A Marriage of Friendship and Flavor at Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms
By Susan Gloss | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
“Do you have anything weird?” asks a young woman in a red Wisconsin sweatshirt. “I want to cook something weird.” Dorothy Priske smiles and looks down at her list of available cuts of meat. She replies, “Kidneys. Is that weird enough?”
To see Dorothy and her husband and business partner, John, working their stall at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, is to see them in one of the two places they call home. The Priskes’ market stall for Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms consists of little more than a white tarp roof, but it is home, nonetheless. The place buzzes with greetings from friends, offers of samples from other farmers and questions from shoppers.
During the two hours I spend with the Priskes at their stall, the scale and calculator rarely had a rest from registering sales of Fountain Prairie’s grass-fed beef and pork. Whenever John has a moment, though, he tells me about the farm and its history at the market.
At Home at the Market
John and Dorothy have operated their Saturday stall on Carroll Street since 1986, shortly after they returned to Wisconsin after time in Montana, Idaho and Washington. At first, they sold only asparagus, but they soon expanded their operation to include other items as well. In the early days, the Priskes practiced conventional farming with over 900 pigs, a small-scale beef operation, and raising corn and soybean crops.
After a trip to New Zealand in the late 1990s, the Priskes had what John describes as “an epiphany.” In New Zealand, the Priskes stayed at a bed and breakfast where sheep roamed green pastures and grazed on grass. There, the Priskes ate what Dorothy remembers as “some of the best lamb” they’d ever tasted. When they returned to Wisconsin, the Priskes decided to transition their 280 acres of farmland to organic and raise fewer animals using more sustainable practices. They chose to focus on raising heritage Highland cattle, the oldest registered cattle breed, because in addition to producing a delicious beef product, the animals do well in cold climates thanks to their thick, shaggy coats and a natural tolerance for weather. (The Priskes’ cattle can be found roaming the pastures at Fountain Prairie even when the fields are covered in snow.) Today, the Priskes have about 400 head of Highland cattle on their farm.
The switch from conventional to sustainable farming took time. The three-year transition of their 280 acres of farmland to organic resulted in some lean times when the Priskes were planting grass in place of corn and soybeans. Though the changes were not instant, they have resulted in a better quality of life, both for the livestock and for the Priskes. This fact is obvious as John pauses in his work at the market to introduce me to friends and colleagues—of which there are many.
“This is our family,” he says of the community members and fellow farmers at the market. Dorothy agrees. She describes Saturday mornings as the “highlight” of the week. As an observer, it is easy to see why. Chefs and their families stop by with babies to kiss and local restaurant news to share. Home cooks and grill masters swap culinary tips. And tourists, curious about the Priskes’ pictures of long-horned, curly-haired Highland cattle, pause to inquire as to what makes their beef different.
The answer lies in what the cattle eat. A heritage breed developed in the rugged Highlands of Scotland, Highland cattle have a tough tongue and throat, thereby allowing them to graze on plants that other cattle avoid. This diversity in their diet leads to flavorful beef that is leaner and more complex-tasting than the average, mass-produced variety.
In his recent book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef (Viking, 2010), journalist Mark Shatzker points out that there are 340 flavor compounds in beef. Red wine, by comparison, has approximately 380 flavor compounds. When beef has been dry-aged, like the beef at Fountain Prairie, the flavors become more concentrated than those in typical grocery store beef, which is usually wet-aged. In the wet-aging process, beef cuts are vacuum-packed in plastic, where the meat ages by coming into contact with its own blood. Wet-aging is popular because it only takes a few days and doesn’t decrease the weight of the beef.
Dry-aged beef, on the other hand, is hung in a large cooler after the beef is harvested, but before it has been cut. During the aging process, some moisture evaporates, causing the meat to shrink by about 10 to 15 percent, in turn causing the remaining meat to have a more concentrated flavor. Dry-aging also allows time for the natural enzymes within the beef to break down the connective tissue, resulting in more tender meat. All of Fountain Prairie’s beef—whether it’s hamburger meat or tenderloin—is dry-aged for 14 to 21 days, and Madison restaurants literally eat it up.
