Food challenge goes wild with local ingredients

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Billy Manson, creator of the Local Wild Food Challenge. —Courtesy Billy Manson

All year long Islanders have been hunting and gathering, preparing and preserving edible ingredients in anticipation of one of the Vineyard’s more unique annual events. The Local Wild Food Challenge is a global phenomenon that was launched in New Zealand in 2008 and has been celebrated on-Island since 2010. The challenge is a culinary competition in which participants must forage, hunt, gather, farm, and trade for the ingredients of the dish they wish to enter.

This year, the event will include much more than the contest. It will be a full-on festival experience that will engage both participants and spectators in multiple activities. Private chef Bill Manson, founder and organizer of the event, a native New Zealander, continues to expand the event, which is now celebrated in four countries at eight different locations.

“It’s taken on more of a festival feel,” Mr. Manson said. “We rolled out a couple of things in New Zealand in our first tryout of the new format. With each competition we add a few new things, depending on the local culture.”

This year, the Vineyard challenge has relocated to the FARM Institute in Katama, in order to accommodate the new additions. (For many years the event was held at the Rod and Gun Club in Katama. Last year it moved to the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs.)

The day-long festival will feature workshops and live demonstrations, music, food trucks, a beer and wine bar, door prizes, raffles and, as always, sampling of the challenge entries. “We encourage spectators to come along even if they don’t cook,” Mr. Manson said. “We’ve pushed the date to the end of the month. It’s really an opportunity for a postseason Island catch-up.”

There will be at least a dozen different workshops and demonstrations throughout the day. The interactive demos range from kombucha fermentation and breadmaking to a deer breakdown and fish filleting. For the less culinary inclined, there will be educational opportunities, including talks on local farming and deer-tick awareness. All talks and demos are included in the $20 admission price.

Music will be provided by Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. Three food trucks will be selling a range of interesting options, and the bar will feature organic beers and wines.

On Friday night, Edgartown restaurant Detente will host a Slow and Wild Dinner featuring inspired dishes by Chef Kevin Crowell and a talk by Richard McCarthy, director of Slow Food USA. A Local Wild Food Challenge afterparty on Saturday night will take place at the Port Hunter in Edgartown.

For competitors, the stakes are high this year. The grand prize winner will enjoy an all-inclusive trip to Italy, complete with a stay in a castle in the quaint village of Verduno for the Italian version of the challenge. Activities will include truffle hunting, a visit to a small cheese producer, and a wine tasting.

The competition is a blind tasting, which gives amateurs and professionals alike a fair shot at the prizes. “We try to make it as inclusive as possible,” Mr. Manson said. “Normally around 40 to 50 people enter. We take all comers. Winners from past challenges are actually leaning toward the amateurs.”

In fact, last year’s winners were a group of teens from the Charter School’s culinary program. “We’re making a big push toward getting the kids involved in the competition,” Mr. Manson said. There is a separate category for young people, with prizes inducing a dinner prepared by Michael Brisson, fishing tackle, and more.

Entries are judged on four criteria, which are equally graded: taste, ingredients, presentation, and effort. Contestants must provide a written account of their wild food adventure. The website elaborates on this part of the contest. “Tell us the story of your efforts to gather and prepare your dish. From picking edible wild flowers to hunting wild boar. From fermenting feral apples to curing wild fish. These kinds of efforts can be equally valuable in the judges’ scoring.”

“The reason we focus on the effort is that we want to level the playing field out,” Mr. Manson said. “We want to make sure the amateurs and professionals have an equal shot. Taste and presentation, effort and ingredients are all afforded the same amount of points.”

There are multiple categories. Prizes are awarded for things like Best Effort, Wildest Ingredient, Best on the Water, Land, and Sea, and the Hemingway Award for best story.

Earlier this month, the Wild Food Challenge was celebrated in a small village in Finland. A challenge in Whakatane on the North Island of New Zealand will wrap up the 2016 season. In February and March, four more New Zealand–based events will take place. The challenge has extended its reach considerably since 2009, when Mr. Manson organized the first outing in his hometown of Eastbourne, New Zealand.

Detente owners Kevin and Suzanne Crowell attended the inaugural challenge, and encouraged Mr. Manson to try the event out here. In 2010 the Martha’s Vineyard Local Wild Food Challenge was launched. Since then, attendees from other parts of the world have approached Mr. Manson about hosting events, and the challenge has now spread to points around the globe.

The Crowells aren’t the only Vineyarders to travel to other challenges. In fact, chef Albert Lattanzi of the former Lattanzi’s Restaurant in Edgartown took second place in the Finnish competition last year for his dish featuring smoked reindeer and mushrooms he foraged on his own.

In an effort to link the festivals together, Mr. Manson has been awarding winners trips to other Wild Food Challenge locations. The winner of the 2014 Finland competition made his first visit to the U.S. when he was a guest at the Vineyard Challenge.

Mr. Manson has put together a travel package for those who would like to follow the competition to Italy in May. Eventually he’d like to offer complete trips to all of the locations. “My mission in the future is to link up all the communities so people could have the opportunity to get familiar with other cultures,” he said.

Some of the more interesting ingredients gathered around the globe for the challenge have included wood ants, cicadas, deer brain and heart, pine shoots made into a liquor, and deep-fried lichen. Vineyarders have made use of squirrel, crickets, wildflowers, seaweed, and acorn flour.

“We see plenty of strange things,” Mr. Manson said. “But this is really not about the freakiest ingredients. It’s the experience that people are having together, getting out and searching for things in places they wouldn’t normally go. My mission is to get people out in the environment and understand their wild food resources. I want to get people thinking about how our resources are doing and how their environment is faring. That’s something that I’m really passionate about.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Local Wild Food Challenge: Saturday, Oct. 22, the FARM Institute in Katama, 12 noon to 6 pm. $20. Children and competitors free. For tickets and more information, visit localwildfoodchallenge.com.