By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Did you mean to say “Burning Man?” I’m often asked.
“No, “Burning Lamb,” I reply as I explain that the dinner I put on each summer in a Sierra Nevada wilderness area is a much smaller gathering than Burning Man, and thus far, all attendees have kept their clothes on for most of the weekend. Also, contrary to what the name suggests, we do not roast a whole lamb, nor do we burn one in effigy.
My Tribe of Burning Lamb, as I like to call those who attend, is well populated with card-carrying East Bay foodies. We make every attempt to cook all dishes à point, keeping our fire well contained so as not to torch the forest. Anyone desiring to see large flaming objects (or scantily clad people) would be better advised to head to Nevada’s Blackrock Desert on Labor Day weekend for the annual pagan ritual called Burning Man. Those who come to Burning Lamb can expect a quiet weekend of good food, camping, and conversation . . . plus a hiking tour through an aspen grove full of tree carvings, many of them pornographic. But more on that later.
The saga of Burning Lamb opens in the summer of 2001. At the time I was just beginning research for my guidebook, Touring the Sierra Nevada (University of Nevada Press, 2007). I was not expecting to discover any great food subjects during these explorations, since the Sierra Nevada is not known for haute cuisine, in spite of its rocky heights. But lo and behold, what should I find sitting on the edge of a mountain meadow 15 miles north of Truckee but a working bread oven made of brick and stone —and it was calling out to me: “Make some bread!”
But still, you ask, where does the burning lamb fit in? No easy answers yet.
The beehive-shaped bread oven is located in the Tahoe National Forest at the Kyburz Flat Interpretive Site, where it sits among three diverse sets of historic artifacts identified by Forest Service archeologists. These include petroglyphs carved by ancient ancestors of the region’s Indigenous Washoe people; remains of a gold-era stagecoach station that served travelers on the old Henness Pass Road; and remains of the Wheeler Sheep Camp, which the Forest Service dismantled in the 1960s when the company’s lease on public land expired. According to Forest Service archeologist Michael Baldrica, the camp’s bread oven was left standing due to the good sense of one of his predecessors, although by 1989, when Baldrica first visited the site, the oven had collapsed and the camp’s old bathtub was in use by a wild band of campers needing something big on which to focus their target practice.
By 1993, Baldrica had assembled a team of rangers, archeologists, and scholars interested in reconstructing the oven. When the work was complete, the rangers brought in a picnic table so they could better enjoy the spot. Some time later, they installed a primitive restroom—located a long walk away from the oven—but those remain the extent of the facilities at Kyburz Flat. There’s no piped water, no shops, and nary a manned information booth. It’s a rustic spot, and in my estimation, the perfect place for an urban-weary food fanatic to sit peacefully watching carbon dioxide expand within a ball of smooth white bread dough.
From 1913 to 1958, facilities at the Wheeler Sheep Camp included wooden cabins, barns, corrals, and a bathhouse. These were built by Spanish Basque immigrants John Martin and Felix Gallues, who along with their families ran the camp during snow-free summer months to serve the herders dispatched along with thousands of sheep to far-flung mountain meadows. The company was one of many such operations that sprang up in the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of them owned by emigrants from the Basque regions of France and Spain and manned by a steady supply of young Basques from the homeland willing to travel to America for employment.
Herding turned out to be a very lonely job, since each young man was sent to a different distant meadow. The more appealing part of the lifestyle would have been the long winters of leisure spent in town. Most herders stayed at one of the West’s Basque-run hotels, where they enjoyed famously hearty meals. A typical repast would begin with vegetable soup, followed by a casserole of garbanzos flavored with peppery Basque chorizo, salad, and a thick stew of lamb, chicken, rabbit, oxtail, or perhaps sweetbreads. There would always be a rich rice pudding for dessert. It was all washed down with rustic red wine served from big jugs passed down the long communal tables.
Today there are still a few Basque boarding houses in operation at former sheep-ranching hubs in the West, although they now serve the general public with meals similar to the old sheepherders’ fare. Look for these restaurants in Reno, Carson City, and Elko if you are traveling in Nevada. Take a seat at the bar before dinner and the guy sitting next to you drinking a “picon punch” might turn out to be a retired Basque sheepherder with some stories to tell.
On one visit to Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno, I found myself chatting with a former herder named Jess Arriaga, who told me about his first summer in the Sierra.
“The donkey kept lying down on the way up to camp. After calling him every name in the book, I finally had to unload everything and carry it up myself,” he said. “One day when I was out with the sheep, the donkey dug under my tent and ate all my food. I was so mad I wanted to kill him, but since he was the only one I had to talk to all summer, we finally came to an agreement.”
Once the herder had set up his camp. he could expect a visit every five days from a sheep company employee known as the camp tender, who would bring the supplies needed for daily meals: bread, ham and bacon, dried fruit, dried beans, onions and garlic, sugar, cinnamon, saffron, paprika, rice, cans of tomato sauce, and the all-important jug of hearty red wine. The bread was a big round loaf, which the camp tender baked inside a lidded cast iron Dutch oven in the base camp’s bread oven. (The Dutch oven is essential in protecting food from the smoke, ashes and uneven heat of an outdoor hearth.)
