“The biggest part of TerraVITA,” founder and director Colleen Minton tells me, “is that we focus on being mindful.”
The extensive Food & Wine Festival, built on the foundation of the words for “earth” and “life,” has been named one of the premier Southern food festivals, both for showcasing high-quality foods and beverages, as well as the event’s overall commitment to supporting local producers, organic and sustainable ingredients, and functioning as a zero-waste festival.
When you first walk onto the green for the TerraVITA Food & Wine Festival Grand Tasting, you are immediately handed a compostable fork and spoon. From the very beginning, Minton’s inspiration is clear.
“I want to give people a podium…to put them on a pedestal,” Minton said of chefs and producers represented at the event, many of which she personally invited to showcase their local and sustainable goods and cuisine.
Perhaps the most popular event, The Grand Tasting, featured more than 30 stations this year. While not exclusively advertised as a vegetarian tasting, or an allergen-free festival, the vast array of options for vegetarians, vegans, and people with nut and gluten allergies was extensive.
Minton personally requested that, whenever possible, chefs prepare allergen and meat-free versions of their offerings. The importance of being able to eat delicious, healthful food despite dietary restrictions is close to her heart: her son suffers from anaphylaxis to all dairy and eggs, and only recently was cleared for nuts.
“About half of [the chefs] usually have a really strong offering that can accommodate [those] subgroups,” Minton said.
With my compostable spoon and fork in hand, I gladly dug into my first vegetarian bite at TerraVITA, after only three stations of meat-based meals where the pork could not be held, picked out, or eaten around.
Gravy, an American-Italian kitchen, was serving vegetarian farro risotto. I followed this with a taste of butternut squash and pumpkin bisque, and then a potato salad from Foster’s Market.
“We were just there this morning!” I exclaimed, recalling the carrot ginger soup I had sampled only hours before. Foster’s was serving a bacon, apple, and sweet potato salad with a cashew-butter vinaigrette and peppers from their private garden. The vegetarian version was right beside it.
Heather joined me for the tasting, and we compared notes on nuances between each station’s vegetarian and vegan option. She will always advocate for the necessity of bacon. Naturally, I reminded her how delicious the bread was whenever possible. Especially the house-baked Cheddar Poppyseed Bread from Local 22.
We were equally impressed, however, with the improvement Foster’s made to traditional Southern-style mayo-coated potato salad. The light cashew vinaigrette still provided the creaminess this acidic dish needs, without nullifying the seasonal flavors.
Next came banh mi lettuce wraps with hydroponic lettuce, which were the last thing I expected to see at the Southern tasting exposition. Chef Timothy Grandinetti, of Spring House, used a Japanese spice mixture to flavor the thinly sliced tofu.
As Heather and I worked our way around the green, we noted how modern and inspired the small plates were. There were no chicken and waffles, only one biscuit (used as a slider with beet jelly and slaw), and the grits were made with aged Parmesan and pickled summer squash, or pumpkin, hickory nuts and sage pesto. The barbecue was pulled pork confit and osso bucco. TerraVITA clearly showcased the best of the best – the chefs working to stake a claim for North Carolina in the foodie’s canon.
With so much attention on nearby Durham, the “Tastiest Town,” and its surrounding neighbors, I couldn’t help but wonder what was changing – and so quickly!
“We have a lot of farmers that are dedicated to sustainable practices…we have clean, local food that is available so that our chefs have the opportunity to rely on a consistent source…[that’s] where Southern food is going,” Minton observed. “[Southern food] is made of ingredients that are native to a universal culture, and it’s comforting. The historic roots go far beyond our own Southern roots – and translates to a broader population.”
This couldn’t have been more strongly represented at TerraVITA, where many of the dishes had squash, apples, winter greens, and other seasonal ingredients. It was as much a tasting of early fall as it was a sample of the South.
Later, Heather and I tasted four levels of spicy relish – an award winning recipe from Green Planet Catering, that paired perfectly with sweet potato bisque (a modified vegetarian version of the soup topped with Crispy Pork Belly).
