“I realized very early the power of food to evoke memory,
to bring people together, to transport you to other places,
and I wanted to be a part of that.”
~Chef-Humanitarian Jose Andres
During the dark days of the Cabrona virus, trying our hands at preparing recipes (most culled from edge-worn and tattered cookbooks) of the world became one of the few ways to escape mandated restrictions. Food became one of the few remaining ways to connect us to other cultures and travel to destinations we couldn’t otherwise enjoy. Whether in bad times or in good, food–enticing aromas, delicious flavors and the experience of sharing them with loved ones–has that unique power to transport us back to many of our fondest memories. For my Kim and I, building shared memories literally began in England where we moved two weeks after marrying. Contrary to popular opinion and ill-informed stereotypes, English food can be quite delicious…and of course, there is fabulous food across the European continent, too. For years we’ve sought (with mixed success) to recreate some of the dishes with which we fell in love.
For brief interludes in time, Albuquerque has had restaurants (such as the much missed Baciu’s Bread & Wine) specializing in the cuisines of European nations, but like fleeting comets they’ve all faded away much too quickly. Thankfully, Europhiles no longer have to travel “across the pond” to enjoy the foods of our favorite European nations. Nor do we have to prepare insipid facsimiles of those foods at home. In fact, we need not go further than Los Lunas–not even 25 miles from the Big–I to find a purveyor of beloved European culinary fare. Best of all, the restaurant in which those foods are prepared will itself transport you to a peaceful idyll in a verdant pastoral escape belying its proximity to a city of nearly a million souls.
Fittingly, that restaurant bears the intriguing name “Europa Food. Farm. Festival.” Europa is situated on a lush meadowy valley among a coalescence of rural, suburban and agricultural lifestyles along the braided routes of the Camino Real which skirts the Rio Grande. As its name implies, Europa is a working farm where the sights, sounds and aromas of agrarian life surround you. Should you make it onto NM-314 after traversing the bumper-to-bumper nightmare that’s become downtown Los Lunas, lower your vehicle’s windows so you can imbibe the aroma of freshly cut alfalfa and listen to the euphonious sound of animals at play. Listen to the low drone of tractors toiling on the fields. Admire the lush green fields of corn and alfalfa reaching for New Mexico’s incomparable cerulean skies.
There are no neon lights or gaudy signage to greet you when you arrive at Europa. Nor are there any of the telltale trappings of a big city restaurant that shout “you’re here!.” Instead, the first time you visit Europa, you might not be sure you’re in the right place until you drive up in front of what appears to be (and actually was) a renovated barn and see a small sign that reads “Europa” over the front door. Walk through that front door and you’ll encounter a small shop selling everything from jams to books, cologne to coffee. It’s a quaint Lilliputian shop so reminiscent of curio shops you might see in a European nation.
At the front counter you’ll be given the layout of the land. Because our debonair dachshund The Dude accompanied us, we were directed to a graveled back yard with sun-shielding umbrellas looking unlike any you might see in Europe. Instead, they have a hanging dry grass look you might associate with a tiki hut in a South Pacific island idyll. Even before you’re seated you’ll want to take a gander at the fields behind the al fresco dining area. There you’ll espy a grey donkey named Addis (yeah, Addis the ass) along with a sheep of sheep (the plural form of sheep is also sheep). It’s likely you’ll be visited by a cocky rooster strutting around the backyard like he owns it. It was reminiscent of cousin Leandro’s rooster.
Though the farmyard fowl and four-legged menagerie could well keep you enthralled for a while, it’s the menu that will ensnare your affections. It’s a multi-page menu in which featured fare is preceded by pithy aphorisms and a nice synopsis of the European culinary culture: The Europeans have long known the marriage between the bounty of nearby farms, the celebration of all the diversity and beauty fine food can provide, and the sweetness of creating intimate and lasting memories that invoke comfort and yet wonderment make life vivid and rich. It’s this European ethos that drives the ever evolving vision of what is Europa, that is Food. Farm. Festival. Come experience our growing vision and allow us to passionately share our little corner of rural Europe in New Mexico.
It’s obvious from that inspiring vision that Europa’s founders are Europhiles. Not surprisingly, during our inaugural visit founders and owners Thomas and Amanda Dollahite were spending two months in Bulgaria (where he procures what he considers the best honey in Europe). Their working farm provides eggs, vegetables, and beef. From great ingredients comes great foods (more on that later). If you overindulge, the Dollahites can put you up in their bed-and-breakfast next door. It’s easy to picture yourself waking up to the cacophonous crowing of the rooster and the bright sun creeping up over the towering shade trees.
The menu invites you to take “A ticket to a Far-Flung Journey on Every Plate!” Every item on the menu is listed under the “Signature Dishes” section. That one category is broadly encompassing, taking in such diverse options as quiche, Belgian style waffles, salmon lox and European style muesli. Sandwiches are intriguing, but it’s the casserole dishes that will really transport you to Europe. Picture Swedish meatballs, lasagna, shakshuka, seafood crepe and an apricot and Dijon glazed ham steak. There’s quite a bit more, a menu wholly unique.
The beverage menu offers “hydration in so many ways.” Europa has a variety of hot and cold coffees and teas along with delicious smoothies (green apple, strawberry, blueberry, pomegranate, peach, mango and pina colada). Tea choices include English breakfast, ginger peach, Earl Grey, green jasmine, Moroccan mint, wild berry and Chamomile. If the peach and green apple smoothies are any indication, there may be no better, more refreshing way to quench your thirst in all of Valencia county. Both smoothies had just the right amount of froth and thickness. Better still, both have fruity and chilling qualities that bespeak of a good summer drink.
