By Wendy Kenney, Contributor to Arizona Farm Bureau
I didn’t know what to expect when I headed up to Schnepf Farms for their enormously popular dining event dubbed “Dinner Down the Orchard.” I grew up on a farm, and I’ve been in plenty of orchards, and I never ate dinner in any of them! The closest I came to was eating an apple once, but the worm that looked up at me as I took an unknowing bite was enough to make me think twice before choosing fresh picked! In any case, the photos on the Schnepf Farms website made the dinner look intriguing and when I heard it was one of my favorite local chefs, Eddie Matney, preparing the food; then I was in.
For those of you not familiar with Schnepf Farms, it’s over 300 acres of real working farm, which has been owned by the Schnepf Family for close to 5 generations. Most of the fields used to be in cotton, but as the summer heat took its toll along with weak cotton prices, the current owners, Mark and Carrie Schnepf (Arizona Farm Bureau members), decided to do other things. They turned the farm into a rural amusement park of sorts, inviting the public to come in and experience nature and farm life, at its finest. The farm is probably most popular now for its annual Pumpkin and Chili Party, held every year in October, to the delight of thousands of families from all over Arizona.
But back to the dinner…
So I drove into the farm and parked next to the orchard. The first thing I noticed was a tent with some tables set up under it, and a very large, industrial size grill set up nearby, with Chef Eddie working next to it. Carrie Schnepf welcomed me with big open arms and a hug, just like family. Eddie also welcomed me as he kept a watchful eye on the largest scallops that I have ever seen in my life, that he was sautéing.
Carrie showed me to the table that was set out in the orchard. It was the longest table I had ever seen and it was adorned beautifully with white tablecloths, napkins, and beautiful dishes and glassware; fresh flower centerpieces were placed throughout. There was seating for 100. Elegant lights were hanging from poles just above the table. It was an amazing site to see such a beautiful table setting in the middle of an orchard.
There were already people at the table, and as I took my seat I introduced myself to the people sitting closest to me; three lovely women celebrating their daughter’s birthday, a young couple on a first date, and a couple of old friends. By this time, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the meal hadn’t even begun!
We were served by the Schnepf Family, Mark and Carrie, and their children, as well as some of their staff. I had to admit, I felt a little guilty letting them serve me. Growing up on a farm, we learned how to help out! But they assured us that they didn’t need our help and that we were just there to enjoy the experience. Alright… But I would have helped with the dishes.. really!
And then the 4 course meal began. We were served huge baskets of fresh bread, along with home-made pesto with goat cheese. I love goat cheese and pesto. This was heavenly, and it was just a start. Next came the monster scallops that I had watched Eddie prepare, seared just so, served with a peach, tomato salsa. I’m not one for big words. But the food was amazing! There were even scallops to spare so some people had seconds!
An assortment of wines was also served with the meal, as well as sparkling cider and water for those who didn’t drink wine. I’ve never understood wine so I just took a sip of a white wine and stuck with water.
The next course was a Dandelion, peach salad with vanilla bean olive oil. Eddie said that growing up in Michigan he ate Dandelion salad. For me, growing up in Idaho, dandelions were noxious weeds that we killed with chemicals. I didn’t care for the bitterness of the dandelion greens, but the peaches and the dressing were delicious.
The third course was braised beef short ribs, with an apricot, fava bean, goat cheese risotto, and fresh greens. I could have drowned in the risotto. It was so creamy, with just the right amount of goat cheese. My mouth waters as I write about this. The generous portions of beef short ribs must have been cooked all day, the meat fell of the bone and was moist, and flavorful; not too sweet. Absolutely perfect. There was so much food that the ladies next to me could not eat it all. Evidently they had been there before because one woman brought a baggie to put her leftovers in. She just couldn’t bear to let it go to waste! Shh, I won’t tell anyone!
The last course was homemade peach pie, made fresh at Schnepf Farms. With a crust that literally melted in my mouth, I thought I had died and gone to peach pie heaven. It was flaky and light and fresh, just the way homemade peach pie ought to be. On top of that there was freshly made homemade vanilla ice-cream. By then we were all foundering.
Throughout the evening the Shnepf’s and Chef Eddie came out and mingled, posed for pictures, wished our birthday girl, Happy Birthday, talked about the food, told jokes and stories, and enjoyed their guests. It truly was an experience to be remembered.
The next Dinner Down the Orchard experience is May 1st, 2010 featuring Five Star service and dining from the Arizona Biltmore Executive Chef Todd Sicolo and his awesome team. For more information go to the Schnepf Farms website and click on the “What We Offer” tab. http://www.schnepffarms.com.
Big huge thanks to the official photographer of Schnepf Farms, Julie Foskett of Foskett Photography for use of these photos. For more photos of the Schnepf Farms Dinner Down the Orchard, go here: Foskett Photgraphy.