As if we didn’t already know that bacon makes everything better, the folks at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference this week set out to take my favorite food group to a whole new level.
Bacon at a cheese conference, you ask? Yes, ma’am. After spending three days talking, breathing and eating nothing but cheese with nearly 100 of the top movers and shakers in the American artisan cheese community, we were all ready to experience a different level on the food pyramid. I suppose we could have had a salad, but really, who needs rabbit food when bacon is on the menu?
To prove my point, Sheana Davis, founder and owner of The Epicurean Connection in downtown Sonoma, hosted a Bacon Supper as the parting gift to her cheese conference attendees this evening. In attendance was Ari Weinzweig who wrote the book – yes, literally – on bacon. It’s called Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon and features stories of pork bellies, hush puppies, rock n’ roll music and bacon fat mayonnaise.
While Ari entertained us with bacon trivia (Q: What was the title of people who once shepherded hogs from farm to market? A: Drovers), chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the husband and wife proprietors of Zazu Restaurant + Farm and Bovolo Restaurant in Sonoma County, and owners of Black Pig Meat Company, prepared a four course meal featuring their Black Pig Bacon.
All of Black Pig Meat Co.’s pork is sourced from Pure Country Pork, a sustainable hog operation certified by Food Alliance. The pigs are a heritage breed, raised naturally and allowed to roam on pasture. As Duskie says: “We like to think the pigs really only have one bad day.”
Duskie and John have risen to fame with their Black Pig Bacon, which is dry cured with brown sugar and smoked with real applewood in a process that takes nearly a month. This is compared to most supermarket mass-produced bacons, which are wet cured and injected with liquid smoke in a process that takes less than a day. The difference in taste is remarkable. Black Pig Bacon is salty, smoky and sweet, and its flavor resonated in each of the dishes.
Our first dish was a Bacon Terrine, prepared by Chef Antonio Ghilarducci of The Depot Hotel in Sonoma, paired with Delice de la Vallee cheese and bacon brown sugar jam, prepared by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection.
Three words: Best. Appetizer. Ever.
Next was a roasted brussel sprout and Black Pig Bacon salad with almonds, shaved Lucca, a mild alpine Italian-style cheese made by North Bay Curds and Whey in Tomales, and extra virgin olive oil from Tallgrass Ranch in Sonoma.
Nancy and Tony Lilly, makers of Tallgrass Ranch olive oil, happened to be sitting across the table from me (that’s Nancy, standing up, below). Their farm is on a ridge in the Sonoma Valley overlooking the San Francisco Bay. They began planting their olive grove in 1998 and today hand-harvest enough olives to send between 40 and 100 gallons to market every year.
While I had olive oil producers on one side, on my other side sat Alec Stefansky, brew master at Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz. Alec had brought his Bacon Brown Ale – yes, beer infused with bacon. It turns out he had just finished up packing 257 cases of this brand-new beer, which shipped out of the brewery last week and is headed to distribution in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. (Maybe we can smuggle some into Wisconsin).
Next up was the main course. Brace yourselves, bacon lovers: the menu consisted of smoky baby back ribs, accompanied by backyard collards and bacon, cowboy beans and bacon, fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad and bacon, and Roelli Red Rock Cheese (from Wisconsin!) cornbread. Let’s break it down in pictures, shall we?
First: ribs, cooked so slowly and amazingly that the meat fell off the bone
Second: backyard collard greens. I have never cared for collards and now I know why: I’ve never had them prepared properly with bacon. For a northern girl who views green food with suspicion, I had seconds and thirds of these babies
Next: cowboy beans — a little on the spicy side, but once they mixed in with all the other food on my plate, felt right at home
And, of course: fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad
Finally: bacon and Roelli Red Rock cornbread. Yum!
Put it all together and it looked like this!
For dessert, we had not one, but three amazing treats. First was a bacon and currant rum gelato, paired side-by-side with Sheana’s Creme de Fromage gelato, which tasted even better than cheesecake.
And then, we had a one-of-a-kind “PB & C” chicharron peanut butter cup, made with fried pig skins, crumbled into a peanut butter cup. Here are the chefs themselves, with their amazing chocolate creations:
A huge thank you to Sheana Davis, Duskie Estes and John Stewart of the Black Pig Meat Co., Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s and all the folks who prepped and cleared dishes for what was one of the best meals of our lives. Can’t wait until next year’s Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference!