Sustainable Settings feeds a biodynamic series at Bosq in Aspen
I have to squint to make sure that this is what I think it is. Yep — the votive candle holders scattered among leafy branch centerpieces cradle crumbly brown dirt. Brook LeVan of Sustainable Settings quite literally brought his farm to the table at Bosq.
“We brought 7 billion friends of ours — the microbes, fungi and protozoa, all the life in the soil,” LeVan clarifies, kicking off “The Alchemy of Flavor,” a new, hyperseasonal dinner series held at the Mill Street restaurant. The artist-turned-farmer, who has cultivated Sustainable Settings in Carbondale for the past 21 years with his wife, Rose, is here alongside Bosq chef-owner Barclay Dodge to show two dozen diners what biodynamic food in the Roaring Fork Valley is all about.
“We build soil,” LeVan states, standing before dining room tables configured into a U-shaped semicircle. “If we have healthy pasture and animals, then, duh, we have health, too. The USDA and the (National Resources Conservation Service) have been testing our soils for five years, watching the life of the soil climb, while we are producing the food you’re able to eat. Tonight is a taste of the ranch.”
LeVan calls chef Dodge a sculptor, which makes pure sense when we receive our first course. In fading sunlight it looks vaguely like a charred baked potato, topped with a layer of creamy cheese and colorful herbs. One tap of a knife, however, and the jig is up: This is a hefty gray river rock slathered with butter (churned from milk produced by the farm’s dairy herd) and studded with chives and edible flowers. An array of crudité — Hakurei turnips, radishes and celery, plucked from the earth that morning — sits on the wooden serving board next to a tiny pile of green-flecked crystals.
“Pine tips, ground with salt,” Dodge says. “What’s coming off that property…has the most phenomenal flavor level that I’ve ever seen and worked with directly.”
Betsy Fifield, who experienced early collaboration between LeVan and Dodge about five years ago during Sustainable Settings’ annual Harvest Festival, agrees wholeheartedly. Which is why the longtime Aspen local — who challenged herself and friends to become true locavores last summer by only consuming food grown within a 40-mile radius for 40 days — has spent the past year and a half germinating the concept of this series (which continues on Aug. 8 and Sept. 11) at Bosq.
“I’m interested in creating an atmosphere in our local community around the commitment of the farmer —Brook — and the chef — Barclay — to create entire meals from ingredients found in the nearby alpine area,” Fifield says. “This is a bit of a club, for a customer who can appreciate that this meal comes from a particular place.”
As we receive our second course — a cold gazpacho of puréed watercress and wild nettles topped with smoked beet-juice “caviar” and garlic foam — Dodge reiterates that nearly every single item on his eight-part tasting menu hails from the LeVans’ 244-acre property in the Crystal River Valley or surrounding forest. Dodge claimed 10,000 heads of what he calls “the best garlic I’ve seen to date” from Sustainable Settings; the nettles were foraged in a “secret spot.”
Next we slice forks into soft-poached farm eggs perched over bowls of greenery (vibrant green mole, garlic scapes, morel mushrooms and lamb’s quarters lettuce). Dotting the oozy yolks are fresh, green coriander seeds. Most visitors, LeVan observes, will walk past mature cilantro plants in his medicinal herb garden, figuring they’re past prime. Dodge, however, can’t help but scoop them up with curious optimism.
“The Ute natives came here for things you’re eating today, like lamb’s quarters, mustard (greens),” LeVan says. “They came here, April to October, for the high-altitude, semi-arid environment and what that does to food. Plants have a little bit of time to do their job. That creates greater vitality and nutrient density — CLAs are higher in food produced at elevation than other places. We’re lucky to live here…but we don’t often eat from here.”
Now Dodge props two Vitamix machines on a makeshift stage and whizzes together a sour-sweet palate cleanser: thistle lemonade, which we soon suck up from hollowed-out lemons using lovage-stem “straws.”
Wait, a guest chimes in, as if to say, you mean we can eat the weeds that have invaded my yard?
LeVan notes two important distinctions: First, there are no such things as weeds or pests at Sustainable Settings. Instead, “They are indicator species,” he says. “They’re the messengers, telling us there’s a problem there. We don’t kill the messenger.”
Secondly, “You have to be careful,” he adds, explaining that he sells super-sweet thistle to a local juicer for $6 per pound. “Thistle is a bio-accumulator in the soil; you can’t just stop on a roadside where they spray (because the plant) will be sucking up chemicals. You have to get it off an organic or biodynamic farm.”
Along the way we learn that biodynamic farming transcends basic organic practices of composting and rotational grazing. It’s next-level land stewardship that helps systems function intimately with each other for the greater good. It’s no coincidence that the Siberian peas on a dish of Colorado striped bass look like seeds — they deposit nitrogen back into the soil as they grow.
Spirituality is crucial to such environmental stewardship. Before the meal, LeVan offered a blessing of gratitude to all of the organisms that brought us together at Bosq. Later, he asks, “Has anybody in here ever been in love? You know how that feels? We made a commitment to our land and the life on our land. When we did that, we turned on the soil like never before.”
Beyond being one of the most creative and honestly local meals in town, Fifield believes that The Alchemy of Flavor dinners represent unquestionable intrinsic value.
“(I want) to give credit to the chef — he’s picking and plucking, not just plating,” she says. “That demand on time and energy shows a level of commitment that I care about. I want to nourish that.”
At the same time, consuming hyperfresh fare provides a certain energy. Perhaps my dining companion — straight outta the concrete jungle of Manhattan for a weekend — says it best when we exit Bosq into the cool night air.
“I feel so alive!” he says. Me, too, bud. Me too.
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