Dirty Feet Dining : Table to Farm

Dinner in the Orchard and under the Stars

Dinner in the Orchard and under the Stars

When diners and all-day breakfast and soda fountains are one side of the coin that is American cuisine (see my previous post on diners), then farm-to-table is the other side of this coin. This farm-to-table (or also called farm-to-fork) movement that connects diners with locally grown (usually organic) produce and more modern and unusual dishes has become more and more popular. This movement is now connecting the consumer and the farmer even more closely in a movement I would call table-to-farm movement: the chefs, the tables, and the guests are all coming to the grower, so some produce does not ever leave the farm before it is consumed. Last weekend’s Dirty Feet Dining event (love the name) at Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle, CA was such a table-to-farm event.

Peach Orchard

Peach Orchard

When the summer nights become warm in Northern California, an al fresco meal could not be more perfect. I have never understood why so many dining options are  in air-conditioned rooms even when the temperatures are perfect. Outdoor dining options are not that common, and outdoor dining options with good food and even better ambiance are pretty impossible to find. Dining in the midst of an orchard and under green boughs full of ripe peaches while watching the stars come up on a clear summer sky is the epitome of a perfect dining location. I am pretty sure I mentioned how beautiful the surroundings were about every ten minutes or so in a dinner that lasted close to four hours – also unusual for American dining options.

Cocktail Menu at the Dirty Feet Dining Event

Cocktail Menu at the Dirty Feet Dining Event

Gin Cocktail Bar

Gin Cocktail Bar

Dinner started off with cocktails and appetizers. Appetizers were prepared outside as were all other dishes it seemed. All cocktails were made with a locally distilled gin, and between my husband and me, we tasted all the cocktails on the menu. Even though I am usually not a gin drinker, I had a tough time choosing a favorite. The gin was Darjeeling Gin made by California Distilled Spirits in Auburn, CA. I ended up sitting next to the distiller, Ed Arnold, during dinner and learned much about distilling, gin, and whiskey during the conversation.

A Professor Plum Cocktail (Pink) and a Dirty Tonic Cocktail

Prost! A Professor Plum Cocktail (Pink) and a Dirty Tonic Cocktail

Chefs Preparing the Appetizers on the Farm

Chefs Preparing the Appetizers on the Farm

After cocktails, we walked through the orchards to the highest peak of the farm where chefs cooked over open fire on the outskirts of the orchard, and dining tables, bar, and even a DJ were right in the middle of the orchard and amongst all the trees bowing under the weight of ripe peaches and nectarines. Seating at two long tables and all dishes served family-style on large platers and passed on to share allowed for meeting new people and interesting dinner conversations. The menu was unusual and intricate and did not hint at all that the cooking was done outside as well. I could have maybe handled preparing the salad course outside but definitely not the carp with prawns and pickled apricots, the goat with chickpea puree, or the dessert similar to flan and berries on a cookie.

On the Way through the Peach Orchard to the Dining Tables

On the Way through the Peach Orchard to the Dining Tables

Carp as the Second Course Served Family Style

Carp as the Second Course Served Family Style

Even though each course came with its specific wine (from Lone Buffalo Vineyards, a local winery on the nearby Placer County Wine Trail), dinner was paused for an alcoholic intermission consisting of tapache, a fermented fruit wine. As dinner service continued, the sunset colored the sky pink and purple above the trees and the lights in the branches and candles placed under the trees started to glow. I doubt I have ever spent that much time during dinner looking up or comment on the setting. Dinner in the orchard has definitely ruined eating in AC-controlled restaurants even more for me. And contrary to the name, the soil and grass in the orchard were just moist enough to keep my feet clean despite the event’s name.

Dinner Included even a DJ in the Orchard

Dinner Included even a DJ in the Orchard

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County Fair

Pig Races at the County Fair

Pig Races at the County Fair

I have always loved the county and state fairs even though they have been scaled back here in California (I am guessing because they are not that popular anymore). I have already loved fairs as a kid in Austria, and the American fairs and the Austrian fairs (Volksmesse) are quite similar. Both offer carnival rides, performers, livestock displays, sales people pitching cars and salad spinners and cleaners that can get rid of any stain, and crowds.

