Deliciously local food and drink
By Sherry Sennet
From delicatessens to fine dining establishments, more restaurants are seeking local food producers to supply their culinary needs. While foreign products may be less expensive than locally produced crops, there are many advantages to shopping and eating locally.
EVERYBODY’S STORE. The other day, I went to Everybody’s Store in Van Zandt to talk to one of the owners, Jeff Margolis, about the organic garden they have growing out back behind the shop, and to ask about other local products that he and his wife, Amy, sell in their store.
“We wrote the book!” was his response, as he proudly listed off dozens of local and organic products they keep in stock. Row upon row of interesting, colorful and handwritten labels plastered the shelves in the most enchantingly chaotic, yet organized, way. The only thing that this store has more of than variety is character. I needed coffee for home, and I knew from experience that their private label organic and locally roasted coffee was the best – rich, dark, but not bitter or over-roasted like some of the commercial brands. He also had me sample a slice of an amazing potato goat cheese that literally melts in your mouth, and a fresh and hearty piece of beef jerky he had just purchased from a small operation in Burlington. Between the meat and cheese snack, the zesty, nutrient-packed Swiss chard and collard greens I had sampled straight from the garden on my last visit, and the delicious dessert wine I had picked up a month or so ago, I had experienced a full spectrum of flavors at this 109-year old store.
Growing an organic garden, however, isn’t exactly a piece of cake – there is a reason why chemical herbicides and pesticides are still popular with farmers. But for many determined organic gardeners like Jeff and Amy, crop rotation helps reduce the need for chemicals by preventing insect and weed domination, and it reduces soil erosion and helps to maintain soil fertility. Strategic plantings at the right time of year will do a lot of the work, since different crops have different nutrient needs and provide different offerings back into the soil. And if you keep changing it up, the insects that target a certain annual crop won’t have a reason to stick around too long. Besides, it’s just one more reason to look forward to summer – corn, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, rhubarb, herbs and strawberries are all on the way.
I paid for my coffee, took my notes on their seemingly endless line of local products (including organic local eggs – the biggest I have ever seen), and departed the store not only a happy customer, but also with this comfortable feeling as if I had spent the afternoon hanging out a friend’s house. During my visit, Jeff had showed me around his store as if he had unveiled a valuable art collection and interacted with his employees as if they were his family. I even had a chance to give Mamasita, the resident cat-in-charge, some love. I don’t get that kind of experience in large stores with crowded aisles and fluorescent lighting. And, in buying the coffee, I wasn’t just exercising my right to stay caffeinated – I was also supporting a local retailer and the producer of the coffee.
My favorite part about consumer awareness is the ripple effect, which means that if the retailer and producer also buy local, they are helping to keep fed at least six more families in our neighborhoods, and it keeps on going down the line! And these aren’t handouts or social benefits, this is Joe the working man buying from his neighbor Jack the farmer – with no corporate middleman taking a cut. We are supporting each other by just buying the things we need anyway. Seems strange that this is how our country used to be in my grandparents’ day. Maybe I’m just being a little nostalgic since my ancestors, and their farm in Birch Bay, are no longer around. Or maybe there is more to this whole local thing.
MT. BAKER VINEYARDS. I had been meaning to stop in the Mt. Bakery Vineyards in Deming for a tasting for months, and now was a perfectly good time to pay them a visit. Beautiful and fragrant plum blossoms gracefully framed their roadside sign just off Route 542. The tasting room was just as I had pictured it – rustic and casual but with a nice touch of elegance as the warm afternoon light reflected the tranquility of the sleepy vineyard into their shop. Cellar master and vineyard manager Trent Peterson came out to meet me, and I asked if there were any eco-friendly methods that they had adapted for their grape production. Trent’s response was, “We do everything here organically, and we are a salmon-friendly vineyard.” Because of the nearby streams and rivers, their water table is just two feet below the surface, so irrigation is not even an issue. They use fermented cacti and seaweed products to fertilize their vines. These products feed micro-organisms down in the soil, which helps increase nutrient uptake into the vines.
