Organizers give Hill Country Wine and Food Festival a fresh flavor
With no rain at the Sunday Fair, three star-studded evening events and more sold-out sessions than in recent years, the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival's efforts to freshen up the four-day celebration seem to have worked.
"Selling out of Sunday Fair was a huge accomplishment," festival president Cathy Cochran-Lewis said on Monday. "And Saturday night's dinner with Kyle MacLachlan, the chefs from Animal in LA and our own Josh Watkins and David Bull was just over the top. It just goes to show that the culinary talent that we have here can absolutely compete with the best in the nation."
Here is a snapshot of our reports on austin360.com/forklore and austin360.com/relishaustin.
— Mike Sutter and Addie Broyles
Chef John Besh on barbecue, new show
When New Orleans chef John Besh got into Austin on Thursday, people from the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival whisked him to Franklin Barbecue on East 11th Street, where they had planted somebody in line to make sure Besh would get a taste before the meat ran out. "I thought I was going to be stoned, crucified, something," he said. "That crowd did not look happy seeing somebody just walk right in and sit down and start eating."
So how did he like it? "That was probably the best smoke on a brisket that I've ever had."
Besh served Bandera quail with crab-boil potato salad at the Stars Across Texas event at Long Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday night. (Austin's own Josh Watkins of the Carillon won best dish with his basil panna cotta at Stars, while Eddie "Lucky" Campbell of Bolsa in Dallas won a Maker's Mark cocktail contest with a drink he called Art of War.)
"Austin has always been a town that both my wife and I have been in love with," Besh said last week, but there aren't any plans to expand his restaurant empire into Austin because he's focusing on the newly opened Luke in San Antonio. He also has a new show, "John Besh's New Orleans," that will debut on PBS later this month.
"We wanted to create a show that really gave people an insider's view to the food of New Orleans, and my love affair with the city through its food," he said. "We have the only indigenous urban cuisine left in the country, and I think it's very important for us to hang onto that. Both the book and the show are nothing more than an effort at stewardship, of making sure that we can maintain some semblance of this great tradition."
Charcuterie and community
A Friday afternoon Hill Country Wine and Food Festival session about charcuterie started, predictably, with talk about the age-old technique of curing meats but ended with a philosophical discussion that embodies the food community in Austin.
Why? Friday was the first time that the three butcher-chefs at the forefront of the budding charcuterie scene in Central Texas — Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due, Ben Runkle of Salt and Time and Lawrence Kocurek of Kocurek Family Charcuterie — were in the same room together.
They all know each other, of course; Austin is too small a city for anyone in the food world, especially artisans working with the same kind of products, to operate in complete isolation, but instead of creating a cutthroat, trash-talking environment where they try to squeeze one another out or tear the others down, they work very long, hard days knowing that together, they are creating some of the best charcuterie in the country.
Europeans have long mastered charcuterie, but American charcuterie makers like those in Austin are pushing beyond the classic pâtés, terrines, rillettes and salumi, said Bon Appetit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton, who led the panel with Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp.
"There's so much tradition in Europe, but in the U.S., there is all this experimentation and no rules they have to follow," he said. "We have that flexibility, and these guys are taking advantage of it."
What's even more striking about the Austin charcuterie makers is that even though their final products are so diverse, they are all starting from essentially the same thing: pigs and other farmed animals that have led a good life.
Wild animals are also fair game. "I love talking about feral pigs," Griffiths said when asked about the wild, invasive hogs that have taken over the Texas countryside. "When life hands you lemons, you shoot them." He also noted that he's on a squirrel campaign, but hasn't has much luck selling the idea to customers.
Red, white and beef: Mondavi winemaker Genevieve Janssens
Genevieve Janssens was born and educated into the wine culture in France, helped bring Opus One wines to world acclaim in California, and has been the director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery since 1997. Wine Enthusiast magazine named her Winemaker of the Year in 2010.
But what made her eyes roll back just a touch in reverie amid dinners, lunches and tastings at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival? Texas beef.
"When I come back, I want to have a tasting of wine, but we should have a tasting of beef, with their location and their terroir," Janssens said. "Because definitely there is a terroir. And every guest will have just one slice of the beef, and they will know. And they will say, ‘Here we have pinot, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and which one goes best with what?' " The Mondavi name appears on labels in every layer of the wine market strata, but Janssens makes wines for Mondavi's Napa Valley, Oakville and Reserve labels, among them a Napa Valley Fumé Blanc ($20).
