February 16, 2017
The following is a special Guest Post from Iris Brooks.
My culinary adventure in southern Oregon is a chance to meet with an assortment of quirky, passionate producers, purveyors, farmers, and foragers. Not limiting myself to new taste sensations at multi-course feasts, I focus on connecting the dots between what I eat, where it comes from, and who is responsible for it along the way. In the Rogue Valley, one cheese purveyor rhapsodizes about mold growing on cheese in caves, an innkeeper serves Rainier cherries announcing their season lasts only three weeks, and a self-proclaimed Deadhead (Grateful Dead fan) crafts delicate chocolates into voodoo bunnies to "try something different" for Halloween.
Visiting a local farmers' market is a great way to connect with growers in an informal setting. In Medford, Oregon the sprawling Rogue Valley farmers' market at the corner of Hawthrone and East Main Street has more than the expected seasonal produce with local growers, craft vendors, and performers. There are ethnic prepared foods from South America (Venezuelan arepas sandwiches), Wasana's Thai Food, spicy Asian salads and spring rolls (Vietnamese Nguyen street food), an assortment of potted plants, and a charismatic mushroom forager, Louie Jeandin. He covers great distances, about 40,000 miles annually, looking in secret places for his morels with a nutty flavor, brightly colored chanterelles with an apricot fragrance, and rare truffle delicacies, eaten since the classical Greek and Roman eras. Louie cautions: "Since some mushrooms are poisonous, it's important to know what you are doing before foraging and eating them."
There is fragrant lavender with associated infused products: soaps, sachets, oils, lotions, lip balms, and bath salts from the local English Lavender Farm in the Applegate Valley, where no chemicals or pesticides are used on their farm. At the Medford market Sue Owen shares culinary uses of lavender as a dry salt rub for meat and seafood, with vanilla sugar for baked goods, and in a tropical fruit gazpacho.
I come across local entertainers from a harp player to a clown-mime and note the growing trend of food trucks. Spotting a table of pea sprouts similar to what was served at dinner the night before, I stop to chat with a young woman carrying a baby. She welcomes questions and mentions the shoots are sold to local restaurants such as Larks (where I tasted them). Goat cheese from By George, a small artisanal company is also part of the menu at Larks in both their Medford venue at Inn at the Commons and at their celebrated restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel. At the farmers' market a young man wearing a cheese-shaped hat hawks the cheese. I taste several varieties while chuckling over the "cheesy" hat (bringing new meaning to the expression).
Larks–named after the state bird and the fact that people originally went there "on a lark"– is one of several restaurants who work with regional, seasonal produce on a rotating farm-to-table influenced menu. Executive Chef Damon Jones of the Neuman Hotel Group creates menus with comfort foods in a home kitchen cuisine, but also sources local growers and enjoys forming alliances with them. His newest eatery (with a mercantile concept) is the Luna Cafe in the Ashland Hills Hotel. Without compromising quality, his first retail venture of farm-to-counter serves gourmet items to go (think deluxe picnics) as well as farm-focused cafe offerings of soups, sandwiches, and salads, along with Oregon hard cider and craft cocktails.
After a scenic drive through woods and valleys I visit the Pholia Goat Farm, where I encounter friendly goats (both award-winning Nigerian dwarf, who is not Nigerian and La Mancha, providing less protein and fat). While there I learn that there is no cheese to taste on the property, although it is available at Larks. Visiting the Pholia Goat Farm is also a chance to meet Vern Caldwell, an ex- military guy, who named the farm after his daughters and proudly shows us around, pointing out lifestyle choices of living off the grid in a secluded area, not far from where he grew up. "We work with mother nature rather than fighting it," he says, explaining they open the windows at night to create a good micro-bacterial environment. Through the glass I catch a glimpse of the raw milk goat cheese as it is aging, but I am disappointed not to taste it.
At the Ashland Farmers' Market, I recognize some of the producers and products from Medford such as Oregon Blackberry Honey and see some new ones like PFC (Product formerly known as Fire Cider) for a serious jolt to the body's immune system. I am drawn to the Pennington Farm table, where a mother and daughter work side-by-side. When later visiting their farm and market in a renovated rustic barn, I am amazed at how many berry varieties they grow (100!) and the berry products they produce (razzle dazzle jam, raspberry preserves, strawberry-orange marmalade, marionberry syrup, loganberry jam, and blueberry pie).
I learn the tayberry is a cross between the black raspberry and blackberry, but am more impressed with how the whole family pitches in at Pennington Farms. The father, Sam has quotes on a blackboard seeming more appropriate for a philosopher or Zen master than a farmer. Beneath the family history are Sam's thoughts. "No coulda, shoulda, woulda" appears in yellow chalk. Also written on another section of the giant blackboard along with an illustration is, "Hula girl says: Don't look back or you'll wipe out."
