As swan songs go, Chef Ron Huff’s was pretty memorable. The outgoing founding president of the Minnesota chapter of Slow Food International oversaw last night a meal for nearly 200 diners at the Callister Farm near Faribault, MN. “A Fowl Affair” raised money for the Terra Madre delegate fund, which sends local farmers to the biannual Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy. It also assembled a constellation of local gastro-luminaries including Cannon River Winery, Flat Earth Brewing, and Cedar Summit Dairy.
Before dinner, a horse-drawn covered wagon ferried guests from the parking area to the registration booth, farmer Lori Callister gave tours of the grounds, and younger attendees tried their hand at an extremely durable chicken-shaped pinata. After dozens of failed attempts on the pinata’s life, accompanied by classic bloodthirsty kid banter (“Knock the life out of it!” “An axe would work better!”), an adult was finally brought in to finish the job, leading to the inevitable charmingly squalid scramble for loot. Flat Earth Sasparilla floats made for a good chaser.
The star of the day’s gastronomic show was the poulet rouge (photo, top; chickens below are various breeds), a long-legged European variety of chicken making its debut this year at the farm. About 50 were processed on site for the dinner; the remainder of this year’s 200-bird, free-range crop is destined for diners at Lucia’s in Uptown, starting this Thursday. Lori Callister said the farm has enjoyed a successful season with the birds and will be continuing its experiment with the breed — and scaling up the numbers — in 2010.
Here’s the heart of the matter: Poulet rouge taste better than your typical chicken. With a super-moist, almost velveteen texture and a hint of woodsy depth — like an allusion to a mushroom sauce — this is chicken with a soul. The preparation of the night was “smothered chicken,” a specialty of Chef Huff’s mother. The dish involved a butter saute, a drizzled sauce of garlic and onions, and Cedar Summit Dairy cream — but despite the name, the essence of the chicken was able to break through the dairy products and represent itself with delicious dignity.
The bird was served on a plate weighed down with overcooked sweet corn (the stuff’s deceptively tricky to nail when you’ve got to feed hundreds), slices of heirloom tomatoes, a refreshingly snappy pickle and onion slaw, homemade mozzarella bread, and — what the hell, why not? — miniature potatoes.
Diners eating al fresco had the slightly eerie experience of eating a poulet rouge drumstick not 10 feet away from where their dinner’s old pals run merrily to and fro within a woody groove. Enjoy it while it lasts, guys, because the rest of you have dinner reservations at Lucia’s later this week.
What’s that? A bit morbid? Fair enough, but so is eating meat. Visiting Callister Farm, it was impossible not to make the connection between the beautiful, healthy animal pecking at the dirt, and the bird on the plate — which, naturally, was the point.