Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eat Dirt (Interactive event)

If different soils affect the flavors of plants (and more specifically, grapes) so much, why don’t we pay a little more attention to them? Oregon’s geology is inspiring: one minute I am walking over sandy limestone full of seashell fossils, the next I am springing over soft spongy hummus of decaying vegetation, and pretty quickly I stumble upon broad swaths of desolate-looking black volcanic rock. What excitement lays under our feet, if we only pause to look at it! 

This project is a collaboration between myself and Nicholas Keeler of Authentique Wine Cellars. We explored the part soils plays in the terroir of wine through a 6 course dining experience based on the concept of "eating dirt." Under sculptural light installations, participants dug through edible soil flavored with foraged nuts and mushrooms, cracked open warm oven-baked clay to reveal roasted root vegetables and surprise geode-themed gifts, and waited with anticipation for the sensory delights of each course (including a course that was scent based, utilizing dry ice.) Guests learned about the geological history of the Willamette Valley through the various courses from one highlighting the volcanic era through lava rock cream puffs to the current breaking down of soil by mycelium addressed by wild mushroom chocolate truffles. Special thanks to Anne Boulley of Artisanne for being the resident chef the night of the event and making sure everything went smoothly! Photos by Athena Delene Photography

Also, special thanks to Keeler Estate Vineyard for allowing us to do our event here free of charge. Many thanks as well to our many eager volunteers! We couldn't have done this without you!

The barrel room, ready for guests. Glasses catch the sparkling reflections of the twig chandeliers, and the handmade stoneware plates are ready to hold the interesting foods featured as part of this event. 

The first course: Seared scallops in elderflower-juniper cream sauce with edible silver leaf. This course was paired with Authentique Wine Cellars 2012 Chardonnay, a crisp lemony wine perfect for pairing with delicate seashore flavors. This course was the first chapter in the story of Willamette Valley soil: until about 12 million years ago, Western Oregon was on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Prior to that, it was under the ocean for 35 million years, slowly accumulating layers of marine sediment, the bedrock of the oldest soils in the valley. Keeler Estate Vineyard, where the event was held, is actually full of fossilized seashells.

Second Course: Volcanic Surprises in 3 flavors. Black sesame choux au craquelin with charcoal crisp filled with beet-rose-lemon goat cheese; poppyseed choux with raspberry-rose curd (not shown here); edible geodes made from lemon-hibiscus fondant with wild rose and wild violet sugar crystals coated in white chocolate and black sesame seeds. This course was paired with Nicholas's 2013 Chardonnay, which had a meyer lemon-like tanginess with notes of sweet honey and white flowers. This course represents the next chapter in the history of the soils on this vineyard: the explosive one! About 15 million years ago, the massive Juan de Fuca plate collided with the North American plate, driving this land up out of the water! That’s why you’ll find fossils on top of mountains in these parts- Western Oregon rose out of the sea, forming the Coast Range and the very volcanic Cascade Mountains. All of this volcanic activity left behind some truly spectacular natural sights, including gems such as thundereggs, opals, agates, and jaspers. Volcanic rock is full of exciting surprises, as the guests discovered while interacting with this course!

3rd course: seasonal root vegetables wrapped in wild herbs and grape leaves, then roasted in clay. Guests got to break open these clay lumps with a hammer to unearth all sorts of glorious discoveries: potatoes that smelled of juniper, beets that were flavored with pine, and some special non-edible surprise geode necklaces! It was so fun to watch everyone interact with this course. I didn't tell anyone beforehand about the necklaces I'd hidden in some of the lumps, so there was a flurry of excitement when the guests discovered that there was buried treasure to be found! The wine for this course was Nicholas's 2011 pinot noir, Nick's first commercial wine. It was harvested late in the year (Nov. 1st) and that, combined with less oxygen exposure during processing, gives it a delicious creaminess and raspberry tasting notes. It is a wine of dualities: first a crisp bite of frost covered mornings, then after sitting in the glass for a while it opens up to a fruity warmth. We encouraged everyone to go slow and savor this wine since it goes through such a transformation and luckily this interactive course offered the perfect opportunity to do so!

3rd course, contd. one guest shows off her treasure found inside a cooked clay lump: a fragrant potato! In the background, guests dress up their already-excavated roasted root vegetables with homemade creme fraiche, porcini and alder-smoked salt, and micro greens that they harvested themselves with tiny little scissors. It was great to watch everyone decorate their own plates while sipping Nick's delicious 2011 pinot noir. This course told the story of the next chapter in the history of soil in the Willamette valley: About a million years ago, a layer of wind-blown silt called "loess" started to form. This continued until about 50 thousand years ago as the basalt and sediments on the valley floor, weathered down by thousands of years of erosion, were carried by wind and deposited on the NE facing slopes in the northern part of the valley. These soils, such as the Hazelair found prominently on Keeler Estates Vineyards, are rich clay-ey soils formed from these sediments.

Three lovely guests show off their finds: scented potatoes and beets, plus a bonus surprise geode necklace! I absolutely LOVED watching the guests interact with this course. It was exciting enough to get to break things with a hammer, but once they discovered there was buried treasure to be found, all hell broke loose (in the best way.) 

The mess left behind after the 3rd course was gorgeous: piles of broken clay and colorful tissue paper, laced with fragrant grape leaves and herbs. 

