The opening night of the Isthmus Food & Wine Festival was filled with demonstrations and competitions.
On the first night of the Isthmus Food & Wine Festival, I was lucky enough to wander into two food world premieres -- the very first public tastings of two new locally made products that were both terrific. It was just luck.
I will admit that I went to the festival Friday night unprepared. I arrived early to help with setup. What I should have been doing was looking at the exhibitor list and mapping out a "must see" route through Exhibition Hall. Instead, from the time the doors opened at 5 p.m. until shortly before close at 9 p.m., I wandered from booth to booth and barely made a dent.
One nice thing about a festival of this size is that it's easy to talk to the people who are bringing you (and usually conceiving of, and making) the food -- and wine -- and beer -- and spirits. (Possibly if I'd done less talking, I would have made it to more of the wine booths.)
I met Pam Balke of Auntie Pam's Bakery, whose breads, cookies and other baked good are newly for sale at the Westgate Hy-Vee, but also at the Hilldale and Northside farmers' markets. She's been selling at my own neighborhood farmers' market, where apparently I'm so focused on veggies I've always missed her stand. Balke's gluten-free cheese bread was a standout.
Auntie Pam's bread was also the base for a wonderful meat stew from Wisconsin Meadows 100% grass-fed beef from the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative, a coalition of small family farms who believe in pastured, naturally-raised cattle. Their beef is sold at the Willy Street Co-op, Metcalfe's, and the Regent Market Co-op, and served at Harvest and other restaurants around town.
Bartlett Durand of Conscious Carnivore was sampling locally and naturally raised turkey, and no, it is not too early to be ordering the Thanksgiving bird.
I talked to Daphne Jones at the Glorious Malone's Fine Sausage booth. This Milwaukee-area business that specializes in patés and headcheese started over 30 years ago out of a grocery store, with a headcheese recipe that had its roots not in Milwaukee's German community, but in its African American community. Malone's recipes have some kick to them -- there's a country paté and one that comes jazzy hot; there's a hot and mild headcheese, too. Jones reports that they are on the verge of entering the Madison market.
Rick Gerondale of Brocach was on hand with his brand-new Hopicana IPA, brewed in collaboration with Ryan Koga at Karben4, from Gerondale's recipe. "I had a hop profile in mind; Ryan tightened it up," says Gerondale. "I wanted the Citra (hops), and the pineapple and mango to come through." Gerondale also had a Brocach-specific pale ale on hand, also brewed at Karben4. (They're also available at "some Barriques" and the Blackhawk Country Club, he says.)
The other first-day launch I had the opportunity to sample was burritos from Checo's, which come in steak, a pork verde, and an egg and chorizo, and are available at The Market at Sequoya Commons (515 S. Midvale) and soon at Metcalfe's. The plump burrito had the fresh feeling of a just-off-the-assembly-line at Chipotle, though they come frozen.
Chicago-based SuckerPunch Gourmet brought its three-item line: pickles, ketchup, and Bloody Mary mix, all notable for a nice clean lineup on their ingredient labels, and a vinegary punch in the flavor. Pickles are sold at Whole Foods; if you want the ketchup (and I think you might), bring a bottle home with you from the fest.
In between wine samples (from the all-Australian importer Epicurean Wines, Rutherford Wine Company of California, Lake Mills' Lewis Station Winery) I gathered some knife skill hints from Chef Paul Tseng of the Willy Street Co-op (he was discussing pickling, but so much depends upon knife skills, really), saw Ruben Mendez of L'Etoile win the Iron Sommelier contest, and managed to sneak samples from the tail end of the Mac & Cheese Smackdown and Brocach chef Chris Swenson's lamb carpaccio demo.
This is what took up four hours, which is again the running time of the fest on Saturday, from 2-6 p.m. So if you're headed to the Alliant Energy Center, map out a strategy beforehand, working in special sessions like the home chef holiday side dish competition at 2 p.m., the pizza demo from Salvatore's Michael Liotta at 2:45 p.m., or Elizabeth Dahl from Nostrano at 3:45 p.m.