Travel & Tourism

Fine dining in rugged Big Bend National Park

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas: On the banks of the Rio Grande where the river has carved steep canyons through the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert dozens of kilometers from any civilization, chef Francois Maeder is whipping up white chocolate mousse.

“A lot of people think when you go camping you should have hot dogs and beans,” Maeder says.

Not here.

Luscious food and white-linen dining takes a backseat only to the spectacular desert terrain and star-filled night skies at one of the most remote and least visited national parks in the continental United States.

For 24 years now, Swiss-born Maeder has taken his San Antonio, Texas, restaurant’s gourmet kitchen on the road, and on the river.

Maeder, 64, prepares and serves exquisite meals on raft trips along the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park, a 324,225-hectare wilderness some 1,125 kilometers west of Houston.

The park gets its name from the sharp 190-kilometer-long northeastern arc taken by the river that forms a 1,430-kilometer border separating Texas from Mexico. At more than 3,108 square kilometers, Big Bend, a national park since 1944, is the 15th largest in the U.S. national park system.

About a half-dozen times a year, during the cooler spring and fall, Maeder and guides from Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter from nearby Terlingua, pack a portable kitchen and coolers filled with fixings for breakfasts, salads, dinners and desserts for gourmet river trips aboard 5-meter inflatable rafts through the canyons.

Valynda Henington, co-owner of Far Flung, which has been leading trips through the isolated area for decades, describes them as “scenic float trips.”

“It’s like being on a three-day cruise with a very small group of people … pursuing what they like to enjoy,” Amy Tritch, 43, said.

Up to four passengers ride in rafts piloted by a Far Flung guide for trips that typically cover about 20 kilometers. When not rafting, the rest of the time is for cooling off in the clear river, taking a siesta or exploring the desert.

“We’re trying to make it an experience where you don’t have to do anything unless you want to,” said Jenny Schooler, 29, a Far Flung employee.

As the sun begins to drop behind the mountains and the scorching heat abates, dinner is a several hours-long experience. Under an open-sided portable white tent softly lit with a string of tiny battery-powered lights, appetizers like pate, truffles and cognac and smoked salmon with cream cheese begin the evening’s feast, followed by fresh spinach pasta, salad and New Zealand rack of lamb.

Dessert is chocolate mousse with Irish cream, whipped fresh in the desert.

A typical second-day dinner includes Texas Gulf shrimp, ricotta tortellini with cream and garlic sauce, charbroiled steelhead trout and Muscovy duck breast in wine and mushroom sauce. For dessert, raspberry mousse.

“We try stuff people like,” says Maeder. “A lot of cooks make it too complicated. I’ve seen recipes with 25 or 30 ingredients. It’s not necessary. I believe in keeping it simple.” He brings the food from San Antonio, where he owns a restaurant called Crumpets, and works off a shopping list.

“It’s an experience we’ll never forget,” said Rosie Wilson, 58, of San Antonio, who made a recent trip with her husband, Grant. “The night sky. My goodness! It’s so beautiful, and it’s here every night, and we get to see it.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 15, 2011, on page 12.

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