Categories: Entertainment

The long table

Long table dinners are a return to days past.

Standing in one of Prairie Gardens’ farm fields on a Sunday night, the scent of freshly cut grass floating through the air, reminds me of harvests in my parents’ farming community.

While the men worked in dusty fields under a blazing sun battling mosquitoes, flies and thirst, women sweat it out in hot kitchens cooking roasts, potatoes, pies and cakes to feed hungry crowds.

But come mealtime, if it was too hot to eat indoors, a big communal table was set outdoors. The cooler breezes blended and contrasted with hot savoury aromas of the meal, prompting tiredness to disappear and laughter to flow.

The minute everyone had a place at the table, it was a signal to dig in. For a kid, those were memorable days.

As society became urbanized, the rustic tradition faded away – until about five years ago when it materialized with a vengeance.

And judging from stories 75 diners told at Prairie Gardens’ elegant Farm to Fork adventure, long-table alfresco dinners have shifted from retro to trendy.

Bookended by a field of tall corn stalks on one side and another field of five-foot high round bales, the lengthy banquet table is simply decorated with white dishes paired with gleaming cutlery and sparkling wine glasses.

Jason Rinas, an Edmonton human resource officer, purchased one of the $135 tickets for the sold-out, five-course dinner and plans to attend more in the future.

“It was amazing. I came with friends and it was fun and spontaneous. It’s something I’ve never heard of before. I didn’t realize you could come to these events.”

Every guest had a different reason for turning up. Some visited for the experience, others for curiosity. Several couples are active participants of the long-table circuit yet others participated as a birthday gift or anniversary celebration with family or friends.

Brian Ngo, 32, an Edmonton engineer, celebrated his birthday with friends, a group of up and coming professionals.

“I see when we go to dinner, everyone has their cellphone on the table. There’s a lost art of conversation. I like eating and talking and this is a lot of fun.”

Everyone interviewed at the event pointed out the need for connection.

“Young people are looking to connect with other people and with food,” human resource officer Amanda Atwell says. “We grew up on fast food and microwave food. This is about sharing. If you go to a restaurant everyone is eating different food. Here everyone is eating the same food. This way you can discuss what you like and the different flavours.”

The driving force behind Prairie Gardens’ Farm to Fork series is Tam Andersen, a Bon Accord farmer committed to pairing and showcasing local farmers and chefs.

Last summer she teamed with Chef Blair Lebsack, a proponent of the slow food movement and owner of RGE RD, an award-winning Edmonton restaurant, to promote farm dinners.

Inspired by the wealth of seasonal ingredients in Alberta, Lebsack creates a menu from locally sourced foods. And his general manager and partner, Caitlyn Fulton pairs each dish with a Canadian wine.

The evening starts with a cocktail, a marinated tea kicked-up with a splash of Canadian whisky. The first course, a salad served on long wooden boards, combines garden vegetables, greens, tomatoes, country-style terrine and pickled apples. As servers put the boards on the table, hungry diners quickly slide the salad onto plates.

The second instalment, a favourite of several groups, is ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms served with marinated tomato and zucchini. This fusion dish is paired with 2014 Black Hills Sauvignon Blanc. As the squash blossoms are eaten, the conversation becomes appreciably louder and merrier.

“It’s always like this,” smiles Lebsack, contented that his staff’s hard work is paying off and strangers are making new friends.

As diners settle in, a third dish of corn succotash with fava beans, peppers, onion, bacon and apple-fennel pork sausage is served and quickly devoured. The cider also receives numerous nods of approval.

The fourth plate, a flat-iron beef with root vegetable pavé and smoked corn mousse paired with Canadian Bordeaux, is gamely eaten. By now, the western sky has turned a golden colour and Blair announces it is 44 minutes until sunset.

His team quickly rolls out a saskatoon berry and raspberry curd Ă©clair with mint mascarpone and chokecherry coulis. At dinner’s end, people pat their stomachs and laugh about exercising double-time the following day.

The three-hour event is a hit. As cars drive away in the dark, the culinary team is left to clean up using truck headlights for illumination.

Fulton attributes the long-table culinary renaissance to diners’ enhanced knowledge of the food industry.

“People are getting more savvy, more interested in the food they eat. Right now there are so few opportunities for community dining in the way we structure our daily life. When people come out, there’s a sense of community. There’s nothing more primal or universal than breaking bread together. We’re all so hungry for it.”

And cooking with local ingredients at their peak is the surest way to keep diners interested in the new movement.

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.