A greater diversity of berries is found in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in the world. The famed Marionberry (named after Marion County, Oregon where it was developed in 1956) is a cross between Chehalem and Oallie berries, but it is the ancient blackberry, written about since the 4th century B.C., which was used for its medicinal properties. It has been credited with healing infections, sore throats, and colds as well as for a pigment to dye textiles.
And along with the abundance of berries in Oregon, there are vividly colored fields of aromatic lavender. There is a Southern Oregon Lavender Trail for those who are lucky enough to visit at the end of June. It's a cooperative effort among a group of lavender farms in the Applegate Valley (with a similar climate to the lavender growing region in the south of France), where special activities include wreath-making classes, pick-your-own bouquets, concerts, and crafts. Another option is to visit the Oregon State University Extension Demonstration Garden (with workshops on native seeds and edible weeds) to take a self-guided tour through 80 varieties of this delicate perennial with names such as Betty, Vicenza Blue, Madrid Purple, Imperial, and Elizabeth. This lavender garden, planted in 2003, is particularly special since it is the only herb garden in the Pacific Northwest, which is registered with the Herb Society of America.
Chef/owner Chad Hahn at The Haul in Grant's Pass has created an eatery with an urban, industrial decor one might expect to find in San Francisco or New York. "We are a homegrown gastropub that features an innovative spin on your favorite food with the freshest ingredients from local producers. We brew, we bake, we brine, we butcher," he says. His restaurant opened two years ago, inspired by multi-ethnic cuisine he formerly served from food truck at the Farmers' Market.
Hahn–who studied International Relations, History, and World Systems Theories–mixes his diverse culinary background with approachable street food and countertop service, providing dishes previously unavailable in the area. Drawing on an international background, worldviews, and tastes acquired through his travels and international upbringing (his father was a particle physicist working in a global community), Hahn provides his own twists and insights on many dishes. Cuban sandwiches, Spanish tapas, Neapolitan wood-fired pizza, and Vietnamese vegetarian delicacies are among them, providing big taste sensations along with a big bang for your buck. I savor my order of moist, Mid- eastern falafel served on a homemade flatbread while Jon opts for and is satisfied with a selection of tacos in unexpected combinations.
"Grant's Pass had grit and a great downtown without resistance," says Hahn, explaining why he chose this site for the restaurant. It is an ideal locale to present high quality local products, connecting farmers, artisans, and community. The Haul produces their own beer handcrafted locally and features lesser-known beverages, like "shrub," a fruit vinegar maceration and an organic, herbal ice tea made nearby at Oshala Farm. The diverse menu also includes gluten-free and vegan options. In an upstairs space they host special events, workshops, and classes aimed at expanding the global palate in Grant's Pass. It's all part of The Haul's commitment to community integration and adherence to top quality, local products in an unpretentious setting.
In Ashland–a quaint, upscale resort town with a metaphysical vibe–we are pleased to partake in several fine-dining experiences. Particularly noteworthy is dinner at the award-winning, Alchemy restaurant. A family-owned business for decades, they provide delicious, home-cooked meals with a nuanced flair. The restaurant is located within the Winchester Inn, a top-ranked bed and breakfast in downtown Ashland. Like it's name, Alchemy aims to transmute common elements into something greater. This was certainly my feeling upon tasting a simple, but succulent butter leaf salad with goat cheese, sunflower seeds, and beet wedges dressed with a honey tarragon and shallot vinaigrette along with melt-in-your-mouth, house-made ravioli stuffed with spinach, arugula, wild mushrooms, leeks, and ricotta. The decor is inviting and service is excellent.
Three adjacent shops with both social and environmental awareness, offer high quality, handmade products: cheese, wine, and chocolate. You can walk from one to the next, exploring refined taste experiences in the tiny, but delicious town of Central Point, Oregon. This area has been dubbed the "Artisan Way" and I plunge in wholeheartedly to investigate and taste the delicacies.
At the Rogue Creamery, the cheese shop manager Tom VanVorhees greets me and proudly shows off "the best blue cheese in the world." He explains the mission of the Rogue Creamery: "People dedicated to sustainability, service, and the art and tradition of creating the world's finest handmade cheese." This involves eight handcrafted blue cheeses (with fanciful names like the creamy, Oregonzola and Caveman Blue aged in a cave), which have received international acclaim as well as cheddars (some laced with chocolate stout, habanero peppers, la di da lavender, or soba ale) and TouVelle (a semi-hard, buttery and mild cheese sometimes infused with rosemary). VanVorhees is proud of the Rogue Creamery awards for their locally made, globally celebrated organic cheese and their offerings of cheese-making demos on the weekend. But this shop also sells a variety of products as gourmet items to go: jelly made from wine, hot pepper, and lemon-ginger as well as balsamic vinegars, Blue Heaven cheese powder, truffle honey, gluten-free crackers, Wandering Aengus cider, and homemade bread (some with dried cranberries and orange zest) from the Coquette Bakery.