The vegetable and goat cheese terrine, from The Chef’s Academy, was one of my favorites of the day: a beautiful layering of mustard-marinated eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, bell pepper, and portobello mushroom, all wrapped delicately around a center of herbed goat cheese and grilled asparagus. I was so enamored with this dish that I asked the chefs for the recipe – and am looking forward to sharing it with you in the very near future!
Chef Josh Coburn, of the recently opened Local 22, served two vegetarian dishes – a Greek heirloom vegetable salad and a hearty spanikopita. Most of his produce is pulled from the restaurant owner’s personal garden, which supplies all of his restaurants.
While most people introduced their dishes with the warm twang of a Southern accent, I recognized the distinct inflection of a New Yorker at the North Carolina event – Founder of Uncouth Vermouth, Bianca Miraglia, who is brewing remarkable blends of vermouth RIGHT HERE in Brooklyn. I sampled her Pear Ginger blend, but am eager to get my hands on a bottle of Serrano Chile Lavender and Beet Eucalyptus. She might not be a Southerner, but her commitment to sustainability and transparent business practices made her fit right in with the local crowd.
Locally brewed coffee and curry roasted peanuts, bourbon caramel truffles from French Broad Chocolates, North Carolina-based hard cider and, at the very end of our grand tasting tour, samples of the unforgettable La Farm bread that had been one of North Carolina’s many lures.
Just as Heather and I were finishing our final bites, the rain – which had been pushing the thick clouds low over the green all day – finally fell. Volunteers hustled to collect all the wine glasses, and to fold up the burlap tablecloths Minton and her husband made out of coffee bags that are reused every year.
While I only made it to the Grand Tasting, a huge part of TerraVITA – and Minton’s personal favorite – is the Sustainable Classroom. On Friday, a series of seminars, workshops, and discussions brought together some of North Carolina’s most renowned culinary and agricultural minds. One class explored the fusion of classic Southern cooking – known for its lard and made infamous by such names as Paula Dean – with sustainable practices and healthful living.
Educating guests on GMO’s, the history of Southern grains, and methods for initiating community food movements were among the weekend’s other topics.
“I believe a lot of food allergies are tied back to GMO’s…” Minton mentioned, reiterating her passion for honest food labeling, organic food, and her hope that more chefs continue to build relationships with the producers of their ingredients. “The classes are the major drivers for me – I think it’s the most interesting piece of the event.”
When TerraVITA returns in 2014 for its fifth consecutive year on the Chapel Hill Green, Minton hopes that classes will be available on both Friday and Saturday, so more people are able to attend.
She had initially asked chefs and speakers if they would be interested in leading seminars on Sunday, but she was met with resistance.
“No, that’s our family day [they told me]. And I don’t want to take that away from them.”
And, as all things usually do, our conversation returned to the very foundation of TerraVITA – the inspiration for it all.
“When you make [choices] for yourself and your family, you have to ask yourself what you want to promote.” For Minton, her energy was fueled into developing one of the South’s most renowned, forward-thinking food events – because it was the food she wanted to be able to feed her family. “You have to ask yourself…what is going to make sense for not only your family, but your neighbor’s family? Your friend’s family?”
And so, even with its modern innovations and vegetarian inspirations, the Southern table is still very much a place where the everyday family can sit around – where good food can be had by all.
While I returned home to the North to digest, Minton continued working on TerraVITA. In the week following, she finalized the proceeds from the live and silent auctions benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
I can’t express how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to meet Minton, to experience TerraVITA, and to have had such a thorough immersion in the food and beverage of the South.
Thank you again to everyone who helped me learn a little about Southern culinary culture – because as Minton said, it’s a historical cuisine with roots that stretch deep into American soil.
As more producers and chefs embrace sustainable, organic goods, and create vegetarian, “light-on-the-lard,” allergen-free interpretations of comforting Southern classics, I have no doubt that the South’s food legacy will continue to gain popularity, and overcome its reputation as a friend-chicken-and-waffles, chicken-friend-chicken region.
Because it is so much more than that. Although, yes, you can still find that too.
Until next time,