Locavore on the Road: Portland, Oregon

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When I was planning my west coast research trip in support of my upcoming book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Pickle, Cheese, Chocolate, and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press) – I almost didn’t plan to stop in Portland. This, despite that my project proposal actually included a clip (for better or worse) of Portlandia on pickling. Sure, I thought, Portland had hipsters and plaid, DIY-ers aplenty and really thoughtful coffee. But so does Brooklyn. What could I gain from a visit that I couldn’t get from a few phone interviews? Then I discovered that Portland was also home to distillery row – a collection of five craft liquor distillers spread out over just a mile or so in the very cool Buckman neighborhood (or thereabouts, I discovered). After visiting and speaking with a handful of New York area distillers, I had gained a great appreciation of how unique state by state regulations and agriculture can affect craft distilling and I knew I had to visit and find out Portland’s story for myself.

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New Deal Distillery is the oldest distillery on the row – and was, fittingly, the last with whom I spoke. They were conceived of in 2001 in large part because owner Tom thought that the economy was headed into a recession and he wanted to make sure that he had high quality vodka to drink during what he thought would be dark days ahead. His goal, like all of the distillers I spoke to, was to focus on quality. While some products, like the extensive offerings from Stone Barn Brandyworks who use primarily local produce and grain, unlike the agricultural requirements for New York State farm distillers (who must often use as much as 70% state-produced ingredients in their spirits) Oregon law allows distillers to source from around the world. This means a wider breadth of liquors coming out of the city. The relatively (and I’ll stress relative, as Tom emphasized that it took him three years to get his distilling license, although he helped pave the way for the rest of the row) easy regulations and sourcing requirements, as well as the excellent cocktail and food scene which supports local distillers through pairing events and featuring on menus, has helped make Portland a hotbed for urban craft distilling around the country. This industry is only poised to continue growing.

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The slightly more forgiving Pacific Northwest growing season does allow for more local produce to be grown year-round, but pickling in Portland is still greatly affected by the limitations of the harvest season. I spoke with Betsey of Our Favorite Foods which makes amazing jars of pickled cucumbers, green beans, and carrots based upon her grandma Rose’s brine recipe. Betsey still commits to sourcing all of her produce locally, which means she has a a month or so of frenetic pickling time, and focuses upon selling her stock the rest of the year. She also notes the strong entrepreneurial spirit of Portland as supportive of her and her three-year-old business and she still finds support in a group that took part in a small business incubator through Portland Community College. There are other great local picklers as well who I hope to connect with in the future, including Moonbrine fermented pickles, Unbound Pickling, and Picklopolis. Three days was just too short to meet them all.

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I did get a chance to meet Portland’s only urban cheesemaker, however. While the number of artisanal cheesemakers in Oregon is growing, almost all of them are making their cheese on farms outside of the city. Only Liz Alvis, owner and founder of Portland Creamery is working with a herd of goats not far outside of the city with a goal to be the first creamery within Portland. I met Liz at one of the area’s few winters markets and her enthusiasm for her cheese – and that of repeat customers who kept stopping by to tell her about the rave reviews her chevre received over the holidays – was hard to ignore. And her cheese held up to these expectations: the chevre with Oregon truffles is just as decadent as one would imagine, and the Sweet Fire, packaged with a fruity-spicy jam could be eaten as part of a cheese plate or just with a spoon. Liz also notes that local chefs have been very supportive of her product, especially her small-run goat milk caramel cajeta. She is focused on responsible expansion, and represents just the start of Portland urban cheesemaking.

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Woodblock Chocolate is the only bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the Portland area, and owner Charley Wheelock cites Portland’s unique environment as integral to his success. Charley is nothing if not passionate about his product, and the chocolate is some of the best I have ever tasted. He sources his beans from specific areas to focus upon the terroir from where they are grown – an idea that has long been present in wine, and even in coffee, but is just starting to take hold in the world of high-end chocolate. This enables him to be very involved in the sourcing of his ingredients and work with their natural characteristics to create a unique bar. Charley also sang praises of Portland as a great place to start a small business like this, with many chefs and local retailers supporting his chocolate. And in fact, I saw Woodblock Chocolate as a main ingredient in one of the specialty flavors at Salt & Straw ice cream and ran across Charley’s bars in Manhattan at a pop-up shop celebrating quality products from Portland.

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I worry that this reportage from Portland, OR doesn’t do emotional justice to the city that I truly enjoyed. The food scene is great: I ate at amazing restaurants that featured local meat and produce with inventive cooking, as well as simple ethnic food from some of Portland’s many food trucks or pods spread around the city. I had hearty breakfasts and vegan lunches from some of the numerous unique cafes dotted among the many charming neighborhoods. These were truly local joints, unlikely to make any national “best of” lists, but still producing really great food with care that was a pleasure to eat. And many people I met, including local cheese guru Tami Parr, generously gave their time to talk about many subject about which they are passionate (and very knowledgeable). I could have stayed and eaten and met with people for a month and not gotten all of the stories from this amazing, and sometimes (at least to this east coaster) under the radar city. I only scratch the surface of Portland here, so check back on more food stories from the city to be published here and elsewhere. I’ll happily say that I stand corrected.

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