For a winery that doesn’t advertise their wines as being organic, they sure care about the local environment. “From a PR standpoint, it isn’t really worth the cost of becoming certified organic,” Trent says. “We believe in the 10-mile rule,” meaning first using whatever resources that are available locally for production and also considering the impact that one makes within a 10-mile radius. And, of course, any heart-felt winemaker considers terroir. Terroir can be described as the special characterisics of a place, from the minerality of the soil, to the quality of light, to the elevation of the plot, and even the direction the wind blows. It explains why wine and food from the same region often pair so well together – grown in the same environment, photosynthesizing the same elements – it makes sense to me, anyway.
On the six-acre estate, Mt. Baker Vineyards grows six different varietals (not including the plums, which they sometimes use for plum wine): Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Muller Thurgau, Siegerebbe, Pinot Gris and Madeline Angevine. Even though I had worked in the wine industry, only two of these grapes were familiar to me. I asked Trent if he could pair any food with any of their wines, what he would choose. “I would have local oysters and the Madeline Angevine.” Happy to have an excuse to try an unfamiliar wine, I began my trek further eastward toward Glacier, for some much-needed Italian fare.
MILANO’S. Milano’s was on Trent’s list for local restaurants that carry their wines. Once seated, I ordered a glass of the Mt. Baker Chardonnay with the antipasti. It was a surprisingly pleasant match. The sweet peppers especially lined right up with the well-balanced acidity of the wine. Since the flavor profile of mid-range Chardonnays in the Northwest are typically comparable to an apple – crisp, tart, with a little fruit exposed (a touch of sweetness without it being sugary), it’s no wonder they pair with sweet peppers.
For the main course, I ordered the seafood linguine prepared with fresh tomatoes. The mussels were extraordinary and the homemade noodles were wonderful, with just the right amount of garlic. Since the server was flying solo that day, I didn’t want to bother him with too many details, but he was able to inform me that their shellfish comes right out of Chuckanut Bay, and they get their King salmon from a local fisherman in Ferndale. Their mushrooms are from Cascadia (organic), and their fresh basil and other herbs from Brent Harrison with The Growing Garden – both local sources.
We truly are blessed in this region, for not only the mild climate, but also our abundance of rain and such fertile soil. The variety of crops, meats and dairy products available to us locally are virtually endless – and keeping it all nearby also limits our collective carbon footprint. But it’s not just farming that makes it all possible, it is responsible farming – and on a voluntary basis; thinking about the future and how our actions today will impact the land, water and air tomorrow, instead of waiting for a polluted tomorrow to teach us our lessons too late.
OLD TOWN CAFE. Next on my list was the Old Town Café in Bellingham, which was filled with locals enjoying tasty and nutritious menu items from all over the Pacific Northwest. I’m a big fan of hot chocolate, and their’s is probably the best I have ever tasted – steamed milk from Lynden’s Fresh Breeze Dairy (the only fully organic dairy in Washington state), Ghiradelli cocoa and homemade whipped cream from Twinbrooks Creamery (non-GMO and without added hormones, also in Lynden). That’s a lot of good stuff in one mug of cocoa.
Then there was the bean and cheese tostada. The tostada was a mountain of sprouts (Happy Valley Sprouts), fresh spinach and Swiss chard (DEVine Gardens), a wonderful salsa, seasoned beans and cheese on top of a whole wheat tortilla (La Mexicana Tortillas, Seattle). The freshness of the ingredients just made the flavors explode.
In fact, fresh local produce actually yields the highest nutrient content possible – second only to growing it in your own yard. The less distance you have to ship a food item, the more time it spends on the vine, branch or in the ground, the more vitamins it pulls in from the soil, and the more time for the antioxidant qualities to mature and reach their peak. Even though frozen produce generally gets picked at its peak ripeness, it’s often blanched to kill bacteria, which causes some B and C vitamins to wash out.
Fresher really is better, for health and flavor. And if it’s grown organically, the farmers are, according to Trent, “leaving the soil in a better state than it was when they arrived.” And growing and buying locally renders us more self-reliant as a community, helping to keep a roof over the heads of our hardworking neighbors. X
Sherry Sennet is a landscaper and writer from Bellingham who is obsessed with food and wine.