Sitting at a picnic table outside in back of the shop, it's impossible to resist taking a photo of my sandwich, packaged in a blue and white checked wax paper wrapper with an attached chocolate stout cheese label. I enjoy the Rogue Creamery's famed grilled cheese sandwich, said to be "mind-blowing and solar powered" on a sign accompanied by their logo of a cow jumping over the moon. I savor the taste as I observe a poster for the Oregon Cheese Festival, making a mental note about this fun event with classes and tastings held annually in March.
Ledger David Cellars Winery
"Personality of people and grapes are similar and our wines reflect who we are," says wine educator, Robert Trottman at the Ledger David Cellars tasting room, just next door to the Rogue Creamery. "We care about family, place, sharing, art, culture, and community. And we have a healthy obsession with quality," he adds. Oregon wines have a rich history dating back 150 years. In part it is because of the terroir. Southwest Oregon boasts a truly diverse topography with new and ancient mountains, a variety of soil types, and micro-climates. It is a place where wine thrives, becoming more nuanced and balanced over time in an area where small producers are offered tax incentives.
The decade-old estate vineyard of Ledger David is located in Talent, Oregon at a former pear orchard and is a top Rogue Valley producer, currently certified LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), indicating sustainable, environmentally safe, and socially acceptable agricultural practices.
Stopping at Ledger David Cellars tasting room in Central Point is not only a social place to sip a glass of their signature Chenin Blanc amidst a pleasant decor or enjoy the symbiotic relationship of wine, cheese, and chocolate. It is a reminder of the great entrepreneurial spirit and human connections found in southern Oregon. "Making great wine is about people. You can get wine everywhere, but if you come here, you are going to be treated well; we honor the human spirit," says Trottman.
Lillie Belle Chocolate
My third visit in the artisan corridor leads me to a true character. Jeff Shepherd is an award- winning, self-taught chocolatier, who is passionate about his craft. Although his original dream of becoming a gentleman farmer did not work out, he has surpassed it with his gourmet Lillie Belle Chocolate shop, named after his wife and daughter. Now he is recognized as one of the ten best chocolatiers in the country, an honor he achieved by deconstructing tastes before creating his own handmade chocolates, rather than being imitative of others. Case in point: His cherry cordials were fifteen years in the making with poached Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla beans soaked in rum rather than a cherry syrup. He enthusiastically explains the cacao beans for producing the chocolate are purple inside when raw. His beans come from Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Madagascar. Asked about his favorite, he is like a proud papa who will not speak about his preference for one child over another. "I like good beans from all over the world," he answers diplomatically.
"I love having fun; that's what I do," says Shepherd, who is an experimenter with his artisanal chocolate making, involving lots of trial and error, sometimes collaborating, adding fragrant local lavender or the unlikely smokey blue cheese to his mix. His goal is to attain flavor development, which is world class and to my palate he has succeeded. He names his sophisticated goodies after Grateful Dead songs (like "Dark Star") or with a bit of humor (in a bar called "Do Not Eat This Chocolate"), creates his own packaging design (augmented by a label contest resulting in "The Most Awesome Chocolate Bar Ever"), and creates original art. He paints images of cacao pods exhibited in the shop and makes sculptures like a large, Chocolate Fender Guitar for the Food Network, an Octopus garden piece, and edible, one-of-a-kind chocolate Voodoo Bunnies. Shepherd explains all of his experiments don't work and with a wide smile, quotes rock icon Frank Zappa: "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."
Central Point is filled with pleasant surprises. Set on a lovely, lush property, the upscale, historic inn, The Willows–now featuring a daily micro-brew happy hour–is the perfect place for foodies to stay, regardless of participation in the on-property Willows Cooking School. Co-owner Sandy Dowling is a trained chef, who is gracious, knowledgeable, and entertaining. She and her husband Joe were attracted to the area with a terroir comparable to the Mediterranean region. She introduces all of the guests at her inn to interesting food trivia while providing delicious, more than ample breakfasts. Joe is working on a beer garden for the patio, making local micro-brews available at the inn. It is not surprising that many of the guests return to this intimate, elegantly appointed B&B filled with historic photographs and antiques from around the globe.
