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September 2007

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Breakfast at Sylvan Dale Ranch tempts and inspires

By Theresa Rose
Food Columnist

Sometimes the best things in life are right next door, as I discovered at the graciously appointed Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, located on North County Road 31D just off Highway 34 on the way up to Estes Park.

Having been through several incarnations since the 1920s, from cattle ranch to guest ranch to Christian youth camp and back to guest ranch, the property has been owned by the Jessup family since the mid-1940s.

I was greeted by the owner, Susan Jessup, given a tour of the ranch, introduced to some of the guests and informed of some of the history. Quite a bit of history, actually, beginning with the almost magical moment when Maurice Jessup, former dishwasher turned teacher, put in a handwritten bid for the property of his dreams and won the contract.

Maurice and Mayme Jessup lived in and worked for the Greeley school system in the winters and spent their summers building and running the ranch. After 17 years of this dual existence, they left Greeley to devote themselves to the ranch. They were able to acquire additional adjacent property and put together a 5,000-acre working guest ranch raising cattle, registered horses and hay.

Major change came in July 1976 when the sparkling waters of the Big Thompson River, which flows right through the ranch, turned hideously ugly and sent a 20-foot wall of debris down the canyon, destroying everything in its path. With the help of the good Lord and an army of volunteers from the United States and Canada, the Jessups were able to restore the ranch.

Today the ranch is a storybook vision of western hospitality combining luxurious accommodations with old-fashioned charm. Among the many activities that are offered by the ranch are several scenic rides that include sumptuous western-style meals. These activities are available to anyone who's interested and not just guests of the ranch.

I took part in the breakfast ride, a favorite activity of the guests. Since my adolescent horse craziness had ended when I was about 16, I needed to be reintroduced to an animal that seemed to have no reason in the world to do anything I might tell it to do. Susan Jessup started me off with a group of the youngest guests to visit a corral of mares and their foals.

About 70 percent of the horses on the Sylvan Dale Ranch are registered quarter horses, born and raised at the ranch. This means many generations of horses are accustomed to the philosophy that gentle training means gentle horses. The mares watched pleasantly as friendly foals ambled up to children as young as 4 and begged for attention. The difference in attitude was immediately apparent in the two mares who had been purchased more recently and who stood off to the side of the corral with their very shy foals. One of the trainers, Barb Jepson, who doubles as the bookkeeper for the ranch, demonstrated the philosophy of gentleness as she introduced a palomino colt to the halter. As he pulled and made faces, Barb let out more rope. No shouting, no yanking on the lead rope - this was, after all, a baby.

I took a riding lesson, along with some of the ranch guests, and found that the methodology applied to the horses is also applied to the often novice riders. Matt Van Duzor, one of the wranglers, instructed my group. Patient, soft-spoken and detail-oriented, he was able to fit a lot of lesson into one hour. The horses themselves are truly impressive. Alert, ears forward, eyes bright, happy to help train their riders. In addition to patience and gentleness, consistency is another emphasis at the ranch. The very subtle commands we learned produced immediate and consistent responses from the horses.

The time of 4:45 a.m. doesn't usually find me out on the road, but I had to get started at that dark hour if I was to be at the barn at 6:15 a.m. The cooks had already left at 5 a.m., and the horses were saddled and ready to go by the time I arrived. Sylvan Dale offers a number of ways to combine trail riding and food, but a guest from Liverpool, England, said that the breakfast ride was her favorite, being cool and quiet in the heat of the summer.

The trail took us up an old dirt road that was once the road to Estes Park before Highway 34 was built. We took in some nice views of the ranch and the old Big Thompson Water Works. The ride took us up a fairly steep trail to Green Ridge Mountain where the outdoor "kitchen" is located.

Andy Altschwager was head chef that morning. Though he's usually a wrangler, he's been cooking for the ranch for three summers. The breakfast menu consisted of cinnamon swirl French toast, made with bread baked right in the ranch kitchen. The big, thick slices of bacon had been sliced in the ranch kitchen just before the ride and the fresh, smoky flavor proved irresistible. Now, I'm a real bacon believer even as a gym-going, healthy-cooking, organic foods aficionado, but this usually means two slices of bacon per gallon of stew or big casserole. Three slices of bacon, along with two slices of French toast, a pile of crispy hash browns - fried in bacon fat, of course - accompanied by a variety of fresh fruit left me wondering if my horse would notice that his rider had gotten a bit heavier on the way back. Food really does taste better prepared over an open fire in the fresh mountain air, conversing with guests from all over this country and Europe.

I had the opportunity to speak to the head chef, Scott Atchison, director of food and beverages at Sylvan Dale. He made a point of his emphasis on organic beef, chicken and produce. Breads, rolls and cookies are all baked at the ranch. Chef Scott generously shared his recipe for Corned Beef Hash, which the previous guests on the breakfast ride had raved about.

Corned Beef Hash

Scott A. Atchison
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch

Boil until tender:
2 pounds corned beef, diced into 1/4-inch pieces

Sauté in a cast iron skillet:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced red onion

Cook until onions are soft.

5 potatoes, grated
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup green onions
Diced corned beef, prepared above
2 ounces A-1 sauce
2 ounces ketchup
1/4 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer until the potatoes are cooked.

This recipe is best cooked over a smoky fire in the early morning, preferably on top of a mountain, but I bet it's pretty good made in your own kitchen with a view of the mountains out the dining-room window.

How I love the American West!

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