Monday, September 21, 2009

Foods and drinks of the Northwest

It’s been a long while since I’ve done an entry on food or drink, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites from the region that I am now calling home.

Three cheeses:
The Pacific Northwest holds several dairy regions as well as slow foods and artisanal food movements. Not surprisingly then, it produces a number of fantastic cheeses.

Humboldt Fog: Located in Arcatia, California at the heart of redwood country, Cypress Grove creamery turns out two award-winning goat cheeses that stand alongside anything that I’ve tried during my travels abroad. Humboldt Fog is the brand’s flagship ripened cheese, and it posses a thick rind, creamy inner layer, and a crumbly core. The overall flavor is a beautifully penetrating tanginess with a moderate duration and strong finish. For me, it pairs particularly well with pears and white wines like Riesling. For those of you fortunate to live on the Left Coast, Humboldt Fog can be found at Whole Foods, or in the Northwest at Fred Myers and local grocery stores for a surprisingly reasonable price. It’s also sold at artisanal cheese shops outside of the region as far away as New York City. No idea about its international availability, unfortunately.

Truffle Tremor: This is my favorite of the Cypress Grove products that I have tried so far. The cheese’s tongue-enveloping truffle oil and its melting cream-like taste and texture pretty much makes it the heavy-hitting dark chocolate of the cheese world. Need I say more, people? The maker’s website recommends dry white wines, but my preference to accompany Truffle Tremor would be a Syrah or Zinfandel. Then again, I like heavy reds with almost everything but fish and salads, so use your own discretion.

Cirrus: Even if it did not produce some wonderful cheeses, Mt. Townsend Creamery would at least be able to boast of an achingly beautiful location in the Victorian-era ferry town of Port Townsend on the forested and mountainous Olympic Peninsula. Thankfully they have no need of this particular fallback, as their Cirrus camembert makes a bold and buttery statement all on its own. In fact, they could be working out of a back alley in East LA and I’d still love this cheese for both its rich flavor and texture. Also worth checking out is their strong-tasting Sea Stack cheese.

Ice cream

Cool Moon Ice Cream: Produced on location with regional organic ingredients in Portland’s Pearl District, this unique shop's ice cream is reason enough to visit the City of Roses. Made with something like 18% butter fat, the two types that I tried during my recent first visit were both delightfully dense. The first flavor that cried out for sampling was the Spicy Thai Chili. My reaction on tasting was something like: What? Wait, no! YES, YES! It has a subtle peanut flavor, notes of cream, and then the chili peppers commence to smack you in the mouth. And of course the combination of fiery chili oil and freezing cream leaves you wondering if you are icing up or burning down. It was the most interesting ice cream experience that I’ve had in a long time. The most flavorful was Moon’s dark chocolate mint. Normally mint in ice cream is so strong that I loose the ability to taste it, and in short order it devolves into a kind of generic high-strung sweetness. This time, however, the contrasting dark-chocolate ice cream base kept me tasting the frosty love for the full duration.

Alotta Gelato: Another one-of-a-kind, Stump Town institution, this gelateria is located on the Northwest District’s 23rd Avenue. Its owners apparently got their start making gelato and selling it at Portland’s Famers market on Saturdays before going pro and setting up shop on Trendy Third. Regardless of its origins, this gelato really has that something special when it comes to both flavor and velvety texture. The basic chocolate is one of the best ice creams that I’ve had anywhere in the world, and it’s always a hard, hard choice on Wednesdays to pick between walking to Alotta’s or Cool Moon for the weekly fix.

Tillamook:
Located on the Northwestern Oregon Coast in a dairy region of the same name, the farmers of Tillamook’s dairy cooperative are primarily known for their basic daily cheeses. Alongside a good sandwich-buffering pepper jack and sturdy cheddar, they also make the West Coast’s best mass-produced ice cream available for purchase in supermarkets. Among my favorites is the Tillamook Mudslide, which features a dark chocolate ice cream with a fudge ripple and bits of a sweet hard chocolate. Because you can never get too much chocolate all at once! And in all seriousness, this combination carries enough variety to keep it fresh and interesting all the way through a bowl or cup. The cooperative’s French Vanilla makes a great stand alone or sundae base, while the Vanilla Bean ice cream is perfect for accompanying apple pie or other sweet baked goods served a la mode.

Butter

Tillamook Sweet Crème Butter (salted): A tasty brick of salty churned crème, this butter would be perfectly at home in Denmark or Sweden. So far this has been my preferred butter of choice for both breakfast breads and on the rare occasions that I make use of butter in cooking.

Sake. Sometimes it seems like Japanese food is to the Pacific Northwest what fried chicken is to the Deep South. While we may not have a KFC or local fried chicken shack on every street corner, we do have bento, teriyaki, and sushi restaurants for days. Given the large population of immigrants from the islands of the Rising Sun—both recent and as well as fourth- and fifth-generation American descendants—it’s not too odd that Japanese food abounds here in gray and green Cascadia. Even considering that influence, it comes as a surprise that Oregon also possess a sake brewery of otherworldly quality.

Momokawa Diamond: Honeydew. That’s the first ephemeral flavor that swims in when tasting Sake One’s Momokawa Diamond sake. After that it fades into a sublime yeasty taste that fills the entire mouth, followed by a sweet and bright aftertaste on the tongue. Out of plain curiosity, I purchased this rice wine for the first redwood camping trip at Patrick’s Point on Labor Day 2008, and I enjoyed every moment of that bottle a second. With its three flavors and triple-stage evolution, Diamond is a dessert unto itself.

Momokawa Pearl: A cloudy-white, rough-filtered traditional sake, Momokawa Pearl starts off with a note of pineapple, gives way to coconut, and then finishes with a pleasantly sweet alcohol burn. If there is a scotch of the sake world, this is it. I enjoy drinking Pearl on cool evenings and cold days, though I haven’t tried heating it out of fear of it would do to the dynamic flavor combination. Shake before drinking!

Beer

Chipotle Ale: Pretty much catering to my obsession with the use of chili peppers in odd places like chocolates and ice cream, Rouge River Ales of New Port on the Oregon coast produces an award-winning amber ale incorporating Mexican chipotle peppers. While Rouge tends to be a heavy handed with the hops—which leaves more than a few of their beers with a sour aftertaste that I do not care for—this one possess an underlying malt flavor and mild hops aftertaste. The warm and filling mouth-taste that makes this beer so pleasurable is that of the rich smokiness of the peppers themselves. It’s very much on par with the almost smoked-pork flavor of a good German Rauchbier, only with a spicy hot, slightly hoppy finish.

As a complete aside, my favorite Bamberger smoked beer is the 600-year-old Shlenkerla brew tavern’s Aecht Schlenkerla Maerzen. I was stationed about a 45-minute drive from Bamberg 1998-2000, and often visited this picturesque city while out exploring the rolling Bavarian countryside. One summer evening, a friend and I wandered into the tavern and ordered a pair of dark beers, completely oblivious to the wonderful brewing tradition that we were about to stumble onto. Whole Foods actually carried Aecht Schlenkerla Maerzen when I first moved here to Portland. I was so happy when I first saw it that I almost did a dance in the aisle. Then WF got into a dispute with Shlenkerla over distribution minutia.

*sigh*

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