Rancher John Neumeister faced a problem: how to supply more lamb shanks to chef Paul Klitsie, the chef/co-owner of the local Italian kitchen Fratelli, without increasing the size of his more-than-1,000-ewe flock. Nature provided only four per lamb, after all, and it wouldn't suit Neumeister's farming practices to cram more sheep into the pasture at Cattail Creek Farm, his 17-acre Junction City spread. Genetic engineering? Mutant cloning? God forbid. Instead, Neumeister had his lambs cut up in a new way, getting more shank bones per leg with less waste.
And then there's Klitsie's order of neck meat. The chef, a native of Holland and European-trained, invented a dish of slow-cooked lamb braised with white beans and saffron, and he knew that the meat from the neck would add intense flavor to the stew. He convinced Neumeister that the "scrag end" isn't a throw-away portion, and now the homey dish yields a barnyard pungency and smoky aroma. Next up in this game of culinary adventurousness matched with rancherly adaptation? Klitsie wants to persuade Neumeister to produce lamb sweetbreads, a labor-intensive affair. (And then? Maybe delivery of sheep's liver, heart and lungs, wrapped in sheep's stomach for the Scottish national dish of haggis.)
That kind of symbiotic connection-problem-solving between farmer and cook-is at the heart of what makes Portland a food Mecca. And the products of that kind of collaboration are on display at farm dinners like Fratelli's weekly "Salute!" dinners, each headlining a locally grown ingredient from area farms with a cluster of dishes in a small tasting menu. Dishes are $6-$9 à la carte, with an appetizer of farmer commentary every Wednesday in July in Fratelli's rustic Pearl District digs.
"These farmers supply products you'd give to your family in a heartbeat," Klitsie says. "They know the art of getting something wonderful out of the earth, and sometimes it gets into my pan the same day. You have no idea what a difference that makes." Tim Cuscaden, Klitsie's partner, notes that the growers talk to the chef about their products, the chef speaks to his staff, and the staff passes the information on to the diners. "It's a circle of knowledge about ingredients and devotion."
For Neumeister, raising lamb completes his own circle of knowledge. Raised on a sheep farm in Ohio, he couldn't wait to escape. But while working as a loan officer in San Francisco during the 1960s, he realized sheep ranching was in his blood when he kept talking to clients about lambs-not just shanks but racks, crowns, chines, gigots, saddles and haunches. An Oregon friend persuaded him to move north, where the smell of Lane County grass got to him. By the early 1970s, he was supplying Berkeley's influential Chez Panisse, and he now sells his lamb to most of Portland's serious restaurants and several markets.
Like all the suppliers at Saluté dinners, Neumeister spent hours table-hopping and talking to diners about his farm and his ingredients-how they get from dirt to plate. The lamb braise at the first dinner was served along with an exquisite carpaccio, sliced thin as rice paper, melded with Fromage blanc and a surprising coulis of sweet raspberries for a beautiful treatment of meat and fruit. Finally, a small T-bone of lamb arrived with caramelized Walla Wallas and, in honor of Fratelli's Italian tastes, a dash of cream fortified with Grappa.
This practice of bringing your own food to the restaurant table is catching: Cuscaden helps supply Fratelli with baskets of produce from his own organic garden. But that didn't seem to threaten another Salute! farmer, George Weppler, one of the state's most noted gardeners. At last week's dinner, Weppler brought some of his 18 varieties of tomatoes to Fratelli, but also shared stove duty in the kitchen. Just another example of food synergy: cook and farmer standing cheek-by-jowl at the range.
Salute! dinners at Fratelli, 1230 NW Hoyt St. Reserve a seat by calling 241-8800. On Wednesday, July 20, Earl Renfrow of Sheridan's OM Grown Farms brings some of his 20 varieties of cultivated and wild mushrooms. He's working on cultivating white truffles. The July 27 dinner brings heirloom vegetables from Shari Sirkin of Troutdale's Dancing Roots Farm, which serves as a refuge for songbirds and wildlife as well as for organic produce.
John Neumeister can be found at Cattail Creek Farm, 95363 Grimes Road, Junction City, (541) 998-8505.
Other summer farm meals include Plate and Pitchfork dinners, which feature major local chefs and are held at area farms, with ingredients plucked from the fields you've just toured. But unless you have reservations, you won't dine this summer amid the cows and crickets-the dinners are all sold out. Get a jump on next year's at plateandpitchfork.com, or call 241-0745.