"Mr. Mondavi's dream was to have his Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, Napa Valley, be recognized among the best wines in the world. But he had different dreams, too," she said. "He wanted every single table in the States to have one glass of his wine. He wanted everybody to drink wine. And that's how he did it, with Woodbridge. We cannot mix the two missions. One mission is to be the top; the other mission is, let's be open to the wine drinker. The people who are going to drink Woodbridge, they'll drink Robert Mondavi Winery after four or five years. Eventually, you have connoisseurs."
A purist's take on hamburgers
The food writer, author of "The Hamburger: A History" and host of Ozersky.tv brought his purist approach to "the consummate American dish" to a lunchtime panel of the festival on Friday.
The hamburger might be America's defining food, but Josh Ozersky is outspoken about his opposition to what the burger has become.
"If you see a crazy burger with 45 toppings on a 17-grain bun, run for the hills," he told the audience at the Whole Foods Market's Lamar Culinary Center.
"The point is to heighten the taste of the beef, not cover it up." His ideal burger? A small, flat patty made with a combination of ground chuck, brisket and short rib topped with flimsy American cheese and chopped onions on squishy, seedless white bread (preferably, the cheapest in the store). No ketchup, no pickles and certainly no bleu cheese.
Most grocery stores don't sell ground brisket, however, so it's best to pick out a cut and then bring it to the butcher and ask if he or she will grind it for you. Play around with various mixtures, combining ground meats on a small scale and frying small patties to find out which ratio you like the best.
The flatter the patty, the more surface area on the griddle or pan, but just don't press the patty after it's already cooked or else all the juices will run out. Here's Ozersky's tried-and-true method:
Make a small ball of meat, slightly larger than a golf ball, but certainly not as big as a baseball. Season it very well with salt and place it in a hot pan. Press down slightly with a spatula and after mere seconds, flip to the other side and flatten while the meat is still raw. Cook the patty until it is 80 percent done and then flip again. Place cheese and the bottom half of the bun on the patty while it finishes cooking. Remove from the pan, place the top half of the bun and serve.
Ozersky knows that his stance on hamburgers isn't as popular as, say, the approach Bobby Flay takes with his over-the-top burgers at his Burger Palace in New York. But on his buns, less is more.
A move downtown this year by the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival's Sunday Fair resulted in a sellout, with an estimated crowd of 2,500 people walking and tasting among more than 100 vendors at the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, encompassing artisan food vendors, craft brewers, distillers and more than 30 wineries, including seven from Texas.
Aside from gusty winds that swirled some dust and fluttered a few tent walls, cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 80s kept the festival's closing event from dealing with the rain that dogged the fair the past two years, when it was held in Driftwood.
Standing in one of the longest lines at the Sunday Fair — for a cocktail made with an acai-berry spirit called Veev mixed with herbs served in a little glass jar — Dana Huyler and MaryEllen Chilton of Austin said it was their ninth year at the event. "We went last year for mudfest," Huyler said. The two pulled out a jar of strawberry balsamic black pepper preserves they'd bought from the Confituras food booth. "We're happy that some of the vendors we support are out here," Chilton said.
One area of the fair was set aside for a taco showdown among Izzoz, Zandunga, Sazón, Takoba and Chilantro, with Zandunga winning the audience tally.
Matt Lightner of Castagna restaurant in Portland, Ore., brought a farmer's stand worth of foraged herbs to make a dish of seared duck breast with roasted sunchokes, including peppery wild ginger, lemony wood sorrel and wild licorice root.
"With our presentations, we try to bring you to where it is we're thinking of," Lightner said as assistants passed around plates of herbs for the audience to touch, smell and taste. In this case, Lightner was thinking of wild ducks and their habitat in the Pacific Northwest.
The fair positioned seven Texas wineries pouring samples along one row: Fall Creek, Becker, McPherson, Stone House, Llano Estacado, Messina Hof and Pheasant Ridge. At the Whole Foods Market tent, Trey McLean poured Duchman Family Winery vermentino from a tap.