I was sitting at a seemingly endless table in the middle of a field, dining with 200 strangers on Marsala-braised lamb, wheat flour cavatelli, minted eggplant and pistachio olive oil cake topped with lemon curd and chamomile honey.
The local farmers in attendance had spent hours preparing each course, which highlighted local ingredients. I could have been anywhere, perhaps in a French vineyard or on a sloping Sonoma hillside.
But I was not. I was in Gilbert, a suburb southeast of Phoenix, at a communal dining experience called Outstanding in the Field. The Farm at Agritopia, which educates people about how their food is produced, hosted this farm-to-table-meets-city-slickers event. (This year's dates are Oct. 27 and 28, $215 per person. For information, go to www.outstandinginthefield.com/south-events.)
Not only did it dispel my thoughts on food production in a desert setting but it also introduced me to how the Phoenix area is embracing a sustainable food future.
Many travelers don't realize the bounty that grows in what they expect to be an arid climate, but Arizona's portion of the Sonoran Desert is the lushest in the world. Thirsty? Arizona produces more than 100 wine varietals to enjoy. And if you're planning a picnic, you'll find more than 40 farmers markets in the Phoenix area, all within 30 minutes of one another (www.arizonafarmersmarkets.com).
Even hotels such as the Hermosa Inn in nearby Paradise Valley use herbs from their gardens in their restaurants.
With the hotel's one-acre organic garden at his disposal, Hermosa Inn executive chef Jeremy Pacheco grows myriad seasonal products, including strawberries, English lavender, heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos and various types of squash and melon. Lemon, orange and grapefruit trees throughout the grounds provide fruit used in many of the dishes at the inn's LON's restaurant and in signature cocktails such as the Blinker, which includes Rittenhouse rye, grapefruit juice and raspberry syrup.
Info: 5532 N. Palo Cristi Road, Paradise Valley, (844) 267-8738, www.hermosainn.com
Here's a peek at more experiences you can have in the area.
Chocolate olive oil, anyone?
Or how about vegan bacon olive oil? These are just a few of the variations available at Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek, about 20 minutes southeast of Scottsdale.
Queen Creek Olive Mill is Arizona's first working olive farm, with 1,000 trees on 100 acres. My visit included a sampling of lively olive oils in such flavors as blood orange, Mexican lime and even vanilla bean, all accompanied by flaky bread and plump Spanish olives.
The mill is owned by Perry and Brenda Rea, who sell pesticide-free oils and condiments.
My favorite oil? The roasted garlic, with an earthy flavor and tang needed to create the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
Info: 25062 S. Meridian Road, Queen Creek; (480) 888-9290, www.queencreekolivemill.com. Daily tastings, tours and lunch available.
Get dirty at Singh Farms
"Food grown properly is magic," said Ken Singh.
Ken and his wife, Lee, make the magic happen at Singh Farms, their 20-acre spread in Scottsdale where composting and using heirloom seeds and natural fertilizers are keys to growing their bountiful crops.
The result? A shaded oasis produces crops as diverse as sweet potatoes and peanuts. The Phoenician, the Omni Montelucia, the Hotel Valley Ho and the Royal Palms are just a few of the area resorts that use Singh Farms produce on their menus.
"My father taught me the value of helping your fellow man and that every soul is important," Ken Singh said. "Educating folks about respect for food and the environment brings me great happiness."
Singh is always happy to provide visitors with tours of the farm, and on Saturdays, the property bustles with people shopping for produce, English Brothers apple cider, whole wheat and all-purpose flours and freshly prepared meals, including chicken, pizza and grilled artichokes. .
Info: 8900 E. Thomas Road, Scottsdale; www.facebook.com/singhfarms
The farm-focused menu at FnB restaurant in Scottsdale draws lots of nearby residents, and for good reason. Carnivores, be warned. Chef Charleen Badman's innovative take on vegetables might make you reconsider your diet.
During my meal, I was delighted by the shishito peppers with lime crema, kale-based falafel and eggplant with wheat-berry tabbouleh and goat cheese.
The roasted chicken with spaetzle would need to really be special, I thought, to outshine these vegetable starters, and it was. The chicken, served with sour cream and dill, was tender, with just the right amount of charred skin. The classic dish brought the flavor of the German old country to the heart of the Arizona desert.
FnB co-owner Pavle Milic has created an Arizona-only wine list for diners and has a label of his own, Los Milics, sold next door at Bodega Market. Visitors here can find Arizona-produced wines, olive oil, honey, pecans, artisan soaps, spice rubs and hot sauces. And, of course, prickly pear syrup is always a crowd pleaser to add a taste of the Southwest to your margarita or lemonade.
Info: 7125 E. 5th Ave. No. 31, Scottsdale; (480) 284-4777, www.fnbrestaurant.com
Sangria and tequila too
My food exploration provided a few great history lessons as well. During a "Taste of Spain" at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia, I learned that tapas originated when an ailing Spanish king decreed that no wine should be served without food. Tastings are offered Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. They are complimentary for hotel guests and $10 for visitors. Reservations are not required. Info: To see the schedule of sangria tastings, go to www.lat.ms/1UrXxfN .
At the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix, a mixology class at the hotel's Mix Up Bar served garden-to-glass concoctions such as mezcal tequila with local honey, a blackberry ginger shrub and a "seasonal smash" of muddled fresh fruits and herbs.
Mixology mixers are offered at 3 p.m. daily to hotel guests. For more information, go to www.royalpalmshotel.com/events/mixology-mixer-at-the-mix-up-bar. Tastings are complimentary and reservations are not required.
For tequila lovers, the choices are almost overwhelming at La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (www.fairmont.com/scottsdale/dining/la-hacienda). But the restaurant's resident tequila god or goddess (think sommelier for tequila) will recommend a flight from more than 200 varieties. I enjoyed the Snake Bite cocktail, with tequila, sotol (a distilled spirit made from a desert plant in the agave family), mezcal and, yes, the head of a rattlesnake for decoration.
As I headed to the airport after my visit, I was certain that most of my pants would no longer fit. But what's that saying about regrets? That's right. I have none.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PHOENIX
From LAX, American, Southwest, United and
Delta offer nonstop service
to Phoenix, and American,
Delta and United offer con-
necting service (change of
round-trip fares from $136,
including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia, 4949 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley; (480) 627-3200, (800) 578-2900, www.omnihotels.com/hotels/scottsdale-montelucia. Spanish-inspired guest rooms overlook the Sonoran Desert. Doubles from $299.
Royal Palms Resort, 5200 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix; (602) 840-3610, www.royalpalmshotel.com. Bougainvillea-draped courtyards lead to guest rooms. Doubles from $599, breakfast and spa credit included.
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, 7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale; (480) 585-4848, www.scottsdaleprincess.com. Spanish-inspired architecture on 65 acres. 648 guest rooms, five restaurants and five pools on property. Doubles from $450.
TO LEARN MORE
Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 782-1117
Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, (602) 254-6500