Working with Hidden Villa is a natural fit for Levy, a Gilroy resident with Louisiana roots, who discovered the Los Altos Hills farming nonprofit while attending a wedding there. The ingredients that he uses as both a chef and a consumer echo Hidden Villa's philosophy of sustainable and organic growth.
"This is Disneyland to me," Levy said, motioning to the expanse of fields and farm around him. "I love this place."
Hidden Villa is one of the last remainders of Silicon Valley's pre-tech agricultural legacy. The farm was founded in 1924 by Frank and Josephine Duveneck, who dedicated it to the conservation of the Adobe Creek watershed and open-space wildlife reserve, as well as to providing educational programming for environmental and social justice. In addition to hosting youth camps every summer, Hidden Villa also offers public classes in such topics as milking cows and making bacon.
That's where Levy comes in. For the past few years, Levy has instructed students in artisanal cheese production, barbecue, meat-curing and sausage-making at Hidden Villa. After cooking professionally for more than 20 years, Levy started a business that allowed him to work on a more personal level. "My stuff is really small-batch," Levy said. "Strawberry lavender water kefir: I guarantee you will never hear that again."
None of the students in Levy's July 14 sausage-making class had ever heard of such a drink, but all seemed to enjoy sampling the light, fizzy beverage that packed a slight punch. The kefir was designed as a pairing to the salami and fresh sausage that Levy prepared in Hidden Villa's Dana Center.
The drink coincided with the suggested theme of the $65 class: fermentation, or the anaerobic process by which foods can be preserved or prepared. While setting the stage for the Spanish-style chorizo — a fermented salami made with the same technique used by the ancient Romans — Levy discussed the health benefits of the fermentation process, which he said can enrich foods with vitamins and probiotics while also enhancing flavor.
Levy also advocates the use of organic and locally raised meats. He used a pork shoulder from Fogline Farm in Santa Cruz for the class, and often uses meat raised at Hidden Villa in his recipes.
According to Levy, knowing where your meat comes from helps you assess the likelihood of contamination that can result from commercially farmed pigs, which are often fed cornmeal and antibiotics that raise the risk of superbugs. It's no coincidence, Levy suggested, that the Latin word for sausage is botulus.
While an old adage states that no one should see laws or sausage getting made, Levy makes a good argument for sausage: When it is homemade, you know what goes into it. In the place of nitrites, nitrates, dextrose and "pink slime," the mechanically separated meat product, Levy said that all you need to make great sausage is just "pig and salt" — although he did supplement that formula with dry herbs and toasted fennel.
This minimalist approach appealed to Kim Gardner, a Santa Cruz resident visiting Hidden Villa for the first time. "I like the idea of making my own things," Gardner said. "It's really personal and involved."
The class environment was comfortable, as students occasionally interjected questions and comments while Levy demonstrated in the front. After preparing and stuffing the hard sausage, Levy explained how to construct a homemade drying rack to facilitate the fermentation process. Before beginning the next sausage, a fresh chicken loukaniko sausage in the style of the island of Mykonos — "What makes it really Greek is the summer savory" — he paused the class to take a snack break. Students helped themselves to an array of fermented foods, such as collard kraut, brussel sprout kimchi, pickled cauliflower seasoned in turmeric, and fig preserves. The spread was coupled with samples of the chorizo and loukaniko.
Out of the 18 participants, only one had attempted sausage-making before. When Levy dismissed the class, many of the students asked him to email them recipes. "I would definitely try it," Gardner said. "How creative could I get?"
That curiosity is what drives Levy to explore new tastes and places in his recipes, from the flavors of a family farm in the former Czechoslovakia to those inspired by Spain, Levy's dream destination.
"I can't wait to go," said Levy. "I just want to give people something they've never had before, and that they will really enjoy."
Info: Quentin Levy's next scheduled class at Hidden Villa is "Whole hog: all about pork" on Saturday, Aug. 24. The cost is $80. For information on this and other upcoming classes at Hidden Villa, go to hiddenvilla.org and click on the public-events calendar.