Livestock at Display at the County Fair

Livestock at Display at the County Fair

Two differences are the fair foods and the events. Austrian fair food is heavy on bratwurst and sauerkraut, gingerbread hearts, caramelized almonds, and of course beer. Even though most of that exists here as well, American fairs are known for deep-fried food, and I have learned that anything can be deep fried: candy bars and cheesecake and even Nutella. Deep fried Nutella is  basically a warm doughnut filled with gooey Nutella; warm sugar and fat on a stick – what could be better!

Everything Can Be Deep Fried

Everything Can Be Deep Fried

Deep Fried Food at the Fair

Deep Fried Food at the Fair

Another difference is the events. The last fair I went to had piglet races, a rodeo, and a special bull-riding performance. These events also mean more cowboy hats and Western-style boots than I have ever seen in Austria (and not a single pair of lederhosen in sight). As typical for the U.S., the anthem is also played at the beginning of the rodeo and I cannot remember hearing the Austrian anthem at any fair.

Cowboy Leaving the Arena after Being Bucked Off by the Bull

Cowboy Leaving the Arena after Being Bucked Off by the Bull

Some Bulls Buck the Rider but Refuse to Leave the Arena

Some Bulls Buck the Rider Off but Refuse to Leave the Arena

In contrast to the large bull riding events, where professional athletes  can earn millions of dollars (pro-rider Silvano Alvez has earned 5.5 million USD so far in his career), riders at county fair events are often high school or college riders, which still boggles my mind. I learned that quite a lot of colleges actually offer rodeo scholarships and plenty offer varsity rodeo teams, including three schools in California. To me, bull riding seems a lot more dangerous than football, and I am surprised that it is a high school sport, but I guess riders have to start at some point.

Before the Rodeo Begins

Before the Rodeo Begins

Sitting so close to the fence, I was impressed and fascinated by the sheer size of the bulls but especially their agility; they can jump so high and twist and turn while in the air even though they weigh 1,500 lbs or more. I cannot believe anyone is willing to get onto one of the beasts. The rodeo, and especially the bull riding, is definitely a major difference between the typical Austrian and the typical Californian fair.

After Bucking Off the Cowboy

After Bucking Off the Cowboy

Bull Waiting to be Transported to the Next Event

Bull Waiting to be Transported to the Next Event

And the Winner Is…

Photo found on http://www.orf.at

…Sweden – which was not a big surprise. A bigger surprise was that Austria (and also Germany) did not get a single point at the Grand Finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. Really??! The song was not that bad, and should not we have gotten a couple of points just for hosting the event (think hostess gift)?

I watched the live online stream of the ORF, and the Austrian host had plenty of good ideas to make the viewing of this annual singing competition amongst European countries (see more about the competition in my previous posting) more interesting.

A surprising amount of songs were in English, which I found rather sad. Even Israel’s entry was for the first time in the competition not in Hebrew. Half of the fun of watching this competition is listening to the lyrics in different languages, such as Armenian, and trying to figure out what they are singing. From the few non-English songs, Italy’s entry, “Grande Amore,” was definitely my favorite and placed third overall.

Italy’s Performance (www.orf.at)

Here are some additional trophies that should have been awarded:

Most doves used in the background – France

Best lit-up costumes – United Kingdom

UK’s Performance – Best Lit-Up Costume (www.orf.at)

Best marching “army” of animated people – Sweden (with France a close second)

Sweden's Performance - Best Army of Animated Men

Sweden’s Performance – Best Army of Animated Men (www.orf.at)

Best fire in a piano (and also best fire on the stage) – Austria

Austria’s Performance – Best Fire in a Piano (www.orf.at)

Best singer performing while perched on someone’s shoulder – Spain

Spain’s Performance – Best Performance while Perched on a Shoulder (www.orf.at)

Most time spent with the butt to the audience – Germany

Most Gothic costume – Georgia (which also won for best use of feathers in a costume)

Georgia's Performance - Best Gothic Outfit

Georgia’s Performance – Best Gothic Outfit

Most unusual dancers that distracted from the singer – Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's Performance - Most Distracting Dancers

Azerbaijan’s Performance – Most Distracting Dancers

Most fake machine guns – Hungary (which also won for best machine-gun tree)

At some point, it was pretty clear that Sweden would win, and then the competition was more about whether Austria or maybe even Germany would get a point, and we would be all alone in last place (success – Austria shared the last place with Germany as neither received any points). And even though Austria did not move out of last place, I learned that Austria has a world-famous percussionist (who knew there were any famous percussionists, let alone world-famous ones).

Even though the Eurovision Song Contest is not supposed to be about politics (just like the Olympics), the audience often booed when Russia’s representative was on screen, and the Austrian commentator pointed out the irony of Russia singing a song about peace.

All in all, no big surprises but mildly entertaining – but voting for more categories definitely does help.

Eurovision Song Contest: A Tradition

Vinyl copy of Germany's 1982 Winner - Nicole

Vinyl copy of Germany’s 1982 Winner – Nicole “Ein bisschen Frieden”

This week is all about the Eurovision Song Contest in the Austrian media, and even though I am several thousand miles away, I am keeping up with the contest. Watching the Eurovision Song Contest is a tradition that I grew up with and that is hard to shake even after years abroad. Yes, many of the songs are not really that great and most sound the same as songwriters seem to believe there is a certain formula to a winning song – either dramatic ballads with a full orchestra or happy, snappy dance songs. This is American Idol but for all of Europe and with only one chance/song to win it all and of course national pride on the line as if it were a world championship in a popular sport. This year, the definition of “Europe” seems to have been expanded as this is the first year that Australia is also participating in the contest (I somehow missed that explanation).

According to the official Eurovision website, 180 million viewers watch each year as up to 43 countries participate (the highest number in 2011). The contest has been in existence continuously for the last 60 years, so it is truly a tradition in May. The commentators are usually tri- or bilingual, and the Eurovision Song Contest was my first experience with numbers and names of countries in French as the commentators announce the points earned per country in English and then French before the local TV announcer translates everything into German in my case. I know just a few key sentences in French, but I am still great with countries and numbers up to 12 just because of this show.

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Buks Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981 with the song “Making Your Mind Up.” Side note: Who comes up with these band names!?

The voting system has changed over the years; viewers can vote for songs but not the song of their own country (which makes the immigrant vote important to some); in addition, a national jury of five music professionals that are also citizens of the country votes for the best songs; the two rankings are combined, and the results are given live during the broadcast: 12 points for the top-ranked song, ten points for the second-highest ranked song, and so on. So far Norway has been at the bottom the most over the years – 11 times; Ireland has won the most contests with seven wins. Austria has won twice – in 1957 and in 2014, which is also the reason why this year’s competition takes place in Vienna, Austria. The contest is also a great opportunity to show videos of the country and culture in between performances to support the tourist industry of the country, so yes, it is a big deal.

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Cover of ABBA (vinyl) – the group won the contest for Sweden in 1974 with the song “Waterloo.”

Currently the semifinals are happening before the big finale on Saturday evening (European time) and lunchtime California time. If you are curious, you can watch the videos of all songs here http://www.eurovision.tv/page/vienna-2015/about/contestants or watch the live stream on Saturday, May 23 online (if you live outside of Europe). Since it is a contest, one can also bet on it (but not in Vegas); online sites seem to favor Sweden as winner before Russia and Italy. I actually find the bad songs a lot more entertaining to watch. Here is a great link to watch some of the worst songs throughout the years: Worst Songs.

Many of the worst and thus most entertaining songs do not survive the semifinals, so you may want to tune in now before the finale on Saturday. So far, I do not have a favorite on either side of the spectrum yet, but there are still a lot of hours online ahead.

Happy Lunar New Year – Tet

Lion dancers at a New Year's Parade in San Francisco in a previous year

Lion dancers at a New Year’s Parade in San Francisco in a previous year

On the evening of February 18, 2015, many in California (and around the world) are counting down to the beginning of the new lunar year. Since I have so many Vietnamese students in my classes, I have become very familiar with Tet – the Vietnamese new year celebrations. This year, Tet is on February 19, and I like the idea of a new year’s celebration in mid-February rather than December 31. It actually feels right to celebrate the beginning of a new year now rather than on the last day of December.

