All photos courtesy Jil Hale of Barndiva
Late Feb's drear rain and wind did not stop a group of some 60 chefs and farmers from gathering at Healdsburg's Barndiva on Tuesday, Feb. 23, for the second Fork & Shovel"Speed Dating" event. Unlike the whirl that singles might subject themselves to in order to find sex and love and shared towels, this speed dating event matched food providers with the chefs who adore—and need—them.
What co-founders Jil Hale (of Barndiva) and Randi Seidner (of the Slow Food Russian River convivia) remain somewhat surprised by is how difficult it has heretofore been to bring together these two interdependent groups. In establishing the website, they hope to bridge that gap and indeed, Hale reported to those gathered that there is interest from other foodsheds around the country in bringing this very idea to their own tables.
Terming itself an "Internet grange," Fork & Shovel has proprietary software that allows farmers and ranchers to post the details of their crop/harvest/livestock while allowing member chefs to order from that slate. Purveyors gain the relief of knowing that a set portion of their reap will be sold; chefs gain the relief of obtaining foodstuffs grown locally and often, organically or even biodynamically. It allows the local foodshed to flourish while allowing local restaurants to flourish while allowing local purveyors to flourish. It's that kind of a win-win-win thing.Canvas Ranch's Deborah Walton (with carrots) and Sonoma chef-restaurateur Sondra Bernstein (in striped shirt with her back to the camera), play out a short skit at F&S' Speed Dating. "They made us do it," Bernstein said, almost helplessly. There certainly were no losers at Tuesday night's slate of serious fun. In groups of five, farmers grouped near Barndiva's bar. Each had 30 seconds to state their name, the name of their farm and what they specialize in. Gleason Ranch's Nancy Prebilich assured the chefs gathered that all they had to remember was the Honeymooner's line, "To the moon, Alice, to the moon!" in order to remember her family's century-old-plus ranch. Tim and Karen Bates with their daughter Sophia, traveled down from Mendocino County and their Apple Farm to pitch their cider, juice and even blemished fruit (useful if it's incorporated into something else). Others in attendance included Oliver's Market general manager Tom Scott, farm market honcho Paula Downing, Carrie Brown of the Jimtown Store, chefs from Cyrus and Nick's Cove, Matteo Granados, Ralph of Bistro Ralph and many more.
After the "dating" concluded, the schmoozing began. Guests had brought wine and dessert while Rosso Pizzeria provided a multitude of piping hot pies and bowls of cool salad. Amid slices and napkins, the real courting happened, with chefs telling purveyors what they wanted and purveyors considering the challenges of planting to order.
Fork & Shovel's next order of business is to launch a series of Sunday suppers, possibly beginning as early as April, that would encourage diners to eat at F&S-affiliated restaurants as spring eases into its fullness. Expect to hear more about this innovative nonprofit. For a full list of Fork & Shovel producers, go here. for participating restaurants, here.
From the Sorry You Missed It files, last Friday, Feb. 12, 2010 found the Lodge at Sonoma's Carneros Bistro hosting the Sonoma Vinters and Growers Association in the Lodge's large reception area and a humid packed tent set up alongside. Like the much larger summer dine-and-walk-around Taste of Sonoma event, Vinolivo featured a yowza selection of area restaurants offering tastes ably complemented by the 50+ wineries on hand, many of them small boutique shops not ordinarily pouring for the public, in a free-for-all of fun.
The best way to enjoy these kinds of events is with a friend, be they a spouse, lover, blind date or, as I did, with a girlfriend. Drifting from table to table, waiting patiently if your companion can't have the cheese at that table but can definitely have the beef at that one, Vinolivo featured a live jazz soundtrack, plenty of people-watching, great homemade fries courtesy of Carneros chef Janine Falvo (above), plenty of good sparkling wine to match the frites and an easy way to swan around eating small bites while drinking great wines and chatting.
Unlike Taste of Sonoma, which last summer seemed to feature nothing more toothsome than gazpacho—and that would be, some 20 styles of gazpacho—Vinolivo offers guests a chance to actually have dinner by foot. Ramekins had artisanal sandwich halves on offer; the Girl & the Fig, hot cauliflower gratin; and the Swiss Hotel, a meaty ragu topping white beans. Those wise ones stopped first at the Wine Country Chocolates table as their confections were soon gone, and we lucky wise ones were indeed smart enough to start with sparkling wine and French fries, move directly to the chocolates and then solace our palates with actual food-food in the form of the cheesy gratin, the beefy ragu and other comestibles, all while sipping from Robert Hunter, Roche Carneros, Clarbec, Paint Horse and other wineries.
