we finish our dessert, it was getting quite dark and people are starting to get ready to leave. The bugs come out in full force and what had been a most pleasant, if not a little warm, day, turns into a mosquito infested evening. It really went from nice and minimally buggy, to infested in the course of a few minutes. We couldn't get out of there fast enough. Even the OITF crew was commenting that if the dessert had come out any later, the course may not have been so enjoyable.As we get up to leave, Jim brings the whole OITF staff including Steve Atkins, the head chef at The Kitchen Table, out to address the group and receive everyone's accolades. So as not to spend a minute longer getting eaten alive, I headed to the plate table to fetch our freshly washed plates and get them packed into the picnic basket and ready to jump in the car. That move worked well since the line of 93 diners lined up to find the unique, but all round, plates in the pile in the dark would have been aching to stand through. Luckily, our experience taught us to travel with our rectangular plates which do not stack well wit all of the round ones, and so they wind up on the side in their own pile.

There were many unique features of this dinner that set it apart from the dinner we had last year. The differences between the farms, obviously the menu, and the group of people all contribute to making it a one-of-a-kind event, that once it is over can never be recreated and it lasts only in the memories of the participants. On the other hand, the similarities are what made it a great enough experience for us to look forward to doing it again. Eating dinner in the middle of a field with close to 100 other people as passionate about eating food as we are, even if some of them do not offer as stimulating a conversation as we might like, at least we have each other!

We are already starting to make plans for when the new schedule comes out in the spring and can't wait.