First, December is already a busy month. There are plenty of Austrian traditional holidays that need to be celebrated, such as December 5 (Krampus Day) and December 6 (St. Nickolaus Day) – see previous blog posts (Krampus Day and St. Nickolaus). Then, there are the Christmas holidays. It seems odd to have another large celebration/holiday in the same month, especially since per Austrian tradition, January 6 is also a holiday. New Year’s Day on January 1 seems to become nearly lost amongst all the other holidays. By the time mid-February comes around, I could use another large holiday/celebration, so the lunar new year is actually in perfect time.

Blossoms and Oranges

Blossoms and Oranges

Second, a new year symbolizes new beginnings and in Northern California, nature clearly displays new beginnings in mid-February. I understand that this most likely is not the case in the Midwest and on the East Coast, but here most fruit trees are blooming, the daffodils are out in all their glory, and I have already sown my peas and planted lettuce outside – no greenhouses needed. The new year also goes well with the major spring cleaning that is encouraged by the balmy 70 degrees. It stays light longer and in general everyone seems to be ready to spend more time outside – new beginnings. However, the end of December does not feel like renewal in any way – it still gets dark very early, no one wants to plant anything outside, and plenty of rain and mud do not encourage any major spring cleaning.

Almond trees in Capay Valley, CA

Almond trees in Capay Valley, CA in February

Third, the celebrations (especially for Tet) include many traditions that are usually divided amongst several American holidays, so this holiday seems to go all out and have it all: firecrackers, decorated graves, decorated trees, ornaments around the house, ghosts in the streets, parades, large meals/family feasts, new clothes. Whatever you like most about your favorite American holiday seems to exist on this day as well.

Decorations for Tet (found on: http://commons.wikimedia.org)

So the longer I live here and am around the lunar new year celebrations, the more this holiday makes sense. Tet falls on the same day as the Chinese new year. I like that it lasts for three days and each day is dedicated to a special group: the first day is reserved for close family, the second day for close friends, and the third day is for teachers. I am always amazed that teachers are held in such high regards that they get their own day  as part of this holiday. According to Vietnamese students I have met, people visit their former teachers to thank them on this day. Tet also means plenty of cleaning and completing tasks before the new year. There is luck money in red envelopes for children and there is betting (no traditional American holiday I know of includes gambling games). And of course there are special dishes for the new year. Many of the students mention bánh chưng – square cake (rice, mung bean, and pork wrapped in leaves).

Square Cakes – Traditional Dish for Tet (found on: http://www.vietnamonline.com)

So as the year of the sheep begins (or goat or ram – this confusion only exists in translations; learn more about it here if you are interested: http://nyti.ms/1G1Huei ), may the new year bring you all you are hoping for.

Vạn sự như ý – May all wishes come true!

Eurovision Tree Contest: Find the Tree of the Year

My our mandarin tree would not stand a chance against the stiff competition in the Eurovision Contest for Trees - even though it is a fighter; it has managed to survive in a small pot, a stingy watering schedule, and a hardier climate zone than recommended.

My sour mandarin tree would not stand a chance against the stiff competition in the Eurovision Contest for Trees – even though it is a fighter; it has managed to survive in a small pot, a stingy watering schedule, and a hardier climate zone than recommended.

Europeans seem to love their cross-European competitions. The most famous of these types of competitions is the Eurovision Song Contest, where each country submits a song each year and countries vote for other countries’ songs to find the most popular song of the year. It is a beloved competition in Europe; my American husband thinks it is odd and bad but interesting to watch because the whole thing is so hokey. Even though most of the songs do not make it big, a few artists who won the contest did become famous worldwide stars, such as ABBA for Sweden in 1974 and Celine Dion for Switzerland in 1988. Last year’s winner is Conchita Wurst, a full-bearded drag queen from Austria. Since last year’s winner is Austria, Austria will host this year’s contest in May.

Knowing the popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest that has existed since 1958, I was nevertheless surprised to recently learn about a Eurovison Contest for Trees. The tree competition works the same way as the song contest, with the difference that the trees do not sing. The contest has been described as the “search for the most lovable tree, a tree with a story that can bring a community together.”