As a child, my charcuterie had a first name: O-S-C-A-R. My charcuterie had a second name: M-A-Y-E-R. And if you ask me why, I’ll say “because I didn’t have a clue.” Later on, festive events such as graduation parties often included trays of cold-cuts, most often including the charcuterie of my childhood. Still clueless! It wasn’t until the Air Force sent me to Europe that I discovered the true meaning of charcuterie. It was love at first bite, alas an unrequited love for upon my return to the fruited plain, charcuterie was nowhere to be found. Frequent visits to California where artisanal cheese plates were the rage would have to sustain me until the colonies developed a charcuterie culture of its own.
Europa not only offers a seasonal charcuterie (chef’s selection of house-crafted artisanal meats, cheeses, spreads, and accents), it offers smaller plates that also offer delicious variety characteristic of charcuterie. One is the Roman Holiday (uncured pastrami, fresh mozzarella, warm bread, bell pepper, sun-dried olives, organic greens, basil pesto and a European candy treat). The other is the French Picnic (assortment of four gourmet cheeses, four delicious deli meats, organic mayo, cornichon pickles, Castelvetrano olives, warm bread and a European candy treat). We’ve seen much pricier charcuterie plates that aren’t as generous as the French Picnic. Nor as delicious. The Castelvetrano olives proved a nice palate cleanser in between bites of the cheeses and meats. This is an olive for people who think they don’t like olives. They’re firm, tender and crisp and have a mild, soothing flavor.
Not exactly a European dish, shakshuka is North African in origin–the term itself coming from the Arabic term for “haphazard mixture.” As with many Arabic and Middle Eastern dishes, shakshuka is very popular in Israel where it’s considered a breakfast staple. The New York Times describes it as a “bright, spicy start to the day with a pile of pita or challah served on the side.” Shakshuka-like dishes are actually found throughout Europe particularly in Spain and Italy (where a dish called “eggs in purgatory” calls for similar ingredients. Culture Trip even contends that “And if you think about it, huevos rancheros is just an inverted take on shakshuka.”
We didn’t exactly think “huevos rancheros” as we enjoyed the shakshuka (farm fresh eggs poached on top of a decedent sauce, of chopped tomatoes, roasted red peppers, middle eastern spices, topped with a falafel crumble and Bulgarian feta cheese, served with olives and naan bread. For one thing, there was (nor is it anywhere on the menu) no New Mexico chile on this casserole dish. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any heat, but that heat is courtesy of paprika and chile flake. That heat is tempered somewhat by cardamom as well as the wonderfully tangy sharpness of the feta. A delightful textural contrast is provided by falafel crumble. The poached eggs were a surprise. So were the soft, warm pita bread and creamy, rich, garlicky hummus.
I must confess that in my 39 years on Planet Earth, I’ve never set foot in an IKEA. The Dude and I have spent plenty of time in the parking lot, but never inside the Swedish home furniture megalith. The Dude and I drop Kim off at the front door and remain in our car until she’s done shopping an hour or eternity later. It’s all well and good save for when she comes out raving about IKEA’s Swedish meatballs. My Swedish-Irish bride loves them. Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t care much for any Swedish meatballs courtesy of the Swedish sawdust meatballs served at Penasco High School’s cafeteria. Though I tried to steer her in other directions, my Kim just had to order Swedish meatballs at Europa.
Three roundish orbs in a brown gravy arrived in one casserole dish sharing space with creamy mashed potatoes (the real stuff). In another were freshly cut (definitely not out of a can) green beans topped with a cranberry sauce. One of the Mars versus Venus differences of opinion my Kim and I have concerns gravy. Your friendly neighborhood blogger loves it while my Kim would just as soon eat potato peelings than eat gravy. She gave me half a Swedish meatball which I promptly drowned, soaked, saturated and drowned in gravy. It was far better than any Swedish meatball ever served at Penasco High. She rated it “on par” with the Swedish meatballs at IKEA. Surprisingly, the green beans covered in cranberry sauce were a huge hit; they were eye-opening delicious. The mashed potatoes were the way we make them at home…well, maybe with a stick or three less butter, but wonderful nonetheless.
According to Italian Gelato Info, a trade publication: “Gelato parlours can be found in 76 countries, on all continents, but Europe is well ahead of the pack. The European countries with the most gelato parlours and highest consumption of artisanal gelato are Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland, but figures are rising in others, such as Austria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Distribution is also increasingly widespread in Eastern European markets.” Though Los Lunas doesn’t have a gelato parlour (don’t you just love that spelling?), gelato is available at Europa where several flavors are on display in a freezer.
Several years ago, Daniela Bouneau, the vivacious co-owner of Torinos @ Home introduced me to her favorite gelato flavor, Gianduja (chocolate with hazelnut). It’s no surprise she would love it considering the Piedmont region where she grew up grows an intense and uniquely flavorful hazelnut from which the best gelatos are made. It’s been my favorite flavor of gelato ever since. What a wonderful surprise to find it at Europa where two glorious scoops made for a wonderful end to a great meal. My Kim had two scoops of dulce de leche (which literally means “candy made from milk,” is a thick and sugary caramel-like sauce that’s made by slowly heating sweet milk). It, too, was superb!
Follow this advice from the 1970s pop band Three Dog Night: “Whenever I need to leave it all behind Or feel the need to get away I find a quiet place, far from the human race Out in the country.” Not only will a visit to Europa Food. Farm. Festival provide the quiet respite you need to feed your soul, it will feed your belly with some of the best European food you’ve had on this side of the Atlantic.
Europa Food. Farm. Festival
Los Lunas, New Mexico
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$- $$$
BEST BET: French Picnic, Shakshuka, Swedish Meatballs, Piedmont Hazelnut Gelato, Dulce De Leche Gelato, Green Apple Smoothie, Peach Smoothie