Arizona: Farm to table movement blossoms around Scottsdale
SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Farmer Ken Singh is passionate about dirt.
"When the soil is rich and healthy, so is the food," he tells our small group of visiting journalists during a tour of his 8-hectare Singh Farms just off the freeway on Thomas Road.
And not unlike the depleted soil he revitalizes in the farm's huge composting area, Singh, too, has come full circle. After a lifetime away from agriculture -- including time spent in Canada and a corporate career -- the farm boy has returned to the land.
"We need to go back to the land to save the earth," Singh says, while pointing out rows of peanuts, kale, artichokes, pumpkins, tomatoes, mushrooms, flowers, and more growing in his "garden."
"Composting brings life back to the desert."
So he and his Ontario-born wife Lee -- who still keeps up on news from Canada -- try to "do the right thing." That means growing healthy chemical-free crops using the best tools Mother Nature provides, and methods learned from his farmer father and local indigenous people.
Under a cool canopy of mesquite trees, Singh describes how the dappled shade shelters tender crops from the scorching sun and harsh desert environment, and how the trees in turn enrich the soil.
The approach is working, and Singh Farms has become THE place for foodies to be on a Saturday morning. Each week about 2,000 people -- including visitors and local chefs -- descend, reusable shopping bags in hand, for the Saturday morning market.
In addition to shopping for fresh produce and locally made products (olive oil, honey, wheat and more), visitors can stroll around the farm, see the chickens, peacocks and horses, and enjoy what might be one of the best open-air breakfasts in Scottsdale.
Singh Farms is just one example of the creative new farm-to-table food culture blossoming in and around the Scottsdale area. Visitors can taste the bounty at several farms and food producers that open to the public, and many other places across the region.
FARM AT AGRITOPIA
Where Singh Farms is a rustic down home experience, the Farm at Agritopia could be described as going "up country."
Agritopia is where rural meets urban, a sort of mixed use farm and residential community for the 21st century.
There are a handful of similar projects around the U.S., but this one is the brainchild of Joe Johnston, who is well on the way to transforming the Johnston family farm in Gilbert into a self-sustaining "agri-hood."
Johnston says he enjoyed "a bucolic kind of farm childhood" on this land, which was once "way way out in the boonies."
Today, the Johnston homestead borders a freeway in the centre of suburban development in Gilbert. When city suburbs push in, farmers typically sell their land and move further out but Johnston -- an electrical and mechanical engineer -- and his family decided to create the "best community we could."
So now, in addition to the certified organic crops and livestock raised on the 65-hectare farm, there are about 450 homes, two restaurants, a private school and an assisted living centre.
The Farm Stand comes alive on Wednesday nights, when folks from miles around come out for the weekly market, where they can buy fresh organic produce and locally made products, take in local entertainment and have a bite at Joe's Farm Grill (housed in the former farmhouse and once featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), The Coffee Shop (whose cupcakes took home a top prize on Cupcake Wars) or one of the many food trucks that roll in for the evening.
The afternoon of our visit, the first of three Outstanding in the Field dinners is taking place on the farm. These moveable farm-to-table feasts -- founded by chef and artist Jim Denevan -- strive to reconnect diners with the land and the farmers who produce our food. The pop up events -- about 90 take place each year in the U.S. and Canada -- are often held on farms and feature local chefs and food.
This one is held in the orange grove, where tables are arranged end-to-end and set with a patchwork of colourful mismatched plates brought by diners. This night, each delicious course is prepared by Chef Gio Osso -- owner of the much- talked about Virtu restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale -- and paired with an equally delicious wine from Dos Cabezas WineWorks.
QUEEN CREEK OLIVE MILL
Most mornings, Queen Creek Olive Mill is buzzing with people who have stopped into the marketplace to shop for olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salad dressings, tapenades, sauces, stuffed olives, etc., take a tour, have a bite at the Eatery, or grab a cup of organic java from the Superstition coffee counter.
We are there for all of these delicious reasons plus an olive oil tasting with Perry Rea, who owns the Olive Mill with his wife Brenda.
The only other place in the world I have had an organized olive oil tasting is Italy, and this is where the Reas went to learn how to conduct classes on the correct way to taste and evaluate olive oil.
An olive oil tasting is not unlike a wine tasting. You start by cupping a vessel containing a small amount of oil in your hand to warm it slightly and release its aroma. Then you look at the oil to assess its colour. Finally, you sip, letting the oil swish around on your tongue before swallowing and gauging the reaction in your throat as it goes down.
Perry says he produces three types of olive oil -- balanced, robust and delicate. All are extra virgin. In addition to the plain oils, he makes dozens of flavour-infused gourmet olive oils that pair well with vegetables, meat, and other food. These include such flavours as Meyer lemon, roasted garlic, basil, and my new favourite -- a unique chocolate infused olive oil great for baking or drizzling on waffles or gelato.
Perry even created a bacon "flavoured" oil for Brenda, who is a vegetarian, but unfortunately this popular flavour is sold out when we visit.
After the tasting, Perry shows us the production room and explains the oil-making process.
Then it's time for some tasty bites from the Italian-inspired Eatery, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our early lunch features a selection of open-face sandwiches with toppings such as green apple, ricotta cheese and balsamic, all delicious.
We follow up with more deliciousness -- cupcakes made with the Rea's olive oil and cups of strong flavourful coffee -- before going to visit Brenda in the "lab," where she makes a line of natural bath, body and home-care products from olive oil.
Brenda says the impetus to make the soaps, lotions, lip balms, etc., came from her children's dry skin. Not wanting to use chemical-laden creams and lotions on them, Brenda started experimenting with making her own products at home, then started selling them at the store. Demand was so high, the operation was soon taking over the family kitchen so Perry built her the large space at the store.
We end our visit comparing the dryness of the desert to the dryness of our homes in a Canadian winter. The Reas know winter. Perry is U.S. born but Canada raised. Brenda is from Montreal.
I'm a bit taken aback when Perry says he hopes we have a cold winter in Canada. Then he explains: A cold winter will bring many new Canadian friends to Queen Creek.
NEED TO KNOW
Air Canada and WestJet have direct flights to Phoenix from Canada.
We stayed at two storied Scottsdale hotels -- Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia and Royal Palms Resort and Spa. Both offer gracious service, lovely accommodations and fabulous restaurants and spas. In addition, both hotels provide great views of iconic Camelback Mountain, where energetic folks can hit the trail for a vigorous hike (best in early morning). For reservations, see omnihotels.com and royalpalmshotel.com.