“There it is!”, I blurted out as we approached the Furrer Family Farms located on a country road just a few miles southwest of downtown Creswell. I saw the big red barn from a distance; the barn where we’d be experiencing our first ever barn dinner, and I was electrified by the thought of what was in store for us on this beautiful September evening.
We headed down the long gravel driveway towards the turn of the century rustic red barn. As we approached the barn, we were greeted by a 1940’s era Chevy farm truck adorned with hanging baskets of flowers and a sign that read, “parking”. We eagerly slipped into an available spot and walked towards a small crowd of people gathered around an open fire pit that held an extra large circular pan steaming with aromas of saffron and shrimp: the Paella was bubbling away, and my taste buds were already evoked for the evening’s gourmet meal that was diligently planned by chef Heidi Tunnell.
Creswell native Heidi Tunnell, owner of Heidi Tunnell Catering Company (HTCC), has quickly become known as one of the area’s top chefs; in fact, she recently was named the Iron Chef Eugene 2011 at the Bite of Eugene’s Iron Chef Competition. Aptly awarded with the much deserved title of Iron Chef Eugene, Heidi competed in this event when she was just days away from bringing her first child into the world, a healthy baby boy named Melvin.
Before opening her successful catering company and event center in 2005 located in downtown Creswell, Heidi spent several years attending a highly acclaimed culinary school in New York, had an externship in Sonoma, California and even cooked at The Canne’s Film Festival in the south of France; however, her passion for cooking with locally grown organic foods were best right where she had originally come from, so she came back to her roots and family in Creswell, Oregon to bring her passion to life and make it a reality.
Heidi not only focuses on her much-talked-about summer winemaker/farmer Barn Dinners, but her Bakery and Events Center hosts a year round Farmer’s Market every Tuesday afternoon in addition to being open on Tuesdays for lunch and baked goods and a once a month casual Thursday night comfort dinner. All of Heidi’s ingredients for her superb creations are organic and locally grown, she never substitutes when looking for something in particular; instead, she’ll work with what is available and is always dedicated to supporting local farmers, businesses, breweries and wineries; she wholeheartedly takes advantage of the bounties that surround her.
After watching Heidi toss handfuls of fresh green beans into the steaming Paella, we headed into the barn for the first food and wine pairing of the evening: Veneta’s very own world renowned Domaine Meriwether was the featured winery for this barn dinner, and Buzz Kawders, owner of Domaine Meriwether, was serving the ’06 Reserve Pinot Gris, which was paired with 2 different appetizers-Corn & Zucchini Cakes and Wood Oven Roasted HTCC Canadian Bacon-Wrapped Melons. The lush tropical flavors of the Pinot Gris paired perfectly with the salty-sweet combination of the Canadian Bacon-Wrapped Melons; the Corn & Zucchini Cakes exploded with nutty flavors when paired with Meriwether’s creamy and opulent Pinot Gris.
While inside the barn enjoying appetizer’s and wine, we noticed old-fashioned clear lights strung from the rafters of the barn, and 3 beautifully decorated tables lined with empty plates and stemware waiting to be filled with the upcoming food and wine. Mason jars used for water glasses graced the tables alongside their fancier companions, Riedel stemware- a perfect combination for a gourmet event set inside a historical barn. An acoustic guitarist played and sang while guests mingled on the patio with pastoral views of cows and horses to the east and the woodsy foothills of the Coastal Range to the west. The sun was beginning to set and the sky turned from blue, to orange, to pink.
We heard the rustle of people locating the places they would prefer to sit in for dinner, so we headed inside and were invited with smiles and handshakes to sit in two empty seats that were surrounded by people we would soon be talking to like old friends.
A basket of fresh baked HTCC bread was passed along, and I made sure to slide a piece of this crusty bread onto my plate-I’m an avid lover of fresh-baked bread. I took a small dab of butter, which I found out was organic butter that came from Norris Dairy, a dairy farm not too far from where we were, and it was the champion of all butters. Its unique, distinctive flavors caught me by surprise, and I made sure each bite of bread was spread with a little bit of this second-to-none, creamy wholesome butter.
