Nestled along the Chesapeake Bay's ubiquitous creeks and coves, the town of St. Michaels on Maryland's Eastern shore has been synonymous with clamming, crabbing, fishing, and dredging for oysters for centuries. But it may come as a surprise to some that this land of the skipjack is also a gourmand's delight. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the annual St. Michaels Food and Wine Festival.
"St. Michaels is known for eating crabs, but we have so much more to offer," says Jon Mason, festival director. The three-day event—held this year on the last weekend of April—is a gourmet soiree jam-packed with cooking demonstrations, culinary seminars, exhibitions, tastings, and wine dinners.
Unlike many other regional food festivals in the nation, St. Michaels is neither a down-home country experience, where it's all about baking the best pumpkin pie, nor a showcase for hotshot chefs with egos. Says Mason, "Our visitors are interested in getting a food and wine education, and in the close interactions with the chefs."
Now in its fifth year, the festival has come a long way—it attracted some 2,000 visitors last year—from its inception in 2002. Mason, who was part of a local business group at the time, wanted to create something that would draw from among the great chefs who cluster along the East Coast. But, given that he and his festival committee colleague, Mark Salter (executive chef at The Inn at Perry Cabin and in charge of attracting talented chefs), both hail from Britain, it's no wonder they also wanted to reach across the Atlantic. That tactic also satisfies the attendees who crave multicultural cuisine. Salter has been able to entice renowned talent from as far as Iceland, who come to St. Michaels not just to show off their specialties but also to network with other culinary luminaries and to enjoy this coastal town. Besides, says Mason, "They know that we cater to people who take food, wine, and travel seriously."
The entire town gets wrapped up in the culinary spirit, with Main Street shops decorating their storefronts with mannequins dressed in chef's attire; others exhibit their food items in one of the festival's pavilions; and restaurants hold wine dinners where local chefs collaborate with visiting celebrity chefs and stellar wineries. Chef Salter must don many hats during this culinary celebration: Last year, he held a demonstration of his signature dish (a crab spring roll with pink grapefruit segments that he prepared on the luxury liner QE II), hosted guest chefs at his restaurant, and looked after all the chefs, making sure they had everything they needed to work their magic.
The festival is constantly evolving—last year Mason added seminars, and moved the festival venue to the campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. A new offering for 2007 includes bringing a welcome marine arrival option to the festival: Guests can now board a 65-foot custom power-catamaran in Annapolis on April 28 bound for St. Michaels. (The $100 round-trip cruise price includes festival admission.) The festival organizers are also considering a possible two-hour bay cruise, complete with an on-board chef.
The one- and three-day festival tickets (prices vary from $40 for a basic entrance fee to $500 for a VIP package) provide access to demos, seminars, tastings, and exhibitors, though a few special seminars may require an additional fee. For the die-hard gourmand, the VIP tickets (there is one for Thurday night's reception, a pre-festival party where visitors can rub shoulders with the award-winning guest chefs and local restaurateurs, and another for the weekend that gives entry to all seminars, VIP parking status and tent access, and Sunday Champagne brunch) may be the choicest way to attend the festival.
On the 18-acre Maritime Museum campus, the festival's three white tents (officially called pavilions) stand poised among the 19th century Hooper Strait Lighthouse, exhibit buildings, a working boatyard, bay watercraft and artifacts representing those who lived and worked along the waterways. The Museum is intimately linked to the festival, offering special demonstrations of the food aspects of the bay, as well as all the regular exhibits, such as the art of oyster tonguing (an oyster harvesting method).
In two of the pavilions, visitors stroll from book signings to displays of an eclectic mix of wines, organic farm produce, artisanal cheeses, gourmet dressings, and specialty products, such as handmade barrels. Here, local specialty provisioner Flamingo Flats whips up a shrimp dip made with their Chesapeake Fire Hot Sauce, a red savina habanero pepper concoction—sure to satisfy chili heads. Oenophiles have the opportunity to sample some 150 varieties of wines, representing an international selection that are all distributed in the state of Maryland. That's not to say that it's all about wine: At the Classic Malts of Scotland table, you'll be able to sample 12 different scotches, including some rare cask-strength special editions.
The Steamboat Building houses the festival's daily stream of seminars, and features two new exhibits—one on the African Americans who shaped the Chesapeake; the other on a recently acquired collection of bay artifacts that range from items salvaged from schooners to fine art. At one seminar, Paula Johnson, a work and industry curator at the National Museum of American History, will share her experiences with the Julia Child Project. In 2003, the museum acquired the legendary chef's home kitchen and displayed it until closing for renovations in September 2006. Among the Julia factoids: She was a self-avowed knife freak; favored her 1950's Garland range until she passed away; and often bought obscure utensils, like a German potato ricer, when she traveled abroad.
At another seminar, Kristina Sutter, Master of Whisky for Diageo, plans to educate attendees on the subtle nuances and versatility of single malts. "Wine drinkers would be surprised to learn that they all don't taste the same," says Sutter, "and some can even be paired with dessert." In one presentation, Sutter pairs 10-year-old Talisker with freshly shucked oysters. In another, visitors will be able to taste four single malts from different regions of Scotland, each with a distinct flavor. Glenkinchie, for example, is light and sweet, Dalwhinnie has floral tones, while Talisker is peppery.
