By Julianna Hayes
Diane McQuarie and Paul Wilson have found a most unusual way to do some sightseeing this summer.
The Dallas, Texas, couple are something of “food groupies.” They are following a caravan traveling to local farms across North America and celebrating regional cuisine. Called Outstanding in the Field, the highlights of this culinary road tour – which made a stop in the Okanagan August 4th – are dinners served at a huge communal table set in an open field.
“We saw something about it on television and thought it would be a great way to travel to beautiful places and have good food,” said Wilson, who marveled at the view of Okanagan Lake from Little Creek Gardens, located on Kelowna’s Westside, near Fintry.
So far the couple have sampled the regional foods of Marin County and the Bay areas of California, Seattle, Vancouver and the Okanagan. Upcoming stops include New York City, Washington, DC, and their home state of Texas. In all, they will have attended eight dinners once the tour is complete.
Wilson said he and his wife would have never have considered visiting the Okanagan had it not been for Outstanding in the Field. And though they were only here for about 48 hours, they intend to return.
It was the first visit to the valley as well for Outstanding’s founder Jim Denevan, who said he was pleasantly surprised by what greeted him here. “It 's amazing. I can see why people talk about this area,” said Denevan, who compared it to Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Denevan was a chef in Santa Cruz, California, when he started the Outstanding in the Field program in 1999. He said there is often a disconnect between consumers, people who work in food hospitality, and those who supply what we eat.
In a cookbook he published this year and inspired by the program, Denevan wrote: “We buy fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, and grains; then we bring this bounty home, cook it, and eat it, in many cases without any idea where it grew or was born, whi it was cared for, what it was fed, or by what means it was harvested or slaughtered. Above all, we are utterly ignorant of the people responsible for every step on our food’s path…”
Denevan told the Okanagan guests that Outstanding in the Field is “on a mission to find the places where regional agriculture thrives and the people who know the story of those places share their stories so agriculture can be accessed and appreciated.”
At each location, Denevan sets up a large alfresco dinner table in a produce farm, ranch, dairy, vineyard or even a community garden and assembles various local growers, food producers, chefs and winemakers to prepare and present their regional, seasonal fare. The hosts of the property conduct a tour of their facilities, before guests sit down for a leisurely meal of the freshest ingredients imaginable. Each supplier is invited to share his or her stories and talk about their products as the food is served.
On this trip, Dale Ziech and Donna Denison of Little Creek Greens of West Kelowna explained how they acquired the property from Denison’s great aunt and uncle and set about converting the heavily forested land into a small produce farm. They began growing gourmet certified organic salad greens under contract for local restaurants, for which they have a comfortable niche, but are probably most famous for their Little Creek salad dressings, which have garnered a substantial local cult following.
Ofri Baromar of Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan described how some of the 20 different cheeses they produce are made from goats raised on hers and her husband’s small farm in Kelowna’s Mission area. Using pasteurized and raw milk and various aging processes, all the cheeses are organic and made free of preservatives or additives and with little use of machinery. To them it is important that goats are raised without the use of hormones and are treated with care and respect in excellent living conditions.
Some of the highlights of the Okanagan menu included “Misty” goat cheese from Carmelis and Similkameen Apiary honeycomb and toasted local hazelnuts on a bed of Little Creek salad greens; fresh water rainbow trout from Enderby with local fennel and Little Creek tomatoes; and grilled lamb from North Okanagan Game Meats with local oregano, baby carrots, eggplant and baby zucchini. One of the biggest hits of the meal was Carmelis’ indulgently creamy goat milk gelato served with fresh berries and cherries. The food was paired with wines from CedarCreek Estate Winery.
Although, Denevan still cooks at some of the dinners, most times he engages local chefs for the meals. In the case of the Okanagan, Cameron Smith and Dana Ewert of Joy Road Catering in Naramata did all the prep and presentation.
In its 10th season, Outstanding in the Field has served up more than 100 alfresco dinners, all but two of them attended by Denevan. He travels to each region with a small entourage in a 1953 Flxible bus of “intermittent” reliability. In fact, the bus didn’t make it to Vancouver and the Okanagan, staying behind in Seattle for the necessary maintenance for its upcoming trip across the U.S.
Denevan said the table for 60 at the Okanagan gathering was the smallest since the program started – it’s been known to seat as many as 175 guests. Still, dressed in white linens and mismatched dishes (guests are encouraged to bring their own plates) and stretched across a tree-lined bench overlooking the lake, it was an impressive sight nonetheless.
Denevan said he expected the table to grow in years to come, indicating his intention to return to the valley. He added the abundance and accessibility to regional fare here was among the most extraordinary he’s seen.
For more information on the program, visit http://www.outstandinginthefield.com/