My champagne flute was filled with Meriwether’s 2000 Prestige Cuvee Brut Sparkling Wine, which was paired with the first course: Green Salad with Roasted Beets, House Cured Bacon, Rogue Blue Cheese Dressing and a paper-thin slice of crunchy Whole Wheat Crostini. One of my favorite pairings with sparkling wine is a strong cheese with a bit of a kick, like Goat Cheese, and aged Blue Cheeses, so I loved the Rogue Blue Cheese Dressing with the rich, remarkably well balanced Prestige Cuvee; in fact, the entire salad from the lettuce to the bacon to the roasted beets, this pairing was a match to be savored and truly enjoyed.
Heidi announced that the Paella was ready to be served, and she invited people to take their plates outside to select their preferred items directly from the large batch of Paella that was cooking over the open fire, or to wait inside to be served. I opted to wait inside; mainly, because there wasn’t a single ingredient in Heidi’s Paella that I knew I wouldn’t fully enjoy. Flourishing with Saffron Valencian rice, colossal sized shrimp, mussels, clams, chicken, farm-fresh vegetables and house-made chorizo, I could hardly wait to try it with Domaine Meriwether’s 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir.
As my plate was stacked high, abounding with Paella, the floral aromas of the saffron were undeniably distinct, and my first bite of rice and house made chorizo was full of flavor and positively ambrosial. The smoky, spicy flavors of the chorizo and Saffron Valencian Rice paired wholly and perfectly with the earthy, dark cherry flavors of the Pinot Noir. I’ve always loved rice seasoned with the honey-like flavors of saffron, but I would never have thought that to pair the flavors of saffron with Oregon’s earthy Pinot Noir’s; therefore, this pairing was a surprising discovery of mouthwatering goodness that will not be soon forgotten. I made sure to store this one in my memory bank as a momentous food and wine pairing.
I enjoyed every bit of the main course down to the last grain of rice and last drop of Pinot Noir.
Our empty plates were whisked away and replaced with our final course of the evening: a Mason Jar filled with Wood Oven Roasted Peaches and Berries, Hazelnut Crumb and topped with Bacon Whipped Cream. I love bacon, and having never experienced “bacon whipped cream”, I immediately filled my spoon for a taste of the unknown. It was salty meets sweetness perfection, and when mixed with the fresh, locally grown roasted berries and peaches, it was absolute magic. Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, Domaine Meriwether’s 1999 Prestige Rosé Cuvee Sparkling Wine filled my glass, and the rustic flavors of homegrown goodness blended with the refined flavors of one of the world’s best sparkling wines resulted in flawless palate perfection.
As we chatted with the other wine and food lovers at our table, I noticed something rare: In place of the usual ringing of cell phones and loud background music associated with restaurant dining; laughter, story-telling and the clinking of glasses echoed throughout the barn. I recalled visits to my grandma’s farm as a young girl where I felt lucky and complacent to be surrounded by family and friends while enjoying the bounties that were freshly harvested just steps from the back porch; a place that I truly cherished, and I now felt grateful to be a part of one of Heidi’s applauded community and family focused barn dinners. This event conjured up monumental and heartwarming memories that made me think of how fortunate I am to be living in the beautiful and bountiful state of Oregon where wine country and farming communities can join forces and thrive because of people like Heidi who realize that the best of the best is what’s grown and produced right here in our very own Willamette Valley.
“Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilized pleasures.”— Michael Broadbent
Be sure to check the Heidi Tunnell Catering Company website often to see when reservations will open up for the 2012 Barn Dinner Series; tickets sell-out fast, and you’ll need to jump on the chance for a unique feast of fresh, local, stellar cuisine, fine wine or beer from our beautiful Oregon, and a rare chance to slow-down, relax, and spend qulaity time with kindred spirits and new found friends. http://heiditunnellcatering.com/
To find out more about the featured winery for this Barn Dinner, Domaine Meriwether, read my recent article “The Sparkling Future of Domaine Meriwether”, right here, on Eugene Daily News:http://eugenedailynews.com/2011/09/17/the-sparkling-future-of-domaine-meriwether/
Food & Wine Editor, EDN