By Laura Fries & Ron Bechtol
Beef, bison, boar, lamb, quail, game hen, turkey, pork, tuna, shrimp, crawfish, oyster, and turtle: All on the menu at the 2004 Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. Here's a roundup of highlights from the four-day feast.
Thursday, April 1
Board a bus well-stocked with beer, and eat the best barbeque outside of Austin: four joints in three hours. That's the challenge of the Big Bad Barbecue and Beer Bus Bash chaperoned by Robb Walsh, the restaurant critic from the Houston Press with a potbelly full of credentials. By noon, we'd already run out of the best beer: Saint Arnold's Lawnmower, a light kolsch with a faint taste of grass. The first destination is the Kreuz Market in Lockhart: a huge red barn resembling a church. Barbeque here is plain and simple: a slice of fatty prime rib, brisket, and peppery sausage with a stick of cheddar cheese. Right down the road is Smitty's Market, where an intense fire behind the cashiers smokes the meat, the customers, and the walls, which are encrusted with craggy black formations. Smitty's - a close relative of Kreuz's - beats the pants off their cousin that occupies their previous location, with tender brisket, a richer, smokier sausage, and sticky-sweet ribs that hardly need the accompanying sauce that's suspiciously Kraft-like.
Gonzalez Market - in Gonzalez, of course - is the last stop on this barbeque tour de force. The market offered lamb, pork, ribs, and heavily spiced sausage, all fatty and delicious, but by this time, even the heartiest of the crew was deep in a meat coma.
Friday, April 2
I remember that I left my sausage on the bus on my way to an outdoor farmer's market that was spoiled by a spring shower. The weather made it hard to enjoy fresh produce, but the day was saved by a piping hot Beef Bourguignonne and creamy polenta prepared by Lou Lambert of Plaza San Antonio. Also of note were buffalo tacos, produced by Hugh Fitzsimmons of Thunderheart Bison. As we left, farmers from Westlake Farmers Market in Austin slipped us a bag with one of the best oranges I've ever eaten.
Saturday, April 3
The Home on the Range at the Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch was an afternoon of skeet, meat, celebrities, tequila, and music. Just south of Austin on FM 1327, the bus lumbered past the enormous tan landfill, which TDS trucks were working to fill. Taking a laborious left at the site of a tiny decrepit cemetery, we entered a beautiful stretch of land improbably inhabited by wild longhorns, axis, buffalo, zebras, emus, and gazelle-like creatures that flowed across the land as gracefully as birds.
Food TV star Bobby Flay - who looked bored - handed out barbeque duck breast tacos, decorated with watercress and avocado relish. His line was long, but his taco was dull. Austin's Roaring Fork boldy served only side dishes, and their green bean casserole with Quick Creek bacon, wood roasted onions, and garlic was declared the best dish of the event by my compatriot in landfill dining. Kenny Callaghan of Blue Smoke in New York provided the much-needed black pepper beef ribs, and Marcus Moerbe and Rebecca Barsch Fischer of the Texas Culinary Academy served up a sweet succulent brisket coated in a tangy sauce that also graced their amazingly lean boar and buffalo sausage.
Sunday, April 4
As I turned off I-35 at Kyle, I found myself hoping the Sunday fair hadn't changed with the sponsorship of Saveur, the flossy gourmet mag. Parking was provided on a red-dirt field generously laid with cow flops - an encouraging sign.
Situated along the banks of a cypress-flanked stream, the Salt Lick Bar-B-Q Pavilion is a spectacular slice of Texas. Some of its rustic charm was lost with the addition of several large tents, but the butt-bumping crowds inside seemed not to care. And they shouldn't. The Saveur imprimateur may have brought us the likes of the telegenic Flay doing cooking demos and book signings, but the event remains relentlessly Austin, right down to the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash on the main stage.
It was good to encounter old friends such as Paula Lambert from Dallas' Mozzarella Company and to make discoveries, such as buffalo from Carrizo Springs, sourced out of San Antonio. We also encountereed some unabashedly spunky vinaigrettes from another San Antonio company, Oils by Design. Ham I Am's classy bacon from Plano was a revelation. Qupe's marsanne, a California product, hit the spot right out of the gate. It was time to leave - before I became interested in the cigar-rolling demonstrations being put on by Austin's Bobalu Cigar Co. •