If Not Now, Then Wenatchee

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY JILL LIGHTNER

alpine lakes cheese

 

The history of Wenatchee is in many ways a history of modern agriculture. With the arrival of irrigation, fruit orchards supplied a cash crop for homesteaders, who also tended small polyculture farms for sustenance. The first train car full of apples was shipped to Seattle in 1901, and as Wenatchee grew, so did the size of its farms. Polyculture and subsistence were out; steel containers loaded with Red Delicious were in. Now, as heirloom varieties begin making tiny inroads into market share, and value-added products like wine become increasingly important to the bottom line of family farms, we’re seeing the development of a very modern—that is to say, deeply old-fashioned—sensibility.

This wind-blown stretch of the mighty Columbia creates tasty wine and hard cider, roasts incredible coffee, inspires talented chefs, and has sprouted a CSA program and market with a downright thrilling dream. May and June—before the heat, but after the passes clear up—are gorgeous. Look up and spot a red-tailed hawk. Look down, and see a marmot scamper away. Everywhere between your feet and the far horizon are signs of fresh growth, both natural and manmade varieties

 

The Drinks

 

Washington is at the forefront of the fast-approaching craft cider craze. While hard ciders can vary in sweetness and flavor as much as wine, sweet ciders (the non-alcoholic kind) are more predictable. People simply want them to taste like apples. When you stop to consider the hundreds of varieties of apples in existence, it turns out that sweet cider can taste like a whole lot of things. Especially at Cashmere Cider Mill. The shop is country store to a fault, loaded with fruit butters, pepper jellies and freshly baked pastries. This charming front distracts—unless you are a nosy cider nerd, like myself—from the serious lab right next door, where an outstandingly high-tech pasteurization system processes fresh-tasting cider blends. The Heirloom Reserve won my heart, in part because the apples are sourced from one particular old-school orchardist. Names like Arkansas Black, Spitzenburg, Newtown Pippin and Wickson Crab have all but vanished from Wenatchee under the tyranny of blander apples that produce abundantly and ship well. Those antiquated names make a fantastic cider, with many layers of flavor. All those layers, in all their splendid variety, taste just like apple.

Apple varieties are the first topic of conversation at Snowdrift Cider. Peter Ringsrud—a retired engineer, cideries abound with them—used to tinker around trying to make hard cider from his orchards. Trouble was, his orchards were full of the big-name grocery store apples. Dessert apples and cider apples are different, and only one category (guess which) makes good cider. Peter and his son Lars had to make two big shifts: Peter learned to grow these wild and woolly cider apples, and Lars, the master blender, learned how to use them effectively. Well done, guys. Snowdrift won the popular vote at the 2010 Ivar’s Cider Celebration, and has been featured at the Herbfarm. My favorite is the Orchard Select—it’s half blossom, half apple, and all of springtime in a glass. Snowdrift is a member of the NW Cider Association, a growing group of those committed to making and drinking great craft cider. (I am a member of the group as well; I reaffirm my commitment to drinking craft cider at every opportunity.)

I run into Lars again at Caffe Mela, a coffee roaster in downtown Wenatchee owned by Darren and Emily Reynolds. Upon entering Mela, I promptly eat a large cookie for breakfast. The place has an appealing indie coffeehouse feel which awakened my college dietary habits from their two-decade slumber. Lars is nice enough to not tease a person who eats cookies for breakfast. This understanding fellow takes me downstairs, where he finishes roasting a batch as I watch, sniff and listen. After the beans are perfectly done, he sets up the elaborate ritual known as cupping. Once again, he’s nice and doesn’t tease when I clumsily end up with a lip covered in grounds. Lars has a remarkable palate, and the rare ability to talk about deeply specific flavor nuances without sounding like a snob or an idiot. Thanks to his presence at both Snowdrift and Mela, Lars is quietly changing the face of Washington beverages.

The afternoon is gorgeous and I head for the hills. Just south of Wenatchee, Malaga provides a unique opportunity to observe what is meant by “microclimate.” The marmot-filled ridge has two wineries: Saint Laurent and Malaga Springs. A raptor could zip between them in seconds, stopping for a marmot snack along the way. By car, it takes 10 minutes. Drive to Malaga Springs first; you’ll arrive at a small, young vineyard owned by a commercial fisherman. Looming overhead—the verb ‘loom’ might have been invented to describe its presence—is a steep black wall of basalt. Its existence changes the landscape and the climate. This small stretch of otherwise windy ridge is not particularly windy; the temperatures vary according to the season and time of day, as the basalt absorbs, reflects and hides the sun. This wall’s effects are only felt on this small patch of land.

Pop back out to Saint Laurent—carefully dodging the marmots, they are surprising little varmints—and you end up at the very edge of the land. The winds blow from all directions, the sun beams down on the gentle sloping vineyards. It’s full sun here, while down the road it was already chilly. There are plenty of places to sit outdoors at Saint Laurent, wrapped in a sweater against the wind but enjoying a glass of rosé, which tastes just right in the sunshine.

