Where’s the Beef?
Our day “On The Farm”– Fountain Prairie Inn & Farms in Fall River, Wis., to be exact — began under a large yellow and white striped tent. A small crew of volunteers and a handful of L’Etoile staff worked quickly to set the tables for the 200 farm dinner guests that would soon arrive. Plates and napkins were neatly arranged next to sparkling wine glasses. The sun shone across the abundant vegetable garden and expansive pastures. And there was the promise of food cooked by none other than Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze. The menu featured various cuts of beef from the farm’s grass-fed Highlander cattle.
With that in mind, the few challenges we faced seem quite tolerable. Tablecloths flew up in the wind until they were tied tightly under each table. Dust blew through the tent, forcing us to quickly reset the tables, flipping dishes upside down, and wiping off the dust. Steady winds knocked over vases of fresh flowers, soaking the tablecloths. Once again we wiped the spills and reset the places. “Hey, it’s a farm dinner,” we joked if anything seemed less than perfect, like the few flies that persisted despite the breeze, or the dust that soon coated our jeans.
But once the 200 guests arrived, everything was perfect–as perfect as anything can be outside on a beautiful day in the Wisconsin countryside, on a sustainable family farm, enjoying a locally sourced meal made by the best chef in the midwest. The smell of grilled steak soon wafted through the air, backed by the mooing of Highland cattle (nothing like hearing where your food comes from!) and a string trio. Guests hopped on covered bleachers that were pulled behind a tractor and through the fields, giving them an intimate look at the acres of pasture, restored tallgrass prairie and wetlands, and the “docile, hairy beasts” nurtured by the farm’s owners, John and Dorothy Priske, an amazing and inspiring couple.
Farm dinners are becoming increasingly popular, and truly illuminate the meaning of the farm-to-table movement. This particular farm dinner, On the Farm, was a fundraiser for the Natural Heritage Land Trust (it raised over $20,000!!), and marked a milestone for the Priske’s and Fountain Prairie Farm. They were celebrating the completion of an agricultural conservation easement granted by the Natural Heritage Land Trust, a local organization that works to protect natural areas and agriculture lands in and around Dane County. As John Priske put it, the easement guarantees that their farm will be a farm “forever and a day.”
The Priske’s have worked hard over the past 20 years to convert what was once a cornfield to a sustainable farm. They planted acres of prairie grass, restored wetlands, and planted native trees and shrubs on their 277 acres. They purchased Highland cattle and grew a few head into the current herd of more than 300 cattle. They recently installed a windmill that produces enough energy to power two-and-a-half farms. The meat from their grass-fed cattle is dry-aged for 21 days and coveted by some of Madison’s great eateries, including L’Etoile and Graze, the Nitty Gritty and Madison Sourdough.
Oh, the meat. Not long after Chef Tory arrived, delicious smells wafted through the air. Some of his assistants were slicing beef heart while others shredded cabbage and sliced apples. The canapés were set out as guests mingled. There was artisan cheese, honey and bread; thinly sliced, grilled beef heart with fall vegetable giardiniera; and pork rillettes, house pickles, and mustard. I was supposed to be pouring wine, but I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for samples as I passed the tables. Professionalism? Hey, it was a farm dinner. And the food was amazing.
Pickled and grilled beef tongue salad with local apple slaw followed the canapés. The main event featured Fountain Prairie ribeye, with crushed potatoes, grilled baby bok choy, and a cippolini, house-cured bacon, and cabernet jus. Oh, yes. Dare I admit that a few of us could be found sampling the scraps that were left on the serving plates? Those who had room enjoyed a berry-apple crisp with local creme fraiche for dessert. Those who were too full made room anyway.
My pay off? “Mad meat” as Chef Tory said. And wine. And crisp. And a chance to put my legs up and talk to a great crew of people who all share a passion for incredible food, supporting our local farms and farmers, and conserving Wisconsin’s natural resources and sustainable farming practices. After working nine hours straight, and too hungry to find a fork, I ate the steak, melon, corn and even the crisp with my hands, the jus and fruit juices running down my fingers. Manners? Hey, it was a farm dinner. And a great one at that.
If you go:
Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms
W1901 Highway 16
Fall River, WI 53932
Go for the day, or overnight. Enjoy their Bed and Breakfast on their beautiful family farm.
Buy their grass-fed beef at the Dane County Farmers’ Market every Saturday from late April to early November on Carroll Street in Madison, across from the Grace Episcopal Church. Please check the Dane County Farmers’ Market website (www.dcfm.org) for the location of the Winter Farmers’ Market. Orders can also be picked up directly at the farm.