“This lamb was actually a really nice guy,” farmer Ed Mann tells me, as we snack on tiny appetizers like lamb on crispy brick dough made with special ‘lamb number five’. “He’s pretty tasty too,” Mann says.
Ed Mann and his family have lived on Horseshoe Hill in Bolinas for the past two years. Mann and his wife, Amanda moved here to start Mann Family Farm, a small operation that breeds lambs like the one we are eating right now.
Tonight, lamb number five is part of many courses of a five course dinner, cooked by Metes and Bounds, a new traveling “table-to-farm” dining experience that brings “Hugo,” a red school bus-turned-kitchen, wood burning grill, two chefs and a sommelier to small farms and wineries around Northern California. They set up a long table, lots of pearl lights, and cook a five-course dinner (paired with wine) derived almost all from the day’s harvest at the host farm. The dinner in Bolinas is their sixth dinner so far, and the farmers always get a seat at the table, head chef and co-founder Heath Thomson tells me.
“For me growing up in the Bay Area there’s a lot of noise about farm to table, seasonal and local and I was somebody who took it really literally. There are a lot of good restaurants that advertising it, but don’t follow through. So part of starting this was actually believing that ideology and wanting to really do it right, actually walking the talk,” Thomson says.
Tonight, the Mann’s are joined by about forty other dinner guests, who mingle and sip champagne as they walk around the farm, looking at the chickens, sheep, cows, and two guard donkeys that protect the ewes.
While the chefs prepare our first course, Ed Mann gives us a tour of the farm, which is filled with a strong sense of history and community. It’s located on five acres of former Mattos Dairy Farm, which occupies about 65 acres of rolling pastures and oak woodlands overlooking the Bolinas Lagoon. Gabrielle Mann, Ed’s sister, and Paul Mann, Ed’s father, also live on and tend to the property.
The ranch was originally a dairy farm, developed by immigrants from the Azores, Mann tells me. Philanthropist and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass creator Warren Hellman purchased the farm in 1991, and hired Gabrielle Mann to tend to his horses and the property. Ed Mann, his wife Amanda, and their two daughters now operate the family farm, raising chickens and eggs, lambs, shearing sheep for fiber and yarn, and growing different types of veggies. They sell most of their meat and produce direct to the local community, although you can buy their eggs at Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station.
“We really feel it’s important to continue agriculture on this land, and share the land with people, and enjoy producing and eating food with people. That’s why we’re doing this,” Mann says.
The centerpiece of the farm is a beautiful wood barn, which was once photographed by Ansel Adams in the 1930s. It now hosts a number of different events, from wedding receptions to farm camps. Duggan set up a miniature cocktail stand on a wood barrel inside the barn to greet guests as they entered the dinner, offering champagne, local red and white wines, and a tasty non-alcoholic peach and sage iced tea.
There are challenges to cooking in a mobile restaurant that changes locations every week, Thomson says. Tonight, they have to throw away a big batch of beet chips because the Bolinas humidity made them soggy before they could get on the table.
“I’m really interested in cooking from an artistic perspective, and it is really important to me to adapt to what we have here, to challenge myself to create a menu from just the crop list from the farm,” Thomson says. “I also love being out in the elements, cooking outside with the cows mooing and roosters squawking the background, it may be difficult but it beats any kitchen I’ve ever worked in.”
Amanda Mann tells me that it took almost two months to finalize the menu with Thomson and Metes and Bounds. They talked about every detail, including selecting the perfect lamb for the menu and figuring out which fruits and vegetables would be ripe and ready on the day of the dinner.
The first course is a simple chilled yogurt and cucumber soup, made with milk from the nearby Straus Family Creamery. An artistic long crouton adorned with radish flowers, cherry tomatoes and lemon zest, rests on top of the bowl. This is followed by a plate of delicious, but very small lamb (also made from parts of lamb number five) and pork belly meatballs, with a few smashed potatoes, marinated artichokes, escarole and capers.
The service is fast, and we only only wait a few minutes in between courses, which is when Thomson explains the next dish and sommelier and Metes and Bounds co-founder Drew Duggan explains why the wine he picked paired well with the previous course, and what to expect and look for in his next selection.
The third course is my favorite of the night -- a three bean salad, with a walnut tarator and a perfectly soft boiled, breaded and fried egg, or a “corndog” egg as Thomson jokes.
The main course is served family style -- a deep dish of braised lamb shoulder and grilled leg of lamb from the Mann’s lamb number five, on top of some of the sweetest pink and orange beets I have ever tasted, turnips, carrots, romanesco, squash from the Mann’s farm, potato and elephant garlic chips and lemon aioli. Dessert promptly followed -- a simple selection of berries from the Mann berry patch that I can almost touch from the dinner table, some fresh peaches from Dry Creek Peach and Produce in Healdsburg, topped sabayon with Prosecco, and a mint tea brewed with mint leaves picked from the Mann’s garden earlier in the evening.
The meal is well prepared, expertly plated, and tastes extremely fresh. However, the ticket price for this particular dinner, at $185 per person, seems somewhat prohibitive. But Thomson tells me most of that is going to the farmers.
“The deal with each farm is always different. We negotiate the price with the farmers for the space; we buy all the produce from them at full retail price. And then there’s our labor cost. At this point that’s about it.”
As the sun sets and the stars come out, servers come around with shawls and blankets to keep the guests warm. Amanda Mann offers me a wool sweater her grandmother had knit. Gabrielle and Paul Mann share stories of growing up down the road in Bolinas; it’s easy to forget that I had only met everyone at the table around me only hours before, and that this isn’t a dinner party for close friends of the farm.
Meeting the farmer that grew your vegetables or raised the lamb you buy at the farmers' market is one thing, but actually sitting across from them at a table in the middle of their crops, enjoying a meal made almost entirely from things grown and raised right beside you, takes eating local to another level.
Thomson says it’s important for him to include the farmers at the table because much of the time they don’t get the opportunity to go eat at the restaurants where a lot of their harvest ends up.
The next Metes and Bounds dinner is set for August 19 at Bernier Farms in Healdsburg at their Alexander Valley location. The Bernier family grows grapes garlic, kale, tomatoes and fruit trees. Tickets are available online for $120. View the full schedule at Metes and Bounds Events.
Disclaimer: Via a press invitation Metes and Bounds comped this meal for the reporter and a guest.