A report from Dana Massey-Todd: This last Saturday, I had the opportunity to don a sundress and some dirt-clomping boots and hit the road to Sunol, a small town about an hour southeast of San Francisco, to attend an OUTSTANDING IN THE FIELD dinner. These dinners are pretty special, I must say. The Outstanding in the Field crew goes to a farm, sets up an alfresco kitchen and a long, beautifully set table in one of the farm fields, and then a guest chef prepares a meal from the farm’s produce. They started in Santa Cruz in 1999, and now tour across the country, Canada, and even Europe.
On this particular evening, the farm was Baia Nicchia, and the chef was Sean Baker of ~GATHER~, in Berkeley. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a glass of 2009 Pinot Noir from Mobius Wines and a tall, thin temple that looked as if it had been plucked from the Palace of Fine Arts and placed among the low brown hills. It turns out that Baia Nicchia is one of several farms in the Sunol AgPark, which is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The site once provided water and power to the residents of San Francisco, and the temple, along with the rest of the site, was built in 1910, right around the same time as the Palace of Fine Arts. Now it has been converted into a park administered by SAGE, a Berkeley organization that provides educational programming and leases the parkland out to farms such as Baia Nicchia (Namu Gaji also has their farm out there).
Fred Hempel and his partner, Jill Shepard, run Baia Nicchia, and they are doing some really interesting things. Fred is a self-professed tomato addict and has focused a great deal of his energy on creating the richest, most complex tomatoes around. They plant and harvest them late, to take full advantage of California’s late summer heat, and are experimenting with breeding new varieties. But they are planting some lesser-known crops too. Menkir Tamrat has partnered with Fred to cultivate a variety of Ethiopian crops that until recently have been near impossible to find for local Ethiopian cooks, including a variety of wonderfully flavorful and spicy peppers that form the base of the spice blend berbere; heirloom varieties of teff, the staple grain from which injera is made; and cooking greens, including multiple mustard types. They are also growing some wonderful herbs for tisanes, such as Persian mint and anise hyssop, and edible flowers. We were lucky enough to take a tour of the farm with Fred, and we sampled some of the Ethiopian peppers, as well as ice plant and New Zealand spinach, an odd, crunchy green with an almost garlicky bite.
Because Baia Nicchia is a relatively young farm with a focus on a late-summer harvest, much of the produce that appeared on our plates was sourced from another farm, Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond, near Santa Cruz, though some of the items we sampled and learned about were featured on the menu.
After all this learning, it was finally time to sit. We were led to the long, white linen-covered table in a beautiful corner of the farm. Seating is at one long table, and meals are served family style in eight-person clusters. We were lucky enough to sit with Menkir Tamrat himself, and his lovely wife. The first plate was essentially a meze dish, with a remarkable purée of vegetable ash with black garlic, tahini, and black chickpeas. It was served alongside some astonishingly fleshy olives that were more flavorful than salty, a head of confited, roasted, and then grilled garlic, and a variety of vibrantly hued vegetables from both Lindencroft Farm and Baia Nicchia.
It was followed by a delicate green dish of shaved summer squash, seaweed-marinated ice plant, and miso-cured tofu that had been aerated with liquid nitrogen right there in the outdoor kitchen. The tofu was remarkably creamy and rich, and reminded me of savory ice cream. It was perfect with the crunchy, fresh squash, and a salsa of tomato and carrot gave it a lovely tang and snap.
There was also a dish that contained pumpkin flowers stuffed with Redwood Farms goat cheese, lamb meatballs, lamb bacon, smoked vegetables, and injera puree made from one of the heirloom teff varieties Menkir has introduced to Baia Nicchia; the grain was creamy, rich, and savory. The teff had been fermented for five days, made into flatbread, and then pureed into the delicious, smooth porridge on the plate. After listening to the story of how teff came to be planted at the location, it was a real treat to not only sample the end result but also enjoy it at the table. The accompanying Mobius Alexander Valley Zinfandel from 2010 was rich, a tad tropical, and delicious.
Next came a seafood dish of black cod, with mussels, squid, and sea vegetation, including phytoplankton (that’s right, whale food!), sea spinach, sea lettuce, and sea beans, alongside Carolina Gold rice. It was perfect with Mantra’s 2009 Sonoma County Pinot Noir.
As the fog finally crept over the trees, the finale came on a beautiful plate of braised apricots, with a cake made from Menkir’s white teff, cherries, and amaretti cookies. The teff was an unexpectedly excellent grain for the cake: it had the crunch of polenta that nicely supported the soupy apricots, but was offset by a tender crumb. Again, witnessing a rather jolly Menkir took this dish to quite the next level. The only thing that possibly could have improved this course would have been one of the herb tisanes from Baia Nicchia’s fields, but alas, maybe next time.
Those around us who had been to Outstanding in the Field events before said this was some of the most unique food they had yet experienced, and I, too, was blown away. I admit, I had been expecting a delicious but tried-and-true take on roasted or grilled pork, maybe with a Little Gem salad and handmade pasta. Don’t get me wrong: I love all those things boundlessly. But what we were served instead delighted me: a vegetable-driven meal that contained no pork products at all, took influence from the cuisine of Ethiopia and Asia, and was just as richly flavored and satisfying as any Cal-Italian farm supper. Anything in this setting would have been lovely, but being served such innovative, remarkable food only added to the magic of the evening.
Outstanding in the Field has just begun its season, and though this was the last dinner in California for a few months, it is well worth a journey or planning ahead to November, when they return to California. Getting out of the city and connecting so closely with those who craft our food, from farmer to chef, is truly worth the effort.
The long table recedes into the hills. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.