Perhaps the most important thing the camp tender brought to the lonely herder was a few moments of human companionship. Irene Gallus Giossi, who was a little girl when her family ran the Wheeler Sheep Camp, remembers that some of the herders were good cooks, and some would prepare a tasty meal in anticipation of the camp tender’s visit. The jug of wine and a seat at a makeshift dinner table in front of a bowl of steaming lamb stew, just baked in an underground pit, might convince the camp tender to stick around and gossip for a few hours before going to find the next herder. Giossi said that one herder, who was an especially good cook, made a delicious rice pudding with goat’s milk. That pudding still inspires her cooking at her home in Reno, and it inspires ours at Burning Lamb.
According to Dr. Joxe Mallea, professor of Basque studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a member of the Kyburz Flat oven reconstruction team, many of the herders passed the long summer days in the mountains conjuring up images of the women they knew back in town. Wherever the herders found an aspen grove, they carved onto the silvery aspen bark their names, the years of their herding service, and the images ranging through their minds. These “arborglyphs,” like the bread oven, form an ephemeral record of the Basque presence in the wilderness areas of the West. Each summer at Burning Lamb, Dr. Mallea leads a tour to one of these aspen groves. Those of us who have wanted to learn more have read Mallea’s appealing treatise on the subject, Speaking Through the Aspens (University of Nevada Press).
Back at the outdoor kitchen, we pull out the cast iron pots: one for the bread, one for a lamb stew, one for the garbanzo beans, and one for rice pudding made with goat’s milk. As we prepare the meal, we gaze out on the big, grassy clearing of Kyburz Flat, which sits at 6,360 feet, edged by a ridge that reaches 8,000 feet to form the eastern horizon. The spring that once supplied water to the Wheeler Sheep Camp still sends a trickle of water through the meadow into Kyburz Marsh, where herons stalk through the reeds. Raptors circle over the meadow looking for rodents while woodpeckers tap out rhythms on the Jeffrey pines of the forest perimeter. Bears and bobcats roam about (well out of view), and as night falls, the coyotes hold their loud parties held somewhere off in the distance.
Cheryl Koehler is the editor and publisher of Edible East Bay and the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, a guidebook to the entire Sierra Nevada range, published March 2007 by University of Nevada Press. Purchase here.
Burning Lamb Sheepherder’s Bread
Yield: 1 very large loaf
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons yeast (use 1 tablespoon at high altitude)
2 tablespoons sugar (reduce this amount at high altitude)
1 tablespoon salt (increase this amount at high altitude)
10–12 cups flour
Place the yeast, sugar, and 2 cups of the flour in a large bread bowl. Slowly add the warm water, stirring to make a thin batter. Let the mixture rest for 10–20 minutes, or until foamy bubbles rise to the surface. Stir in the salt and then gradually add about 6 more cups of flour a cup at a time, stirring until the dough becomes too stiff to stir with a spoon. Continue to add flour gradually, working the dough with the hands until it holds together as a ball. Knead the dough inside the bowl, adding more flour as needed, until the texture is smooth and elastic. Leave the dough inside the bowl and cover with a damp towel. Place in a warm spot, allowing the dough to rise until doubled in bulk (approximately 1–2 hours). When dough has risen, punch down and let it rise a second time. Meanwhile, oil a 4-quart cast iron Dutch oven. Cut a circle of aluminum foil to fit inside the bottom of the pot and oil that as well. If you’re using a home oven, preheat to 400°F. When the dough has risen a second time, punch down, form into a ball and place in the Dutch oven. Oil the inside of the pot’s lid and place it on the pot. Allow dough to rise until it is about to touch the lid. Leaving the lid in place, put the bread into the oven. Bake for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until the loaf sounds hollow. Remove from oven, invert onto a rack, and allow bread to cool before serving.
Burning Lamb Stew
3 pounds of lamb shoulder, cut into pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, sliced into thick pieces
1 red pepper, roasted, skinned, and torn into strips
1 cup red wine
2–3 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoon pimentón or espelette
3 medium-sized potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into pieces
A large handful of fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
Heat oil in a 4-quart Dutch oven. Add lamb and brown lightly. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is limp. Add carrot, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. When vegetables are soft and meat is getting tinges of brown, add wine and enough chicken stock to cover. Cover pot and simmer on stove or in a 375°F oven for about an hour. Add red pepper, potatoes, and cilantro and continue cooking until potatoes are tender.
Burning Lamb Rice Pudding
This simple rice pudding, baked in the bread oven, was de rigeur at Burning Lamb in the earlier years. Later on, it got upstaged by the Great Gâteau Basque Bake-off.
2 cups rice
4 cups water
1 small stick of cinnamon bark
4 ounces powdered goat’s milk
3/4 cup sugar
Grated rind from one lemon
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
3/4 cup water
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place rice, water, and cinnamon stick in a 2- to 4-quart Dutch oven. Cover and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven. (It is not necessary for all the water to have been absorbed by the rice.) Combine powdered goat’s milk, sugar, lemon zest, and powdered cinnamon, adding 3/4 cup water gradually while stirring to make a thick paste. Stir into the rice. Return to oven and bake until rice is lightly browned on top. Serve hot or at room temperature. Some freshly picked mountain blackberries are a wonderful addition.