Those joining in the hands-on cooking workshops to hone their culinary skills or come away with new recipes are treated to small classes on the estate with members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The topics include hazelnuts (Oregon's Willamette Valley is home to 99% of US hazelnut production), featuring recipes for baked brie with hazelnuts and mushroom & hazelnut pate; local Oregon berries and stone fruit (spotlighting an Oregon almond & fruit tart); and tomatoes (the vegetable which is really a fruit, in dishes such as tomato pie). At their cooking school, Sandy Dowling offers her philosophy and culinary tips. She advises choosing the freshest ingredients in season. She recommends buying a good set of knives (German or Japanese) and applying the basics while creating your own recipes, but cautions to be exact in baking, since it is a science. And she suggests roasting spices in a dry pan to get the most out of them. "Flavors explode in your mouth or I haven't done my job right," she says.
The Dowlings enjoy meeting people from all over the world who come to stay at the inn, and sometimes have special events there. The wedding ceremonies encompass different traditions (Celtic knots made from colorful ribbons, love spoons from Wales, or whatever makes the ceremony more meaningful to the participants). It seems an appropriate wedding venue since the original name of the estate, "Bora Da" translates from the Welsh language as "Happy Day."
My explorations in southern Oregon are filled with many happy days. More than tasty delicacies at upscale restaurants, I am introduced to farmers, foragers, chefs, and culinary craftspeople. I also discover some excellent books along the way. Field guides help us appreciate a full culinary experience both in Oregon and at a local farmers' market closer to home. The following are highly recommended.
The Berry Bible by Janie Hibler–a well-respected food writer–is a comprehensive book with 38 berry varieties from the Arctic Raspberry and Black Chokeberry to the famed Oregon Marion Blackberry and lesser known Jostaberry and Veitchberry. It features basics, common names, history (the West coast cranberry industry dates from 1885), habitat, and where to find them. This is accompanied by identifying photographs, anecdotes (bears adoring cloudberries and an Eskimo woman's memories of berry-picking), recipes (blueberry raspberry coconut custard and red current sorbet), drinks (loganberry cantaloupe smoothie), and health benefits of these tasty fruits (marionberry antioxidant elixir).
Mastering Basic Cheesemaking: The Fun and Fundamentals of Making Cheese At Home by Gianaclis Caldwell is a 2016 publication of the New Society Publishers in Canada. It is among several books this practicing artisanal maker and dairy co-owner of Pholia Farms has written about cheese. And while the focus is on cheese, she reminds us of the importance of fermentation which extends to chocolate, coffee, and cognac, as well as cheese, kombucha, kimchi, and kraut. This hands-on guide for the novice is filled with practical tips and recipes.
Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green is a user-friendly, handy paperback, making it an ideal companion for forays to the farmers' market. It clearly identifies fruits and vegetables from Asian Pears and Black Amber Plums to Yuca and Zinfandel Grapes with succinct descriptions, serving suggestions, and seasonal availability. It offers tips on selecting (choose plump berries with full, deep color, and firm texture), storing, and preparing both familiar and unfamiliar produce, but it is the photographs, which make this mini-encyclopedia a true gem.
STAY The Willows Bed and Breakfast in Central Point www.thewillowsbedandbreakfast.com
Lithia Springs Resort in Ashland www.lithiaspringsresort.com
DINE Alchemy Restaurant in Ashland (at the Winchester Inn) www.alchemyashland.com
Amuse in Ashland www.amuserestaurant.com
Luna Cafe + Mercantile in Ashland (Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites) www.ashlandhillshotel.com/luna-cafe
Larks in Medford (Inn at the Commons) www.larksrestaurant.com
The Haul in Grants Pass www.thehaulgp.com
VISIT Farmers' Market in Ashland (Tuesday at the Armory and Saturday on Oak St.)www.ashlandfarmersmarket.org
OSU Lavender Garden - Self guided tour in Central Point www.oregonlavenderdestinations.com/farm/lavender
Pennington Farms in the Applegate www.penningtonfarms.net
Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Medford (Thursday at Hawthorne Park and Saturday at The Commons in Medford) www.rvgrowersmarket.com
SHOP Ledger David Cellars Tasting Room in Central Point www.ledgerdavid.com
Lillie Belle Farms Artisan Chocolates in Central Point www.lilliebellefarms.com
Rogue Creamery in Central Point www.roguecreamery.com
INFO Ashland Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau www.ashlandchamber.com
Experience Grants Pass www.experiencegp.com
Southern Oregon Visitors Association www.southernoregon.org
Travel Medford www.travelmedford.org
Iris Brooks is a widely published travel and cultural writer. Her culinary experiences have taken her to coffee plantations in Jamaica, spice farms in Zanzibar, and a vanilla plantation in French Polynesia. Although she delighted in picking healing herbs in Tuscany, discovering a vegetarian laksa dish in Borneo, and documenting food museums around the world, finding culinary adventures stateside is also rewarding. Learn more about her projects with collaborator Jon H. Davis, a noted photographer and videographer at NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO, www.NLScreativemedia.com
This article originally appeared in the World & I magazine, November 2016.
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