Sitting in the brisk open air on the north end of the terrace at DANCIN, enjoying a glass of exquisite wine and talking with a couple of your closest friends, you might never know that there is an earth oven resting just beneath your seat. It may be one of DANCIN’s best kept secrets, but now, the secret is out!
Built down into the terrace, the earth oven spans over 18 feet in length and 3 feet in width, is lined with brick, and was built to bring people together. While it hasn’t been used as much as we would like over the years, with the warmer weather and DANCIN’s mission to serve our guests with heartfelt hospitality, we are planning to re-open it for an exclusive salmon bake this summer!
Cooking Earth Baked Salmon
During May 2019, our chef, Desiree Baird, learned from a seasoned veteran of earth oven cooking, Chef Chris Foltz, from the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute. They worked side by side to prepare the oven nearly six hours before putting the first side of salmon over it—as with most open flame cooking, it is important to build up the coals.
They brought in wood that is traditionally used to fuel our wood-fired oven in the kitchen—a blend of white oak, black oak, and madrone—and created four separate piles throughout the length of the earth oven, lighting each one individually.
Over the course of a couple hours, the wood burned slowly, creating the precious coals that would cook the salmon.
Once the wood was burned thoroughly, each pile was broken apart, the coals spread out along the length of the pit with the majority being concentrated toward the center. Similar to grilling, having distinct hot spots gives more control over the cooking—allowing the heat to be focused on crisping the skin at higher temperatures, and easing the heat at lower temperatures when the salmon is almost to perfection.
Cooking within an earth oven isn’t an exact science as our chef learned from Chef Foltz. She learned that the most common method to know if the earth oven is ready for the salmon is to put out her hand at shoulder level above the coals, and if it’s too hot to hold a hand there for longer than five seconds, it’s ready. When the hand method yields a result of less than five seconds, the sides of salmon are ready to be weaved onto poles and lowered over the coals.
The process of securing the salmon involves using dowels on either side of the fish and pulling it onto a split stake that acts as a clamp. When the salmon is firmly pinched on the stake, the top of the stake is wrapped in wire and held closed. Then, the stakes are inserted in metal sleeves that can be adjusted to the optimal angle to hold the fish over the coals.
When the internal temperature on the salmon registered 145F, it was time to pull the stakes back from the oven! The process of putting the salmon on the stakes was done in reverse—untying the wire from the top, carefully pulling the dowels from the salmon and gently sliding the piece from the stake. It was important to treat the finished salmon with care as the delicate flakiness of the flesh could easily be pulled along with the wood.
From here, the dishes that can be made from the blackberry-glazed, smoky, earth oven-baked salmon are almost endless! At this salmon bake, the chefs treated our DANCIN team to salmon with corn tortillas, a tangy slaw, and salsa made with vegetables from Chef Foltz’s garden!
Salmon and Wine
There are options when pairing Chardonnay with a salmon dish. You can choose a congruent pairing which is a combination that will enhance both the wine and fish. The richness of a barrel aged Chardonnay like the 2018 En Croix Chardonnay will align with the richness provided by the salmon and notes of citrus zest, nutmeg, and lemongrass will spice and texture the overall dish.
Another option is a complimentary pairing where each portion of the dish enhances the other as separate entities. A wine of higher acid like the 2018 Chaîné Chardonnay with notes of citrus fruit, quince, and white peach will contrast the richness and act more of a palate cleanser. This will allow for each portion of the dish to highlight the strengths of its counterpoint.
Living in the Pacific Northwest where there is a bounty of fresh ingredients, salmon is top of the list—next to marionberries and wild mushrooms. Living in Oregon, Pinot noir is at the top of the wine list, too. While it’s not a universal law, culinary-wise, what grows together often goes together. In this case, geographically, salmon could not have picked a better pairing than Pinot noir.
One of the oldest and most basic wine pairing guidelines suggests that red meats (such as beef, duck, and venison) pair with red wines, and white meats (such as chicken and halibut) pair with white wines. Salmon is pink. And while rosé undoubtedly does drink well with salmon, a lighter red like Pinot noir may do it better.
Pinot noir is one of lightest red wines, so it’s able to bridge into areas where white wines or bolder red wines may pair. This opens up a large umbrella of foods that it goes well with—including salmon.
Pinot noir is also a very diversely flavored wine. The 2018 ‘Coda’ Pinot noir opens with aromatics of dark raspberry intertwined with cedar, cherry pie, and a lingering nutmeg essence. The palate reveals an initial dark fruit note that gives way to a brighter, more centered red fruit profile of cherry and cranberry alongside a delightful freshness. Meanwhile, the 2018 ‘Septette’ Pinot noir has a delicate floral aroma, restrained fruit, and a light woodsy characteristic. Citrus opens the palate with fresh grapefruit and strawberries.
The fruitier, bolder Pinot noirs pair with more red-centric foods that have the higher levels of umami (or meaty, succulent flavors) to complement the wine. On the opposite end, the earthier, more nuanced Pinot noirs complement white-centric foods that have gentle flavors.
In our current wine selection, our winemaker recommends the 2018 ‘Pas de Trois’ Pinot Noir due to its age, giving it more earthy aspects while maintaining berry flavors. The Loganberry and fresh cedar plank notes soften the smoked, grilled flavors of the salmon while the earthy notes of dusty leather give life to the sweet, tender flakiness of the fish.