By Jay Kleberg, Co-Founder of Explore Ranches
I often begin writing by quickly outlining the basic facts. This outline normally disappears after it has served its purpose of just getting me off the starting blocks. In this case, however, I am including it because if this piques your interest, you will hopefully read on for the more nuanced details of an amazing weekend in the Texas Hill Country.
Who: Group of foodies, writers, musicians and outdoor enthusiasts
What: Culinary retreat with Jesse Griffiths at a private Hill Country ranch
When: April 26-28, 2019
Where: Llano Springs Ranch at the headwaters of the South Llano River
Why: Bring to life the natural, cultural and family history of a private ranch in the Hill Country, through the lens of the culinary arts and the interaction among a diverse group of fascinating people.
How: Mix world-class chef with ranch-sourced ingredients, add spring-fed river, Hill Country wine and spirits, dark skies and acoustic guitar. Sip and enjoy.
Llano Springs Ranch, 140 miles west of Austin and about 24 miles south of Junction, has been in the Vandivier family for 25 years. The Vandiviers have made every single one of those years count. When they acquired the ranch in 1994, the grasslands were crowded out by a monoculture of ashe juniper. Having learned from the successful efforts of landowners like David Bamberger and with a chainsaw, bulldozer, fire and a tremendous work ethic, the family turned back the ecological clock. Native grasses have returned to the rolling hillsides and springs flow stronger than ever into the South Llano River.
Explore Ranches invited a group of foodies, writers, musicians and outdoor enthusiasts to Llano Springs to enjoy the results of decades of responsible land management and share a private lands getaway complete with lodging, a culinary class, regional wine and spirits and ranch made food. The idea was hatched a few months prior with Austin chef Jesse Griffiths and the Explore Ranches team. The pitch to Jesse was simple – Explore Ranches can connect our ranch partners, who own some of the most breathtaking places in Texas and beyond, with your wild game cooking skills and offer a culinary retreat to a select group of people.
Jesse liked the idea and we teamed up with Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s We Will Not Be Tamed campaign to raise awareness, Lewis Vineyards, Willam and Chris Winery and Desert Door Distillery to provide local wine and sotol and a small group of writers and photographers to capture the experience. Between the storied ranch, focus on wild ingredients and mission-aligned partners, it felt as if we were opening people’s eyes to the best that Texas had to offer.
To give you an idea of the type of food and drink offered throughout the weekend, here is an excerpt from the menu – wild duck meatball & crawfish paella with lemon aioli, axis backstrap with a coffee dry rub, nopales salad with wild mint, onions and goat queso fresco, wild turkey ravioli with brown butter, valley lemon, and fish soup (bass, bluegill and longear sunfish) served with grilled bread. Every evening, we served Desert Door’s original prickly pear margarita with sotol harvested from West Texas, lime juice, orange juice, agave nectar, cointreau, and prickly pear puree.
We spent the morning fishing for largemouth and Guadalupe bass in the nearby Blue Hole and foraging for nopal and agarita berries to be eaten later. After lunch, the details of which are hidden somewhere in the previous paragraph, Jesse and his New School of Traditional Cookery teammates demonstrated and prepared dinner for that evening. Throughout the day, different members of the Vandivier family hosted property tours to explore the springs, cliffs and hillsides accompanied by the narrative history of how it all came to be.
Jesse Griffiths, reflecting on a tour of the ranch with the Vandiviers said that “taking that drive with Tom was pretty mind-blowing. That family has taken care of their land in a way you don’t see very often.”
That night, after appetizers under a giant live oak tree, the group of foodies, writers, musicians and outdoor enthusiasts reunited on the porch of the main house overlooking the river. Turkey gobbled as they glided across the stream en route to their roost. A bald eagle soared above and axis and white-tailed deer emerged from the trees to drink once more of the clear running water before turning back to the safety of the brush. We feasted on the results of the afternoon cooking class and as the evening wound down, an old wooden guitar emerged. The weekend had come together as planned and, in so many spectacular ways, as unplanned.
Look for articles about this experience in Tribeza, Texas Land Magazine, Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine and the Under the Texas Sky podcast.