08 October 2012
Going into the desert is a spiritual quest. Native American shamans, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad—all found divine purpose and clarity of mind in the unforgiving calm of the desert.
Traveling to Phoenix for the Summer Solstice may seem like folly, particularly during what happened to be a month of record-breaking heat across the American west. A glance at a weather forecast—111 degrees on June 1st?!—would make anyone accustomed to the suit-and-tie culture of Washington, DC groan.
But as I sat in the middle of Sonoran Desert, the cicadas cackling and the morning sun rising behind me, I came to respect the cleansing power of the parched, searing heat. I had no cell service; not a single piece of modern machinery was to be seen or heard. When I opened my eyes from my meditation to find myself surrounded by sand and the saguaros, instead of inside a kitschy urban yoga studio designed only for temporary escapism, the isolation was liberating.
In a well-known quote in the vinticulture world, American author and personality Clifton Fadiman said, "If food is the body of good living, wine is its soul." As Phoenix has grown into the sixth largest metropolis in the U.S., attracted celebrities and glamour, survived race riots and the mob and the real estate crash, it has begun to learn a thing or two about how a community of great stories, good food, and good wine combined with unmatched access to nature can nourish the body and soul.
In some ways, the mob legacy served the city well—that group is not known for its cheap taste in food. The prime example of the culinary influence in the Valley is Durant’s Fine Food, an unpretentious steakhouse that could rival the best steakhouses of Chicago and New York City and make a DC-ite craving a power lunch location feel right at home.
Jack Durant was said to be a hit man and small-time gangster in Las Vegas working for Bugsy Siegel, but came to Phoenix after making the FBI’s Top Ten Most Dangerous Men in America list. He opened up his namesake bar and grill in 1950, decorating it with red casino velvet and no windows, and a secret entrance through the kitchen to round it all out. It is said murders and scams were planned inside these walls, but nearly a quarter century after his death, perhaps the most prominent tale about Durant’s life is how his will left all his money to his dearly beloved English bulldog, Humble.
Durant’s would not have survived for as long as it has if it only abounded with good stories, even if the Mad Men vibe makes up its heart and soul. Everything on the menu, from the mouth-watering prime rib to the atomic house-made horseradish to the made-from-scratch key lime pie, is sure to impress. The wine list will have something for everyone.
As the agricultural regions surrounding the Sun Valley were slowly overtaken by increasing urbanization, family farms turned to agritourism, claiming a stake in the area’s foodie culture. The localvore movement has blossomed since then—resort chefs proudly feature their herb gardens tucked into otherwise unused corners; restaurants, from the charming and historic Liberty Market in Mesa to Schnepf Farms’ lunch bistro featuring ingredients grown in their fields, work extra to ensure their food bears a “local” label.
Leading the charge on locally sourced products is the Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only olive mill located about an hour’s drive outside of the Sun Valley—but worth every moment of the trip.
The grounds of Queen Creek Olive Mill feature a gourmet marketplace well-stocked with artisan bread, local honey, home-made bath and body products (from the leftover product of the olive mill), and free recipe cards; the bistro del Piero was featured on Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and locals rave about the menu. But the mill’s olive oil rightly takes the center stage here.
Arizona’s climate is uniquely suited for olive trees—fertile soil, warm weather, and a dry climate that pesky olive flies cannot survive. As controversy ramps up in the culinary world about over-processed or fake imported olive oils, this company swears by the freshness and authenticity of their product. For anywhere from $5 to $150, depending on what experience you are looking for, you can tour the mill’s facilities and learn about the unique process of making olive oil flavors ranging from lemon-infused to a completely vegan bacon olive oil.
With so many flavors of oil and balsamic vinegar available, I agonized over how much could fit in my suitcase without sending it over the weight limit, finally settling on the chili infused oil that has been a tremendous hit in my summer sauté dishes. But here is my advice: buy the olive oil from their website and ship it home. Save the weight in your suitcase for the scrumptious private label almond champagne, which is available only at the Queen Creek location and not available for delivery.
The diversity of Arizonan vinticulture is on full display throughout the state, at every restaurant looking to boost “localvore cred” and at shops, like the olive mill’s, actively involved in promoting Arizona’s products. The wine industry is no newcomer to the region; in fact, many of the state’s wine regions were first begun by Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 16th Century for making the sacramental wines. In recent years, the industry has seen a revitalization as interest in wine, and especially American and organic wines, has risen.
One of the most impressive labels, but by far not the only excellent choice, is Arizona Stronghold. The founders learned the winemaking trade in California’s Sonoma County, came to Arizona to research and experience the biodiversity of the desert, and founded the Stronghold vineyards to continue the legacy of Arizona vinticulture reaching back to the Apaches. Since 2007, the Arizona Stronghold wines have won an impressive list of local and international awards, including two gold medals and one silver for the white blend Tazi at the Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition. A wine with a smooth, citrusy start morphing into a medium bodied finish with a hint of oakiness, the Tazi wine is definitely worth picking up a bottle of for a night at the pool under the stars.
Far too often, Arizona’s reputation is reduced to its politics, particularly among DC's over-politicized circles. The glamour, the mystery, and the sheer beauty of the surrounding areas was a pleasant surprise, and a comfortable getaway. From kayaking down the Lower Salt River, to swimming under the stars, to the yoga at Usery Mountain Park, Phoenix is a place to rejuvenate mind, body, and soul.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.
Photo courtesy of the Greater Phoenix CVB. By Adam Rodriguez.