I enjoy blogging from places other than home. Not merely getting ideas while I’m traveling, but actually writing while I’m there, letting place influence my musings much the way terroir does a grape.
My blog buddy, Rachel, has a lovely blog about her experiment to eat only food grown or sourced near to her home in Delaware. An admirable pursuit, and one I enjoy reading about and make some effort to emulate at home. It’s much easier, however, when I am traveling, particularly if I have access to a kitchen.
Ascending through the clouds into Portland International Airport, my mind turned toward food. Our odyssey in the bounty of the northwest began at the 4-acre home of my wife’s sister, Kristin, in White Salmon, Washington, an hour east of Portland on the north side of the Columbia Gorge. We hit a heat wave, warmer than the Southern California we had left, and picked hot plump blackberries in the shadow of a cherry tree with the mighty, snow-crowned Mt. Hood undulating heat-distorted like a mirage to the south.
These we brought the following day back toward the city, to the suburb of Tualatin, and the home of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Gary, and his wife Maria and daughter Kaya. It would not be the novelty gift it might’ve to someone back home — where we pick and gift things like figs, oranges and wild sage. You can’t step outside around these parts without tripping over a blackberry bramble. But they would be destined for a magnificently simple dessert to cap a sensational dinner of Northwest-inspired and locally procured food.
Summer was in full bloom at the Lake Oswego farmer’s market. I was left alone to focus as the children were wrangled to the food stands for pizza and gyros. There were crimson stands of rhubarb, tables full of berries, cherries and peaches at the pinnacle of ripeness, heirloom tomatoes and beans galore… I bought artichokes and favas, beautiful wild mushrooms from the pine forests you can smell even from downtown Portland, locally cured meats and baked breads. Maria treated the children, large and small, to pints of freshly made sea salt & caramel ribbon ice cream from the pushcart of my new heroes, Portland’s Salt & Straw. “Developed with salt expert, Mark Bitterman, of Portland’s The Meadow,” the literature read. “Our sea salt ice cream is made with The Meadow’s Fleur de Sel and ribboned with hand burned caramel.” Pride of place.
“Are there any good grocery stores?” I asked naively as we left the farmer’s market, and Gary grinned.
If there’s something I’ve learned about Oregonians and food, it is that they are a proud lot. They drink Oregon wine, eat Oregon produce and believe they are among the most culinarily blessed. And driving through orchards, farmlands and vineyards as bucolic as any I’ve seen anywhere, I think of course, why wouldn’t they?
The grocery stores we visit — Zupan’s and New Seasons — are like audacious regional Davids to Whole Foods’ Goliath. “Locally Owned & Operated” boast enormous signs as you enter. Maria explains to me the sense of righteous gratification the community felt when New Seasons took on —and beat! — Whole Foods in court. Inside, while you can find cheese and wine from California and seafood from Alaska and pasta from Italy, there is the pervading sense that it is indeed all about Oregon. A woman at Zupan’s sear loins of albacore from the coast and talks about the season, while a sales associate leads me to the aisle of hazelnuts from orchards no more than a pleasant afternoon’s drive away. At New Seasons, they are sampling heirloom tomatoes with Oregon olive oils, and the fish guy delivers a sincere and admirable monologue about the pre-shucked oysters being produced at an aquafarm in Washington.
Back at Gary’s in the waning hours of the blistering day, we sat content on the patio as the kids played, sipping a chilled Joel Gott Oregon pinot gris, friend Carrie from Las Vegas shelling fava beans. “Did you ever get more chickens?” she asked in reference to a sad post from another time and place.
The menu that evening:
• Squash blossoms from Gary’s garden with cream cheese and parmesan
• Fried padron peppers with manchego
• Arugula salad with candied hazelnuts and Maialino natural wood-smoked dry-cured red wattle heritage bacon
• Local bread with River’s Edge Sunset Bay cheese, French butter from Black Sheep Creamery in Washington and Saucisson d’Alsace from Olympic Provisions
• Hazelnut-crusted rare Oregon Coast albacore with fava beans and lobster mushrooms
• Tomahawk rib steak with morels, French butter and grilled artichokes
• Blackberries and local whipped sweet cream
Returning to the Gorge a couple days later, we stop at the Full Sail Brewery in Hood River for lunch and a generous sampling of their award-winning pale ale. We settle happily into salmon fish & chips and a medium rare burger — the guests around us happy with their flights of beer samples and spicy wings, the servers happy with their view of the kite surfers, happy too, carving the wind on the magnificent Columbia, at the same spot where in another time the canoes of Lewis & Clark glided silently past, drawn by the magnetic pull of the Pacific. And all of them would be forgiven for thinking this was a piece of heaven.