Farm to table dinners seem to be all the rage lately, and rightly so, as people try to find ways to better connect with the food on their plate. Chef Blair Lebsack, formerly of Madison’s Grill, has been running a series of farm to table dinners for over a year under the RGE RD banner. Last summer, Nature’s Green Acres hosted an elegant dinner, cooked and served out on the pasture for a lucky party of 30. The event was so well received that this year, that number doubled, and Mack and I were among the diners fortunate enough to attend. We reserved our tickets back in May, and though $150 might seem pricey at first, it became evident that all the effort behind a truly local dinner was worth much more than that.
On a clear Saturday afternoon, we drove about two hours east of Edmonton to Viking, the location of Danny and Shannon Ruzicka’s farm, Nature’s Green Acres. We arrived just in time to grab a cold lemonade before Blair officially welcomed the group.
Blair and Caitlin
To get a feel for the farm, Danny first treated us to a horseshoeing demonstration, as he is a trained farrier.
It was definitely harder than Danny made it look!
Shannon then took us on a brief tour of the farm. She showed us their Cornish rock hens (aka “redneck lawnmowers”, in Shannon’s words), kept in mobile chicken pens. She told us that when they first decided to increase their chicken yield, they tried using large, truck-drawn pens which ended up being disastrous. They ended up losing 600 chickens that year, due to stress from overcrowding and the fact that some animals were run over in the shifting process.
Mobile chicken pens
She then brought us to a fenced off area home to twenty Tamworth pigs. A heritage breed, this type of pig is at home rooting and foraging in the wild, and as a result, have free run of about an acre of bush. That said, Shannon and Danny do put out feed (a mixture of wheat, peas and barley) and water for the pigs.
Tamworth pigs, in all their copper-coloured glory
In addition, Danny and Shannon raise grass-fed cattle, and unlike the chickens and the pigs, they came to us! Our dining arrangement was in the middle of their pasture after all, but they didn’t seem to mind sharing the field for a night.
Shannon also showed us the small garden where she, Blair and his partner Caitlin grew most of the vegetables that would be served at our dinner. So unlike the popular 100-mile catchment area for local food, this dinner really emphasized the variety of what can be grown and raised on a single property.
Before leading us to the dinner table, Shannon showed us some of the tipi rings that are scattered across their farm. With a buffalo jump also located on their property, it is no surprise that at one time Aboriginals would camp overnight in the area.
Shannon shows us the tipi rings
Then came the big reveal: two gorgeous communal tables draped in white tablecloths, set amongst the pasture. Behind the tables was a cob oven (built just for this occasion) and the rest of the makeshift kitchen.
Table at farm dinner
The five course menu encapsulated summer. We started with a salad of fresh clipped greens with marinated beets atop a sheep’s cheese custard. The custard was the star, creamy and light, adding an interesting element to a typical starter.
Fresh clipped greens, marinated beets, sheep’s cheese starter
Mack and I both selected the free-range chicken breast as our favourite dish of the night. Though it probably was the most “pedestrian” of the dishes, the preparation was outstanding. We couldn’t think of the last time a dish as simple as this wowed us – the meat was tender, and the chicken skin was crackling crisp. As one of our dining companions noted – chicken skin should be the new bacon. We also enjoyed the bed of simple but delicious carrot and zucchini slaw.
Chicken breast, carrot & zucchini slaw
A different palate cleanser was served next, in the form of a basil popsicle. Mack isn’t a huge fan of the herb, but wanted to ask for seconds.
The wood roasted Landrace pork was a definite favourite among our table. A piece each of loin and belly was served with pea and onion gnocchi and stinging nettle pesto. It’s probably sacrilege, but I felt the cuts were just a little too fatty for my taste. That said, the meat itself was moist, and the gnocchi the perfect accompaniment.
Landrace pork, pea & onion gnocchi, stinging nettle pesto
The grass-fed Nouveau Beef braised shanks and roasted loin was not a delicate dish. The generous meat portion was served with a warm potato salad and a beautifully smoky tomato-corn dressing.
Braised beef shanks, roasted loin, warm potato salad
Instead of a formal dessert plate, our dessert of Saskatoon berry galette with rhubarb ice cream was instead served on a branded wood tile. Why? To save on dishes, Blair then invited all diners to toss their “plates” into the fire! The galette itself, still warm(!), was crispy, buttery and just sweet enough. I don’t typically enjoy rhubarb ice cream, but the combination with the Saskatoons and raspberry granola worked well.
Saskatoon berry galette
Mack readies his toss
A peek into the makeshift kitchen really made us appreciate all the work behind setting up this al fresco dining room. Everything had to be transported to this location – from the tables and chairs themselves to the dish and flatware, to the water and wood!
The cleanup begins
Congratulations to Blair, Caitlin, Danny, Shannon and the rest of the RGE RD team for pulling off this dinner. They not only achieved their goal of providing us with a taste of the farm, but also in creating community – we definitely enjoyed breaking bread with those around us at the communal table!
Enjoying the company
Here’s to more RGE RD dinners to come!
The end of a beautiful evening