A trip to Idaho last month for the first annual Sun Valley Food & Wine Festival was an eye opener. There’s a lot more going on in The Gem State than just growing spuds. And the fact that it’s a shorter jaunt to Idaho from the Wasatch Front than it is to Moab makes heading north'especially in hot summer weather'a quick, great escape and a cheap way to get out of Dodge. In under four hours’ drive time, you could be tasting wine at the Sun Valley Wine Company, or enjoying a superb meal in any of a number of the truly terrific restaurants that Ketchum and Hailey have to offer, like the incredible CK’s in Hailey.nn
First off, who knew Boise had a dining scene? In addition to Louisiana cooking at Kelly Cajun Grill, Louisiana Fried Chicken and the House of Catfish and Ribs, Boise sports an abundance of brewpubs like BitterCreek Alehouse, Highlands Hollow Brewhouse and The Ram. There are also bistros such as La Vie en Rose, Le CafÃ© de Paris and Le Poulet Rouge, and hip eateries like Red Feather Lounge, Reef, Koi Sushi & Robata Bar and the somewhat less hip Donnie Mac’s Trailer Park Cuisine. But probably the most unique aspect of Boise’s dining scene derives from the city’s thriving Basque community, centered around Grove Street in downtown Boise'The Basque Block, as it’s called. If you’ve a hankering for kroketak, txirlak, makailao, urdaiazpikoa or izokina, I urge you to visit Leku Ono and Gernika Basque Pub, Boise’s best Basque bastions.nn
Since I had a day to kill in Idaho before the kickoff of the festival, I arranged to visit Lava Lake Land & Livestock Company; a lamb ranch located a half-hour or so outside Hailey. I’d been tipped off about LLLL by Salt Lake City writer and food maven Virginia Rainey, who’d said something to me like, “You won’t believe what these guys are doing up in Idaho.â€nn
Well, a ride out to Lava Lake from Hailey with Lava Lake Lamb President & CEO Mike Stevens told me that this wasn’t going to be a visit to any sort of standard ranch. For starters, Stevens'raised in Spain until he was 11 years old by an ex-pat mom with wanderlust'is the last guy you’d ever suspect to be president/CEO of a ranch. With degrees in botany and biology, Stevens is a field naturalist who served as director of science and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire and as south-central Idaho program manager for The Nature Conservancy of Sun Valley. He’s a self-described “enviro” who couldn’t be greener if his name were Kermit.
It’s an intricate and fascinating story but briefly, when Brian Bean'one of the country’s most highly regarded experts in investment banking'decided to purchase the then-7,500 acre Lava Lake Ranch in 1999, the idea was to raise the highest quality, best-tasting certified organic and grass-fed lamb available. And, since Bean and his wife Kathleen are avid environmentalists themselves, they’d do that in a way that would “restore and protect the rich native landscape on which their lambs roam and graze.”nn
Well, in 2001, the Beans put their 7,500 Lava Lake acres under permanent protection via a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy; it’s the largest donated conservation easement in Idaho’s history. Today, with the strategic help of Mike Stevens, Lava Lake Lamb’s holding of private land and public leases amounts to more than 800,000 wildly diverse acres ranging from deserts at 4,000 feet in elevation to mountain peaks at 11,000 feet'an ecotone which provides habitat for wolves, black bear, elk, grouse, Lewis woodpeckers (I saw a couple) and countless other species. Brian Bean’s vision is to “reverse the impacts of a century of overgrazing with a methodical, far-reaching plan that the company hopes may provide a model in large-scale conservation planning.â€nn
Here’s the kicker: 100 percent of the profits from the sale of Lava Lake certified organic and grass-fed lamb go back into funding its ongoing conservation work. To wit, on a hike through a lower part of the ranch, we came across a young ornithologist who’d been hired by Lava Lake Lamb to do an inventory/census of the songbird population in a delicate section of the ranch. As it happens, the population has grown since the Beans took over. This isn’t your daddy’s cattle ranch.nn
Which is all fine and good and commendable if the lamb doesn’t suck, right? Well, during my five-day visit to Idaho, I ate more lamb than I’ve eaten in the past year'all of it from Lava Lake. And I can concur with Food Network’s Cat Cora, who was at the Sun Valley Food & Wine Festival doing a cooking demo, when she said enthusiastically, “This is honestly now my favorite lamb!”nn
Like Jamie Gilmore’s magnificent Morgan Valley Lamb products here in Utah, those of Lava Lake have the ability to turn lamb loathers into lamb lovers. I’m one of them. At Lava Lake, lambs graze only on the ranch’s certified organic range and drink mother’s milk. What a life! And thanks to their heady diet of lush, fragrant ranges grasses and herbs, Lava Lake Certified Organic lambs are amazingly mild, tender and delicate. None of what you don’t like about lamb is found in this lamb: hormones, antibiotics, herbicides or insecticides.nn
For now, Lava Lake Lamb is available only through the company’s Website: LavaLakeLamb.com. I urge you to order a couple of shanks for your next osso buco. It’s unreal.