At restaurants and posh resorts in America’s West, chefs have a rich heritage of ingredients and methods to draw on, and wine is definitely on the menu.
A plate o’ beans and a chaw of rattlesnake jerky, washed down with coffee brewed in the embers of the campfire—that’s what many an urbanite sees as a typical meal in the Old West. Watching too many cowboy movies will have that effect.
“The stereotypical stories of people sitting around the campfire were true—when people were traveling,” says Holly Arnold Kinney, owner of The Fort, a Morrison, Colorado-based restaurant that has been renowned for its loving celebration of the West since her parents opened the eatery in 1963. Kinney says that when the travelers stopped at a trading post to resupply—and even more so when they became homesteaders—dinner was a more elaborate affair, at least for those who could afford it.
“There was French Champagne, [wines of] Bordeaux and meals eaten on fine china,” says Kinney, also the executive director of the Tesoro Cultural Center, which promotes the cultural heritage of Colorado and the Southwest.
Western cuisine was a true melting pot, says Kinney. It included Native American staples known as the three sacred sisters (corn, beans and squash); Spanish delicacies like wine and spices imported from the Far East; Mexican delicacies, especially chilies; French flavors introduced by trappers and fur traders; pioneer pantry items like wheat, salt pork, lard and preserved and pickled foods; and the bounty of the land (bison, elk, deer, quail, grouse, root vegetables, berries and trout).
As a result, Kinney notes, “our modern buy-local, sustainable, heritage-seed, steward-of-the-land, back-to-our-roots movement,” is rooted in the Old West.
Today, many chefs are taking the foods of the Old West and applying the techniques of contemporary cuisine. One such example is Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, an 8,000-acre dude ranch and resort in Emigrant, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The 92-year-old property was purchased in 2001 by Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the N.F.L.’s Atlanta Falcons. Blank has invested generously in the property, which now can accommodate 80 guests.
“We have three different cookouts—breakfast, lunch and dinner—and two gourmet nights,” says Brian Bielen, executive chef at Mountain Sky. A gourmet night might feature grilled bison tenderloin medallions served over truffle root-vegetable hash, topped with baby green beans and fried parsnips tossed in gorgonzola-sundried tomato cream, finished with a roasted shallot whiskey sauce.
Bielen uses all the local products he can. Bison, grouse, trout and the region’s famed huckleberries appear on the menu, along with more universal restaurant fare like sea scallops or spring lamb. These ingredients are likely to be prepared with contemporary French, Italian or Chinese touches.
A thousand or so miles to the south, near Tucson, Arizona, gourmet wine and food is also a focus at Rancho De La Osa Guest Ranch, operated by Chef/ Co-owner Veronica Schultz and her husband, Richard.
The Hacienda, which is the main building on the ranch, dates back to the mid-19th century. But the building occupied by Rancho De La Osa’s Cantina has older roots, spanning to the late 1600s when Spanish Jesuit priests built it as a mission trading outpost. Since 1924, the property has been used as a guest ranch, and the Schultzes took over the reins in 1996.
Schultz relies heavily on traditional, local ingredients and gives them a modern culinary spin. “Southwestern food is not really heavily into red meat, probably because of the heat,” she says. “The Southwestern food that we do is lighter. We do a lot of pork tenderloin and chicken, fish. Our food doesn’t have a lot of cream in it. It’s oriented to fruit sauces and salsas made with chilies.”
Wine can play a leading role for chefs who are serious about Western food. In fact, wine has been part of Western cuisine for several hundred years, Kinney says.
“In the 19th century, New Mexico was a big winemaking region,” she says. “The Spanish people who came here loved wine and they brought grapes. In the missions, they had wine.” Kinney also adds that Westerners “imported a lot of French wine.”
Yet, because the food of the West is so diverse, there’s no single, definitive pairing strategy.
Dominic Orsini is the winery chef at Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars, in Oakville, California, whose owners, the Duncan family, also own Diamond Tail Ranch, a buffalo and Corriente cattle ranch in Colorado. Orsini often serves buffalo and approaches it like any other pairing.
This means accounting for the acidity, salt, fat and other influences of the dish and pairing it accordingly. Orsini particularly emphasizes umami, the rich, savory flavor that comes from naturally occurring glutamates in foods. Buffalo, for example, has a meatier flavor than beef, which calls for a big red wine, like the Silver Oak Cab. It’s also Kinney’s recommended pairing at The Fort.
“The tannins are well integrated into our wine, so the fat in the herb butter coats your palate and makes it hard for you to perceive them,” says Orsini. “Hence, the wine tastes soft. The herbs provide an aroma that mingles with the wine’s finish of oak, fruit and spice.
“When it comes to pairing wine with Western cuisine,” Orsini concludes, “the rules are pretty much universal.”
So be assured, city slickers: A visit to the mountains or the desert doesn’t have to mean deprivation. (read more)