Fourteen trees from across Europe are in the running for 2015. For example, England is sending its tree of the year to the competition, Sherwood Forest’s Major Oak. It is supposedly more than one thousand years old and Robin Hood hid from the Sheriff of Nottingham in it. Slovakia will be represented by a 200-year-old white mulberry tree; the Czech Republic’s entry is a pine tree that looks like a five-headed dragon; France’s competitor is a 1,000-year-old chestnut tree with a 15-meter circumference (which is over 49 feet). The tree has been described as “half plant, half human.” Europeans definitely seem to love their trees. I am wondering if there is a U.S. version of this tree competition and who would win.

Sherwood Forest’s Major Oak and England’s Tree of the Year (found on: BBC.com)

Voting for the 2015 competition seems to take place in February, so if you are interested and want to support your favorite tree, keep an eye out for an update on this official website: http://www.treeoftheyear.org/?lang=en

Details and quotes are from: Simpson, Eric. “Branching Out: Major Oak Aims to Win ‘Eurovision for Trees.’” BBC News. BBC, 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-30344911

PS: A quick update – the results are in and here is the Tree of the Year for 2015 according to the official website:  “The voting ended on 28 February 2015. The winner is the Oak tree on a football field from Estonia with 59 836 votes. The great plane of Tata (Hungary) with 53 487 votes placed second. Third place goes to Poplar pollard of the Remolinar (Spain) with 13 951 votes.”

St. Nikolaus

St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Facebook: Austria Official Travel Info)

December is a busy month for traditions in Austria. Krampus Day on December 5 is followed by Nikolaus Day on December 6. It is the day of St. Nikolaus, and even though the American Santa Claus is modeled after him even in name, they two do not have much in common. St. Nikolaus does bring gifts for the good kids but in the evening of December 6. He was the Bishop of Myra, which is in present-day Turkey, in the fourth century. He is the patron saint for a lot of different groups ranging from students to pirates to prostitutes. I guess he is popular for so many groups to choose him. But the “job” as patron saint for children and students is the reason for the traditions associated with December 6. And because he was a bishop, he is dressed quite differently than Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus wears the robes of a bishop and with that comes a mitre and a pastoral staff. He is usually white-haired and has a long flowing beard but he is usually not chubby like Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus also does not use a flying sleigh with reindeer but walks or rides a horse or a “regular” sleigh. He also does not come through the chimney in the middle of the night, but politely knocks on the door.

St. Nikolaus usually is accompanied by Krampus, a demon-like beast to scare the naughty children (see yesterday’s post). Nikolaus usually asks the parents if the children have been good, and if the answer is yes, Krampus is asked to wait outside the door where he hollers and rattles his chains to warn children to behave all year. Once Krampus is banished, Nikolaus usually asks the children to recite a poem or sing a carol for him before he takes gifts out of his large bag. Since he is really carrying the bag and the gifts, the gifts are usually chocolate, apples, oranges, and possibly books or other small items. To remind children again that Krampus is always watching, a small bundle of birch twigs is included in the gift as well (see yesterday’s post about the birch twigs).

Postcard Showing St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Wikipedia Commons)

If the parents did not rent a Nikolaus to come to the house, children still receive gifts though. Little bags or shoes are left by the door and are filled with the gifts once it is evening. The few years when Nikolaus did not come to our house, my mom would ask us into the kitchen and close the door behind us. We would hear the rattling of chains outside the door and my father’s voice as he was supposedly addressing Krampus to tell him that only good kids were living here. My brother and I stood by the door and were straining to hear every word and hoping that Krampus would not be allowed into the kitchen. A few minutes later, we were allowed to leave the kitchen, and lo and behold, there were gifts in our boots!

Even though children receive small gifts on December 6, they will receive more gifts on Christmas, which is celebrated in the evening of December 24. But there is no confusion between St. Nikolaus and Santa Claus in case you are wondering because we do not have Santa Claus. Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind in Austria (literally: Christ Child), an angel.

St. Nikoalus Is Shown as the Original and Santa Claus as the Imitation (found on: http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/ – which means Santa-Claus-Free Area)