Meanwhile, my friend and I caught up on men, work, pets, family and films in between rafts of strangers, tables of delicacies and—thanks, I'd love some—another sip of good wine.
The first annual Artisano event, held Nov. 14 at the Geyserville Inn, was one of those rare afternoons where giddy patrons greeted each other by saying,"I sure hope that this never gets popular!" Alas for them, as Artisano is destined to be hugely popular—and why wouldn't it be? Small-production cult wines rarely enjoyed by the public married well with gorgeous food from local purveyors in a hidden setting on a stellar fall day. Such goodness is bound to eventually attract a crowd. Unlike this summer's Showcase of Sonoma, which is now so huge as to resemble a tent city and which this year featured at least 15 different kinds of gazpacho and little else to eat, Artisano found patrons sitting at tables with forks thoughtfully grazing through small plates of creamy polenta with goat shank, fresh made flatbreads from a portable oven, barbecued lamb with a nutty pilaf and nuggets of fresh toffee made in nearby Healdsburg.
The small crowds made for easy access to the winemakers, all of whom were glad to chat while they poured. Douxup Wine Works co-owner Andy Cutter being a case in point. An affable man of a certain age, Cutter explained the pronunciation of his label. It's not some fancy French lisp with the "oux" sounding like "ew." Rather, it's pronounced "Duck Soup," like the Marx Brothers film, a small semantic joke that he and his wife, Douxup co-owner Deb Cutter, devised to give themselves a private chuckle with their first personal brand after decades of making wine for others. But, Andy explained, the weird spelling gave pause to his San Francisco wine broker. The guy just couldn't sell the stuff, no matter how toothsome. So the broker got creative, telling customers that Andy was Harpo Marx's illegitimate son and the unintelligible name a secret reference to his parentage. The wine sold out and sold out and sold out. As for the story? It took on its own bowed legs, eventually appearing—to Andy's immense delight—as the answer to a question in the Trivial Pursuit Wine Edition.
I dare you to name another public food and wine festival where a winery staffer even has time to tell you his or her name, let alone a long rambler like that one. Let's hope it doesn't get popular.
The new Riverfront of Napa development that aims to actually celebrate the Napa River rather than ignore it as past development has done confirmed today that Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto has signed a lease to open a restaurant in the new row. Morimoto, whose eponymous restaurants in Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and yes, India, are hugely celebrated, will branch out to the West Coast for the first time, adding California to his vastly successful line of knives, beer and Japanese food.
Dr. Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, died yesterday after a lengthy fight with lymphoma. He was a fine person and the best maker of chocolate I'll even know.
I worked at the Scharffen Berger factory for a little less than two years. A week into my job there, I went to a party in San Francisco and drank a lot. Just as I was getting into boorish obnoxious behavior, I turned around and who do I see standing there in a tuxedo but Robert, fresh from a benefit gala at some museum. I remember pummeling him with loud and sloppy conversation about recipe testing, and him listening patiently. Catastrophe averted.
I was lucky. Robert, to some, could come across as cranky. He had a passion for getting the facts straight, something that caused his chocolate-related writing to be wordy and dry at times. He knew more about the finer, technical points of cacao and chocolate than a lot of yahoos who claim to be chocolate experts will ever know, but he wasn't saucy about it.
I worked at Scharffen Berger during an interesting time, a period shortly before the company was sold to Hershey. It was a difficult choice for Robert and his SBCM co-founder John to make, but it was probably for the best—Scharffen Berger needed to grow, and it had grown all it could under those circumstances. It was like sending a kid away to college, terrifying but exciting. I extend a fat middle finger to those who accused Scharffen Berger of selling out.
Anyhow, that sort of talk might have been off-putting to Robert, so I'll cap it. I'm thankful for the chance I had to learn from him and the company he and John Scharffenberger started and led. Pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz wrote some very kind and insightful words about Robert and his influence on chocolate in America in the last decade. It's worth a read. Robert, today I will eat a Scharffen Berger 70% Bittersweet bar just for you. It's still my favorite chocolate in the world.