4th course: Sous-vide venison with juniper tapenade, acorn malt soil, and black truffle. This earthy dish highlighted the natural terroir at Keeler Estates, especially since we foraged some of the ingredients within an hour of the event starting! How's that for fresh flavor? This course was served with Nicholas's special 2014 blend, made just for this event and full of bold flavors that complimented the venison wonderfully. Guests were able to dig in the layers of flavored soil, bringing to mind the various soil layers we'd explored in our dinner thus far: sandstone, volcanic, and loess. One of our wonderful volunteers Ariana shows off the earthy trays, complete with little skewers made from whittled lichen-laden twigs. All of the volunteers that helped out at this event were absolutely wonderful. Every time I went back to the kitchen to check on things, it was full of happy laughter and smiles as they worked hard to help plate and deliver each course on cue. I couldn't have asked for a better team. Also, HUGE thanks to Anne Boulley who pretty much ran the kitchen the night of the event. She was the genius in charge of this tender sous vide dish and the perfectly-seared scallops. So glad I got to work with these wonderful people!

5th course: this palate cleanser was made up of edible "basalt" made from pears with a cardamom-vanilla coating, served with mist scented like an early morning meadow walk. I used my homemade "Meadows" bitters blend full of pungent herbal flavors like sagebrush, mugwort, and yarrow (which you can buy on my website,, if you are so inclined) tempered with sweet birch to make a sensual, enlivening scent. It made for a great presentation when I poured the scented water over dry ice hidden in a bed of foraged lichens to both make the lichens appear alive and flood the table in a refreshing mist. In this photo Nicholas demonstrates the art of pouring as I look on approvingly. It really was such a pleasure to work with this guy, from start to finish. Nick was enthusiastic about my wild ideas from day one and did everything within his power to make my artistic dreams come true- he even came down one day to help me glaze plates one day! This man is not afraid of doing things differently in the sake of making them better and his creative passion definitely shows in his delicious hand-crafted wines. It's so fulfilling to work with someone as passionate about their craft as you are about yours. 

5th course, contd. Our photographer Athena Delene Photography sure did a wonderful job of capturing the mysterious beauty of this palate-cleansing course! How sexy is that meadow-scented mist pouring out the side? And such perfect composition! I feel very lucky to have had such a wonderful team working on this project with me. smile emoticon Those rocks in the photo are completely edible: in fact, they are chilled pears with a cardamom-vanilla coating, served with refreshing meadow-scented mist. After guests interacted with the "cold" part of this course, they were handed a warm towel flavored with a woodsy infusion to give the feeling of a cozy sauna after a brisk walk. Continuing our story of the soils here: at the end of the last ice age about 18 thousand to 15 thousand years ago, a glacial dam near current-day Missoula, Montana repeatedly flooded the Willamette valley, creating such a deep lake that only the very tops of the hills were left sticking out. This dramatic event left deep, rich silts perfect for growing grapes. How incredible to think of the juxtaposition: volcanic peaks drenched in cold water from melted glaciers, their jagged rocks getting rounder and rounder with more weathering from these powerful floods. This palate-cleanser course is a celebration of the invigorating experiences of hot and cold.

6th course. Before letting everyone go play in the dirt one last time, I talked about the last chapter in the evolution of the Willamette Valley's soil: the living topsoil, full of mycelium. Mycelium, the living network of fungal life, holds the texture of the springy soil together while breaking down decaying matter and recycling nutrients. The mushrooms pop up after the rains are the fruiting bodies of much larger organisms and a good reminder that we are all just one part of a larger system of life. The wine served with dessert was Nicholas's Hombre 2012, my personal favorite of his creative wines. This is a bold wine, full of passion and creativity. I love its earthy aromatics balanced out by rich chocolate and luscious red fruit. This was the wine to end an evening on, a perfect culmination of the creative energy both Nicholas and I have poured into this project over the last several months. We paired it with earthy foraged mushroom-flavored chocolate truffles and nutty edible soils as our dessert course: hazelnut soil with porcini truffles, pine nut soil with chanterelle truffles, and acorn flour soil with candy cap mushroom truffles. What a perfect way to end a magical evening.

Guests discovered one last geode surprise for our dinner based on discovery: the lights above each of the three barrels that the edible soil and truffle dessert was presented on were made to look like the insides of geodes. I grew alum crystals directly onto the light fixtures, then emphasized the intense sparkle with swarovski crystals to really catch the light. 

Each guest also got a test tube to fill with edible soil to take home as a reminder of the fun they had playing in the dirt with us. 

Many thanks to the wonderful Anne Boulley for helping us the night of the event! She was crucial in keeping things running smoothly "backstage" and was such a great energy to have on board. 

As I reflect on this event, I am really pleased to say that I accomplished both of my goals: 1. To get people to interact more with their landscape through the terroir of soil and 2. To encourage participants to shed their adult inhibitions and embrace the child-like joy of discovery. At one point near the end of the night, I walked down the table and just took it all in: people playing with their scented warm towels and folding them in unique ways, people pouring mystical-looking of concoctions with dry ice foraged from the palate cleanser course from glass to glass, people arranging clay-covered potatoes into small pyramids and piles, and a lot of smiles and laughter. Those are the moments I live for, knowing I gave an enjoyable and unique experience to all of the people who attended this event. We really did have a wonderful time playing in the dirt. :) 

If you want to see more photos of this event, take a look at my Facebook page. I'll also be updating my website to include this experience. 

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