Small Farms, High-Profile Praise

Food for thought: Participants at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., paid tribute to local farmers.
Food for thought: Participants at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., paid tribute to local farmers. (By Perry Johnson -- Food & Wine Magazine)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 3, 2008

For years, the American farm has seemed invisible, almost imaginary. Who'd want to picture the industrial feedlot where our hamburgers are born?

But more recently, small local farms have become part of the national conversation -- well beyond the outer limits of Birkenstock Nation. Even at the annual Aspen Food & Wine Classic, the glitziest of all gourmet fairs, the farm-to-table connection is often made. Aspen, as a community, does a good job of supporting its small farmers. And last year Food & Wine magazine, which runs the event, launched its Grow for Good campaign, a fundraising effort to promote consumer access to local, sustainably grown food.

Granted, the Classic is not quite the county fair with jewelry. If you're lucky enough to attend, as I was in June, expect to find plenty of conspicuous consumption, luxury product placement and TV-style showmanship.

But I was happy to leave a few scruples at the flaps of the festival's capacious white tents. Even without the notorious insider parties, it is a dazzling three-day performance by famous chefs so masterful that you accept their corporate supporters as patrons of the arts. Between seminars, you graze, glassy-eyed, along endless tables of wines set out for tasting, intermixed with luscious, palate-cleansing tidbits. Now where were those foie gras lollipops? Were they in the aisle with the silver Lexus parked at the end?

Irony and earnestness each had a seat at the 2008 table. "Did anyone attend the wine and oatmeal pairing?" joked cheese expert Laura Werlin, who then delivered a splendid introduction to raw milk cheeses, including a lovely Camembert made by Aspen chef-farmer Ryan Hardy of the restaurant Montagna. Food & Wine's Richard Nalley led a discussion of how biodynamic vineyards profit by introducing species diversity and turn out charismatic wines that go beyond "varietal correctness." Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, when queried, said that he sources produce from within 100 miles of his restaurants. "When I visit a city," he said, "I go to the markets to learn about the place." I was glad to see José Andrés, whose tapas I'd adored at Jaleo, a larger-than-life presence, deftly pairing dainty quail eggs with tiny sardines. His creativity, like that of New York chef David Chang and many others there, so clearly rested on the shoulders of farmers, street vendors and peasant traditions.

It was true of the wonderfully down-to-earth Barbara Lynch, whose Boston empire includes the esteemed No. 9 Park. Her recipe for homemade ricotta ends, "Discard the whey (or feed it to your pigs)." Surveying the glittering crowd, her catering chef de cuisine Ben Elliott explained that this was, of course, a jest. But I appreciated the option.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company