Once or twice during the weekend, visitors can attend Weird Science: Wine and Food Reactions. This seminar, led by Laurie Forster (aka The Wine Coach), takes the mystery out of wine pairings. Forster provides each attendee with three or four different styles of wines (white, softer style white, soft tannin red, and firm tannin red), plus small cups containing salt, cheese, vinaigrette, and butter—all common food elements that affect wine. For example, salt tones down an acidic Sauvignon Blanc, but it causes a Chardonnay to fall flat. "This inspires people to experiment," says Forster. "They may think there's one perfect wine for every dish, but there may be 10 different wines that work."
On Friday and Saturday nights, visitors must make a difficult culinary choice. After all, there are a handful of multi-course wine dinners offered. (There's an additional charge but, to the gastronomically inclined, it's well worth the extra expense of $95 to $200, depending on the venue.) Town Dock restaurant, The Inn at Perry Cabin, Tilghman Island Inn, and the Shore Restaurant and Lounge are just a few of the establishments where resident and guest chefs and sommeliers work in concert to create a memorable food and wine pairing. Each dinner is a unique event, where one may have the winemaker on hand, or a rep from the winery might describe why each wine was chosen for the pairing, or you may hear from Joe Fattorini, a British food and wine writer and broadcaster who's making his third festival appearance. Each guest chef also participates in the festival's demo pavilion.
The festival's demo tent is where attendees watch the chefs prepare their creations, ask questions, nibble on samples, and even take recipes home with them. Viking sets up two kitchens, one at either end of the pavilion, each complete with an oven, refrigerator, stovetop, supplies, and mirrors. Unless guest chefs bring items from their home country or state, all the ingredients are locally supplied. The kitchens are not used simultaneously, so there's no fear of missing any culinary action.
Attendees come away with a treasure trove of kitchen confidentials. Jeff Tunks, one of last year's celeb chefs who co-owns four DC eateries (including newcomer Acadiana), brought along his Yucatan-style shrimp ceviche recipe from his Latin American restaurant, Ceiba. He demonstrated a quick way to poach shrimp by first laying them in a Pyrex dish, then pouring boiling water with herbs and spices over them and letting them sit covered for 20 minutes. "They never overcook this way, and they absorb the flavors of the spices," says Tunks.
The Waldorf-Astoria Executive Chef, John Doherty, a festival alum from last year, will attend again this spring, demonstrating a recipe from the recently released The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook, which comes with 120 recipes (and chef's notes) from the kitchens that have been feeding guests, from the private suites to the ballrooms. (He'll also be available for book signings during the weekend.) Presiding over seven kitchens and having served a panoply of royalty and heads of state, Doherty plans to prepare a warm smoked salmon using an easy stovetop smoking method that just requires hickory chips, tin foil, and a roasting pan and wire rack. He'll also dole out historical tidbits about the hotel that has hosted every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover.
Renowned Washington DC-based chef Roberto Donna of Galileo restaurant may show attendees how to prepare a proper risotto by toasting, instead of pre-sauteeing the rice first. "It not only improves the flavor of the rice, but it also keeps it al dente," says Donna. Famous for his authentic regional Italian dishes with a twist, Donna considers himself a purist. For example, if he decides to illustrate proper pasta technique, he'll share this tip: A rich fresh pasta requires only egg yolks, no whites. Then cook the pasta in chicken stock and serve it simply with a little Parmesan cheese and butter.
In both his presentation and wine dinner, Executive Chef Brian McBride of Washington DC's Park Hyatt Hotel, hopes to spread the word on his philosophy of using local and seasonal food products. "I look for eco-friendly products from locals who have more flavorful and maybe safer foods," says McBride. He favors slow-cooking methods, such as braising, so, for his demo, he may braise a lamb shoulder that has been brined.
One ingredient that Tom Lewis from Scotland's Monachyle Mhor Hotel is definitely packing across the Atlantic is Pinhead Oatmeal, as well as items from his 2,000-acre farm and garden, including dry wild mushrooms and pickled vegetables. "As chefs, we try too hard," says Lewis. "You don't need 100 ingredients. Just use your three best." Whatever he chooses to demonstrate, it'll be simple. One possibility is his quick panna cotta made with toasted pinhead oatmeal; a mix of vanilla, whiskey, cream and honey; and finally some local fruits.
Having served as executive pastry chef at Harrods, master chocolatier Bill McCarrick has long been experimenting with chocolate; soon he'll be opening an artisanal chocolateria in London. "I'll be conching my own chocolate, creating flavors that are not available anywhere, such as jasmine tea," boasts McCarrick. Festival attendees can expect to receive an education on the science and sensory qualities of chocolate—dark chocolate has 300 characteristics—during his tasting that will include South American tonka bean chocolate and award-winning organic chocolate with caramelized hazelnuts. McCarrick will also share his flavor failures, such as ketchup macaroons.
It's the opportunity to learn in the presence of chefs like McCarrick—who scoured the world for a machine that would make small quantities of artisanal chocolates directly from the cocoa bean—that makes the trip to the St. Michaels Food and Wine Festival a pilgrimage every foodie should make.