Aspen Times Weekly: Supper at the Source

by Amanda Rae

“Savour The Mountains”

By Ilona Oppenheim

Artisan Books, 2015

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Aspen Center for Environmental

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AFTER CAVORTING with chickens in a pasture, stomping between long rows of leafy squash plants, and petting piglets caked in dirt, dozens of squealing youngsters race to activity tents at the edge of Rock Bottom Ranch. There, these burgeoning foodies take turns whisk-whipping fresh cream in giant stainless-steel bowls, chucking fistfuls of whole grains into a stone grinder, and, most popular of all, churning butter by banging Mason jars full of cream onto a folding table.

“I see yellow,” shouts one towheaded boy, holding his jar skyward. “We’re almost there!”

Later, as parents settle at dining tables in the open-air pole barn, the kids swarm a paper-lined buffet table onto which servers slide grilled pizza made with that freshly milled flour. In less time than it takes to shout, “Hot pizza, coming through!” the slices have vanished, leaving charcoal dust and a tumble of sliced cherry tomatoes in their wake. Slower moving old folk didn’t stand a chance.

Thankfully, my fellow diners, Coco Close, age 9 and 8/12, and her sister, Lola, age 7, return to our table triumphantly. They deposit cheesy wedges before their younger brother and surrounding adults, who are tucking into salad of Palisade peaches, heirloom tomatoes, and Avalanche chèvre; herbed chicken confit; smashed Red McClure potatoes; and a dazzling array of charred North Fork vegetables—most of it harvested from within 100 miles. Amid frantic chomping come exclamations: “This is the best pizza, ever!”

Such was the scene last Sunday evening, when Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) hosted a Farm Family Feast in collaboration with the Oppenheim Family. Held at Rock Bottom Ranch, the 113-acre working farm and educational center located in a critical wildlife corridor wedged between Mount Sopris and the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, the event celebrated local food and healthy cooking during peak growing season. It also served as a pre-launch party for author and part-time resident Ilona Oppenheim’s photo essay cookbook, “Savor the Mountains,” which will be published next year.

“I’m showing how easy it is, if you have great elemental ingredients,” Oppenheim says, while a gaggle of small children crank an antique press to crush ripe apples into juice. “The other day (my family) went foraging for wood ear mushrooms. It’s these experiences that really connect us to nature — and also to each other.”

Some of these kids have visited Rock Bottom Ranch during school field trips or community events, but all of them are no doubt seeing a few processes today for the fist time. On a farm tour, we meet 150 chickens that roost overnight in a henhouse on wheels, which protects them from predators and simplifies rotational grazing. On another parcel of land, our guide announces that pigs’ floppy ears act as natural sunglasses; that they roll in mud to cool off, because pigs don’t sweat; and that the dad is called a boar, six moms are called sows. When one kid interrupts, “Which one of them is gonna become bacon?”, she gently points out that the bacon comes from the stomach…but that all of these piglets live longer than most, and they get plenty of fresh water, food, and belly rubs daily.

Oppenheim, 37, became passionate about food after the birth of her son, Hendrix, now 5 years old, and daughter, Liloo, 2. Now, with her husband, Chad, Oppenheim is on a crusade to pass this knowledge on to her community. Why? She shares a scary story: Some of her son’s classmates believe that tomatoes are culivated in supermarkets.

“Growing up in the village of Herrliberg, south of Zurich in Switzerland, I learned the pleasures of country life at an early age,” Oppenheim says. “Surrounded by farmland and overlooking a 25-mile-long lake, I remember the sound of clanging cowbells, picking berries in a field near my home, and how the milkman came early in the morning with glass bottles of milk and cream and fresh eggs.”

Since meeting Chad, an award-winning architect, 17 years ago, settling in Miami and now visiting their Aspen home for ten weeks per year, “We’ve crafted a lifestyle inspired and informed by nature,” Oppenheim says. “‘Savour the Mountains’ is a way of telling this story and sharing what we’ve learned. The message is not only to embrace local food but preserving and honoring our food heritage. But most important, it’s about savoring the moment with friends and family, and encouraging people to slow down and see food as an adventure, not just a necessity.”

Oppenheim’s book, a preview of which was on view at the event, is a collection of anecdotes and intimate portraits from the family’s real-life Roaring Fork excursions, many of which she shares on her blog,

“Living in Aspen is a gift!” Oppenheim enthuses. “The bounty that surrounds us is not just a feast for the eyes but an interactive food adventure waiting to be explored. Every day is an opportunity to eat ‘wild,’ discover new foods and the people who grow them.”

Longtime supporters of ACES and Rock Bottom Ranch (which holds farmyard tours 11 a.m. Mon.-Sat., and events including a farm-to-table dinner on Aug. 29), the Oppenheims also enjoy harvesting fresh vegetables and collecting eggs at Aspen T.R.E.E. (Together Regenerating the Environment through Education), the area’s first four-season community education greenhouse, located on Highway 82 just west of Snowmass. Oppenheim is a big fan of local farm forager Jack Reed — “I literally buy food off of his truck,” she says — Cache Cache chef Nate King — “our ultimate connection for finding food in the wild”— and Carbondale’s Sustainable Settings CSA program.

“I realize not everyone can go into the wild, but you can ‘forage’ or find your food in a farmers’ market in New York City,” Oppenheim says. “In this age of uber-connectivity, it’s important to connect to something that is constant in our life. Taking the food experience back to simpler times or ‘into the wild’ lets us recede into nature and deeper into relationships. It’s fun. It’s empowering. And it’s healthy —things we all need more of.”

I think the kids agree.

A highlight of the Rock Bottom Ranch farm tour: Watching chickens play rugby with an apple core.