By Frederica Dunn (Courtesy photo)
If potatoes are the first thing to come to mind when you think of Idaho, you don’t know how wrong you are.
The Basque people from Spain settled the western state, and sheepherding was how they made their living. Unsurprisingly, lamb remains a top choice on restaurant menus — one sign of the impact that they made on the state.
Another is the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which follows fast on the heels of the Sun Valley Harvest Festival. Onlookers can catch sight of 1,500 sheep meandering down Ketchum’s Main Street as sheepherders direct the traffic. If you can’t make it to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, there’s always sheepherding in Idaho!
With the running of the sheep still days away, our group arrived in Boise for a wine and culinary adventure. We spent our first night in the Riverside Hotel, which overlooks the Boise River.
Early the following morning, we joined walkers and joggers on a scenic 25-mile recreation pathway along the river that connects 15 parks. Despite adjusting to the time change, we managed a brisk morning walk.
That evening, Chandlers restaurant in downtown Boise hosted a welcome dinner. The staff’s expertise in pairing wine with a top dining experience has earned the establishment Wine Spectator awards for the past 15 years.
“It represents a significant milestone in my 40-year career to create an exclusive experience for not only our local community, but also a premier restaurant destination for national travelers to Boise,” said owner Rex Chandler.
After such a satisfying dinner — the delightful culinary experience having provided the perfect backdrop for getting to know each other — we boarded the bus the following morning and headed for the mountains and the Sun Valley Harvest Festival. But since Idaho is home to 50 wineries, we were obliged to make a few stops along the way.
Our first such distraction was a chance to sample Coiled Wines, which is made from grapes grown in the Snake River Valley. We enjoyed a lovely Syrah, Tempranillo and — my favorite — the Viognier, a crisp, white semidry wine with peach and apricot flavors. The Viognier has earned a gold medal in competitions.
A bit farther north, the family-owned Bitner Vineyards deck and picnic area served as the perfect setting for a box lunch. The region’s warm days and crisp, cool evenings were great for us and perfect for growing grapes.
Our next stop was the family-owned Symms Fruit Ranch. It was fascinating to watch all of the fruit — of superior quality — coming off various assembly lines. All are harvested by hand each summer and fall. There are nine varieties of apples alone.
Another delightful side trip took us to Koenig Vineyards, where the emphasis is on European brandies and Idaho potato vodka. The owner spent his boyhood years in Austria and loves the spirits.
Next, we proceeded on to the Sawtooth Estate Winery. Nestled between 500 acres of vineyards, Sawtooth was the magnificent backdrop for a gourmet outdoor dinner and wine pairing. Exchanging views and travel tales made for a lively meal.
Finally, after a long and arduous journey, we reached our destination. Set in picturesque Sun Valley, the annual harvest festival has become the signature food and wine event of the region.
The Sun Valley Lodge is a charming resort adjacent to the city of Ketchum, where Ernest Hemingway spent the last years of his life. Visitors from around the world enjoy its skiing, ice-skating, hiking and trail riding, as well as other outdoor recreation. Ketchum is about a mile from the resort and offers bistros, restaurants and a variety of small shops in a picturesque setting.
Early the next morning, several of us walked into town for a country breakfast at The Kneadery. The delicious breads, pastries and pancakes were all homemade — a great way to start the day.
Lunch at CK’s Real Food was a special treat. The soup of the day was a cold cantaloupe, yogurt and lime, which was delicious, followed by the lava lake lamb gyro served on pita. Dessert was homemade raspberry ice cream.
We gathered at the Ketchum Town Square to begin our foodie adventure. Well-known chefs demonstrated their favorite dishes, and everyone got to sample the finished results after the presentation.
Later, we sampled the regional fare and learned culinary secrets from a few of the country’s top chefs. Their creative menus used regional ingredients and paired local wines with each course.
Executive chef Rodrigo Bueno, from Rancho Pescadero in Baja, Mexico, showed us how to spice up local food with an international flair with his local goat Mexican chorizo with Idaho potatoes.
We met another famous culinary artist, Chicago pastry chef Malika Ameen, who’s fascination with spice and attention to detail began in a food-focused home where family dinners were prepared from scratch each day. She has just launched an online pastry business.
Tal Ronnen and Scot Jones hail from Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles and are known for their incredible vegan cuisine. They catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s vegan wedding and Arianna Huffington’s party at the Democratic National Convention.
Our last food stop was with Akasha Richmond, owner of Akasha Restaurant in Culver City, Calif. She discussed her passion for organic foods and a healthy lifestyle. Her favorite cooking experiences from the Hollywood area include: making holiday dinners for Billy Bob Thornton, catering parties for Pierce Brosnan and working as a private chef for Barbra Streisand.
The highlight of the weekend was an invitation to The Roundhouse’s martini and caviar party. Off we went on a scenic gondola ride up Baldy Mountain while sipping a glass of Michelle sparkling wine. The view alone was worth the evening.
Again, the chefs created an assortment of mouthwatering hors d’oeuvres, featuring sturgeon caviar from Fish Breeders of Idaho. Mixologist Ryan Sullivan created incredible cocktails, featuring Square One Organic Spirits and potato vodka.
Our final day in Idaho started with an outdoor brunch. We learned the ins and outs of preparing meals in the backcountry as our teachers demonstrated cooking incredible food over an open grill and in a Dutch oven — without leaving a trace of debris. We sampled the food and enjoyed Michelle’s sparkling wine accompanied by Spike Coggins’ authentic music.
But what culinary vacation would be complete without a last dinner on a working ranch? Celia Gould, director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, was our delightful host.
After sipping watermelon and Idaho vodka martinis, the chef prepared a delicious fresh vegetable salad, surf-and-turf dinner, and a dessert of poached pears and huckleberry sauce with peach sorbet and chocolate bacon potato chips. Lively conversation and ranch war stories topped off the entertaining evening.
Make a note to yourself: Don’t miss the most beautiful time of year, the genuine hospitality and wonderful culinary delights from the people of Idaho.