What could be better than getting to explore the food and drink culture of the entire south right in your own backyard?
The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival returned for its 7th year in June, bigger and better than ever. It was so much more than just Atlanta. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. were represented at this year’s fest. It was like taking a culinary road trip without having to get in your car.
Throughout the weekend I had the opportunity to enjoy a range of events, seminars and tasting experiences.
The festival kicked off on Thursday with Destination Delicious: The Ultimate Southern Road Trip Party. Twenty-six chefs from 15 southern destinations served up delicious bites, along with a wide range of beer, cocktails and spirits to sample. The event was held at the Stave Room at American Spirit Works.
One of my favorite spots was the Louisiana seafood spread. I also loved the punch from The Punch Room at the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s now on my list of must-visit spots when I have the chance to visit Charlotte.
Friday began with bubbly on the patio of the Loews Atlanta hotel. The Loews Atlanta was the central spot for the festival weekend, the location for seminars, cooking demonstrations and book signings.
For my first seminar I attended “Changing the (Cheese) Wheel” with cheese expert Liz Thorpe and chef and Top Chef competitor Whitney Otawka. Here was the selection of cheeses we started with:
Believe it or not, all four are goat cheeses. As I learned at the engaging seminar, the south has the largest concentration of goat cheese producers. Goats are better suited for the climate of the south, as many areas are too hot for cows. Something I found interesting: goat cheese has a milder flavor profile earlier in the season. Liz, with her impressive and enviable knowledge about all sorts of cheese, addressed preconceived notions about goat cheese and made many attendees new fans.
For my second seminar I attended “Bourbon: What’s Your Mash?” with Gary Crunkleton from The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As informative as he was entertaining, Gary had us cracking up between sips of the nine bourbons.
The bourbon was arranged based on mash bill. The three main mash bills (the makeup of the bourbon) are wheated mash bill, traditional mash bill and high rye mash bill (18% or more rye). Bourbon must be made from at least 51% of corn grain, but the other 49% can vary. Wheat lets more corn flavor through (think the flavor of white bread vs. cornbread), and rye adds pepper flavor.
Gary taught us a great way to taste Bourbon – take a small first sip, swish it around in your mouth like you’re using mouthwash, then swallow it. It will burn but it primes your palate. The second sip is the one to taste. This method helps you better experience the flavors and characteristics in the bourbon.
I’ve sampled a variety of Bourbons, but never in a setting like this that allowed me to really understand which style I like best. As it turns out, I like rye.
My new knowledge came in handy when I happened to bump into Preston Van Winkle, well known for his celebrated and hard to get Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. As luck would have it, he had a bottle of the 10 year Old Rip Van Winkle and 15 year Family Reserve, and poured me a taste. Both were excellent and lived up to the hype!
Brunch Saturday morning took me to Arkansas for the Connoisseur Breakfast. Chefs Mark Abernathy (Red Door & Loca Luna in Little Rock), Matt Bell (South on Main in Little Rock) and Rob Nelson (Tusk & Trotter in Bettonville) prepared a hearty spread of southern favorites with an Arkansas twist. A soft cooked farm egg was served with braised Petit Jean pork jowl guisada with War Eagle stone ground cheese grits and crumbled heritage pork cracklins. It was delicious with a gazpacho Rock Town Bloody Mary from mixologist Scott Baker of Tusk & Trotter.
As I learned, Little Rock is an exciting food destination and hosts a number of food festivals throughout the year, including the Main Street Food Truck Festival, the World Cheese Dip Championships, the Arkansas Cornbread Festival and in December the annual Nog-off competition at the Historic Arkansas Museum.
Throughout the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival weekend there were book signings, goodies and giveaways at the Loews, like free coffee from the new East Pole Coffee Co. and a chance to learn about CurEat, an app to help you find unique restaurants in your destination with recommendations from chefs and fellow foodies. Plus this being Atlanta, Coca-Cola offered their range of colas for the thirsty festival-goer.
The main not-to-miss event was the Tasting Tents. Held Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Piedmont Park, the Tasting Tents offered more southern tipples and nibbles than you could imagine.
With mouthwatering memories of the festival still fresh in my mind, I can’t wait for next year. Mark your calendar, the dates for the 8th Annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival have been announced as May 31 through June 3, 2018.