Brasserie V in Madison features a savory flank steak from Fountain Prairie as a special, and it is delicious when eaten with a paper cone of the restaurant’s highly addictive frites. Patrons at Graze, Bluephie’s, and several other Madison establishments can enjoy burgers made from the Priskes’ ground beef. At Roman Candle, seasoned Highland beef is even available as a pizza topping. These restaurants continue to buy dry-aged beef from Fountain Prairie because, as Dorothy says, “it just tastes good.”
At Home on the Farm
The Priskes’ other home, their farm in Fall River, is an island of biological diversity in an area of Wisconsin dominated by endless fields of corn. Beyond John and Dorothy’s blue and white farmhouse shimmer wetlands where waterfowl nest and fish. Next to the wetlands, a golden prairie provides a refuge for migratory birds and other wildlife.
It didn’t always look like this, however. In their shift from conventional to sustainable farming, the Priskes did more than alter the way they raised livestock. They also changed the lay of the land, re-creating habitats for native plants and animals that had been driven out through decades of industrial farming. John and Dorothy see themselves as land stewards and follow Aldo Leopold’s philosophy that the farm is a portrait of the farmer. A new addition to Fountain Prairie is the 140-foot wind turbine towering over the traditional red barn. The turbine has the ability to generate 50 percent more power than the farm consumes—another example of the Priskes’ commitment to sustainability.
The Priskes believe that their farm is meant to be shared, and they often host chef-created tasting menus on site. Outstanding in the Field—a traveling organization that coordinates farm-to-table dinners across the country—hosted their first Wisconsin event in 2008 at Fountain Prairie with a seasonal, five-course meal created by Chef Tory Miller of Madison’s famed L’Etoile restaurant. (Miller is not only one of Fountain Prairie’s loyal customers, but he and his wife, Lili were married at Fountain Prairie.) Whenever possible, the Priskes promote the restaurants they supply. Chef Dan Fox of the Madison Club raises pigs, sheep and goats at Fountain Prairie. Chef Jack Kaestner of Oconomowoc Lake Club has taught cooking classes featuring Highland beef for the club’s members.
The Priskes’ open-door policy extends beyond the restaurant community. Dorothy serves on the board of the non-profit Research, Education, Action and Policy (REAP) Food Group, and the Priskes are involved with local Slow Food chapters. Fountain Prairie has also held “pasture walks” on site, which gives farmers an opportunity to show their fields to other farmers, share tips and troubleshoot problems. At other farms, these organized walks are open only to farmers, but Fountain Prairie also invites members of the community.
The Priskes’ generosity—their willingness to share their work and highlight the work of others—is what transformed Fountain Prairie from just another cornfield into a living, thriving example of sustainable agriculture. Dorothy also cites another reason: her 38-year marriage with John. She says, “When you enjoy working together, there’s a certain synergy that takes place.”
At Home in the Kitchen
I had the opportunity to enjoy the benefit of the Priskes’ work by cooking with a beef shank I bought from them at the farmers market. I asked Dorothy how I should prepare it, and she sent me home with her mother’s recipe for vegetable beef soup. At $3.50 a pound, beef shank is one of the least expensive cuts that Fountain Prairie sells. Nevertheless, after two hours of simmering, I had a rich stock, thanks to the bone and marrow running through the center of the cut. The shank meat—normally a tough, dry portion—was so tender I could pull it apart with my fingers to add it to the soup, no knife required. After adding root vegetables from Vermont Valley Farm (located in Blue Mounds), and some cabbage and peas, I had a hearty soup I was proud to share with friends—just like the Priskes would do.
For more information on Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms, visit www.fountainprairie.com. Visitors can enjoy the Priskes’ beautiful farm and hospitality by staying at the bed and breakfast they operate on site.
We hope you enjoy the Whole Grain Mustard, Garlic & Rosemary Marinated Roast Tri-Tip Beef recipe which accompanied this article in the Winter 2010 issue.