I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word “community”, I cringe a little, no matter how well-intentioned its usage. For me, the word has become a contrived tactic for persuading a group of people with shared circumstances to avoid conflict and get with the program. It took a weekend in Oregon to show me that it isn’t half as bad as I think it is, I just need to experience the right examples.
We spent the last day of our Full On Oregon weekend with a selection of the state’s artisans and chefs, learning about what they do, their philosophy and their stories. It was a trip down Oregon’s “Main Street” of food. From chocolate-making to preserving vegetables and meats to tea-tasting and ice-cream making, we got a glimpse of Oregon’s artisanal culture, one rooted in hard work, pride and a sense of connectedness.
I signed up for a tea tasting at Steven Smith Teamaker, the latest project by the founder of Tazo Tea specializing in small-batch, high quality teas. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a tea tasting, but when you’re presented with 12 different teas at once and sip and sniff as you go, it starts to grow on you and the game of ‘spot that flavor’ begins.
Led by Smith’s resident tea expert, Tony Tellin, we spent the next two hours talking about tea leaves, harvesting methods, packaging methods, the complexity of the tea supply chain, and the art of creating unique tea blends. Their Fez green tea, for example, features Oregon spearmint with hints of lemon myrtle for a Moroccan slant. My favorite of the lot, the Jasmine Silver Tip, places green tea leaves among freshly-picked jasmine buds for a concentrated fragrance that hits you each time you open a sachet.
We also had a crash course on the rituals of Chinese tea drinking complete with a traditional clay tea pot, cups and bamboo tray. Growing up, I had always wondered about their size – why couldn’t you just brew the tea in a bigger pot?
According to Tony, this was designed to provide a consistent supply of tea throughout the day. You’d start your day with the first couple of infusions that extracted the caffeine from the leaves. Then, as you refilled the pot, you’d get the flavor for a pick-me-up or a post-lunch break, without the caffeine to keep you up at night.
The store keeps about two weeks’ worth of inventory to guarantee the freshness of all the teas they sell. Because the staff love to talk about all things tea and want to help you find the perfect blend for your palate, a casual stop at their store may turn into a trip down the rabbit hole as you taste one tea after the other. With their cozy salon and tranquil bamboo courtyard in the back, it’s one of the more relaxing ways to spend an afternoon in Portland, and it’ll give your liver a break too.
Lunch was a casual, elegant affair at Kitchen Cru, a shared-use commercial kitchen and culinary incubator. Argyle Winery‘s Rollin Soles started things off with his cowboy humor and cork extractor, and a host of mischievous jokes in between, before inviting Linda, Georgia and Richard to demonstrate the correct way of unbottling sparkling wine to remove the yeast from each bottle. As is the case in all situations involving bubbles, an uncorking tool and a crowd, hilarity ensued as everyone tried to avoid being sprayed on.
Catered by three James Beard-nominated chefs, we began lunch with glasses of Argyle’s award-winning bubbles and a selection of appetizers: mussels with smoked aioli (Scott Dolich), fried chicken sliders (Jenn Louis) and a charcuterie selection (Chris Israel) before embarking on a three-course meal paired with wines from Abacela.
There was Grilled Octopus with Mizuna, Cucumber and Pimenton, a Frikeh Salad tossed with Radicchio, Feta, Hazelnuts, Pickled Cherries and Borage, followed by Grilled Trout with Green Herb Sauce and Summer Squash. All locally sourced of course. The salad in particular, really stood out, not only for introducing me to another variety of whole grain to play with, but also for its combination of textures, colors and flavors. I mean, just look at those flowers. They’re too beautiful to eat!
Our second artisan workshop of the day was with Kim and Tyler Malek of Salt and Straw, two cousins currently taking Portland’s ice-cream scene by storm by transforming Lochmead Farms’ organic full-fat cream into exotic flavors like Pear & Blue Cheese, Melon & Prosciutto and Brown Ale and Bacon, all made with local ingredients. You can read more about what Salt and Straw is all about on this piece I wrote for Etsy, but suffice to say that one shouldn’t pass up on the opportunity to sample their menu (and I mean the entire menu) while in Portland.
After priming us with their Sea Salt and Caramel ice-cream at lunch and a flight of their ice-cream flavors, Tyler gave us some insight into his recipe development process by having us taste some unusual flavor combinations that he’s tinkering with, like Chocolate, Strawberries and Cinnamon, and Chocolate, Lime and Scotch Bonnet peppers.
Their ice-cream is entirely cream-based (i.e., no eggs are used), but the Salt and Straw product is so rich it’s hard to tell the difference from egg-based ice-creams. This speaks to the high quality of ingredients used as well as the top-notch ice-cream machine that sits snugly in the Salt and Straw ‘research lab’ at the back of their store. As Tyler shared with me on my visit to their store the next day, a custard base interferes with the overall flavor of an ice-cream – spoken like a true purist on the search for the full expression of his ingredients.
After a brief siesta, we were ferried to dinner at the picturesque Penner Ash Wine Cellars in Willamette Valley. We arrived just as the sun started to set, which we hurried to capture before our final feast. As if our weekend wasn’t memorable enough, the fact that dinner had to be held in such a beautiful location made the evening more poignant.
Catered by Vitaly Paley and his team, dinner began with appetizers and (more) glasses of bubbly on the courtyard, a selection of fresh local oysters, and of course, our crabs. Then we had a four-course dinner of smoked salmon with arugula and mustard, a rabbit ravioli with bacon and chanterelles, a beef ribeye roll before ending the evening with a brioche savarin with wild plum and mascarpone.
Yes, we were very well-fed indeed.
It had been a long day, on this compressed visit to Oregon’s food universe where sharing is the name of the game, be it with a friend, stranger or colleague. At every turn, I was constantly reminded of how unassuming and generous Oregonians are. I met people who are the best in their field, doing what they love and do best, and all I can see is their passion and quiet pride for what they do, and a generous spirit that’s willing to pitch in and help a fellow winemaker/chef/preserver/guide/forager/chocolatier/brewer in their time of need.
I went to Oregon expecting nothing but a camera full of memories, and I was sent home realizing how interconnected we all are, how sometimes, we need to be generous with those who may compete against us somewhere down the line, simply because in helping each other, we help expand the universe of possibilities for each of us. The sense of community that Oregonians have, isn’t the touchy-feely kumbaya ‘community’ bandied about on ‘feel-good’ tv shows – it’s underpinned by a long-term view of where one wants to be in life, the kind of business environment or world that one wants to live in, and working towards that goal by helping others progress as well.
In the words of winemaker Alfredo Apolloni, who I sat next to at dinner, “Everyone helps everyone else out. By helping a fellow winemaker, I’m helping myself too, in the long-run. We’re all in this together.”
Thank you Travel Oregon for hosting me over this weekend. It was truly memorable and we’re already planning our next trip!