 

The Food

 

Richard Kitos is the chef/proprietor of the Ivy Wild Inn; for now it’s a bed and breakfast but plans are in the works for a restaurant. When that restaurant happens, it will be great. As it stands, the breakfasts are flavorful and designed for vast appetites. He also cooked dinner for a group one night, and he hit it out of the park—including his willingness to add a heap of morels to a dish when the mushrooms followed me home from the market. He teaches cooking classes that cover everything from apple pie to pho, and caters events that support farm-to-table agriculture and Wenatchee wineries. It’s apparent that between his talent and attitudes and his wife Ashley’s native-born valley connections, when the restaurant does open, it’ll be delicious. In the meantime, visitors must look elsewhere for lunch.

Seattle is playing catch-up with Portland in the matter of food trucks, but Wenatchee is going in a different direction: there appears to be a restaurant being slowly built around a taco truck in a parking lot. Taqueria el Azteca had two plastic benches on one visit; a few months later, those benches had been joined by a series of padded booths under a decorated awning. It feels like walls and a roof can’t be far behind, but for now you place your order through the side of the truck. The tacos are piled with avocado and the tortillas and meats are top notch, but the tasty food doesn’t make it any less surreal.

In the cool forests surrounding the always-surreal, pseudo-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, a chef is creating food that is the opposite of surreal. Chef Kenneth MacDonald is overseeing the conversion of Sleeping Lady’s pretty herb garden into certified organic row crops. The berries get put up into quarts of jam for the breakfast buffet; the vegetables end up on dinner menus from Maifest through Oktoberfest. Kenneth’s list of Washington producers is as extensive as any committed Seattle restaurant: seafood, fruits, cheeses, breads, foraged ingredients, emmer and cultivated mushrooms are sourced within a few hundred miles, and the coffee is roasted in the valley, at Mela. The style of the food fits the style of Sleeping Lady perfectly: not plain, but also not overly formal. The lodge stands out because of its alpine setting and spectacular surroundings; Kenneth’s kitchen depends on simple seasonal ingredients and a crew who knows not to mess with perfection.

 

carnitas tacos

The Farms

 

To eyes used to the scale of Skagit Valley farms, Tiny’s is a big place. Plans for an orchard tour come to a screeching, peeping halt: I’m screeching “eek, they’re so cute!” and I’m surrounded by heirloom turkey poults peep-peeping their miniscule heads off. Jay’s dad Greg McPherson waits patiently—farmers are good at that—and I finally pull myself away.

A tour of a stone fruit orchard is no piddly consolation prize. Donut peaches no bigger than coat buttons line some branches; half-ripe freckled apriums peek out from under leaves on another row. Cherries will be ripe soon—but since the bird cannons aren’t going, it’s clear they’re not quite ready to eat. You might hear the booming sounds around the valley on your visit; the cannons scare the starlings away but don’t harm them. With this stretch of riverside land, you don’t get much in the way of extremes, so barring major issues—like the cold, slow spring of 2010—the earliest crops start ripening the first week in June. As Greg talks about the weather patterns in recent years, he pauses and says, “If it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s because I am.” I complain more about imperfect morning toast than Greg does when discussing how global climate change affects his land. We hope that Greg, and a million other farmers, can bring themselves to complain more loudly, if only to register on the radar of certain congressional bozos.

The afternoon brings me inside, on a different farm. Alpine Lakes is up on a steep, seriously muddy slope outside of Leavenworth. The sheep are relaxed and cozy—in fact, I quietly resent their ability to be so cozy while standing in the mud and rain on a nearly vertical mountainside. A friendly travel reminder: if you find yourself resenting a sheep for enjoying her home, it is clearly time to calm down and have lunch. Catha Link’s cheese is magnificent. I stop resenting those happy ewes and toast them through the window. I, too, am now relaxed and cozy.

Catha teaches a cheesemaking class (April-October, $80/person) that is the perfect midpoint between chemistry and home ec. After spending some quality time with a very ripe camembert, I get to play with a whole tray of them, flipping them gently so their rinds develop properly. We dip tommes in black wax, heat milk and make curds that will later become a very creamy bleu, appropriately named Creamy Bleu. I return to the table for a snack, and develop a severe and immediate addiction to the tomme. It’s nutty, it’s creamy, it’s firm, it’s perfect. If I just have one more bite, I will discover the perfect adjective. OK, maybe one more bite. Hmm. I nibble down the entire slab and try to look innocent.

 

The Vision

 

These farms, ingredients and people come together at Farmhouse Table Local Foods Market. This is the retail storefront for a farm-focused nonprofit named Farmhouse Table; it serves as a multi-farm CSA pickup spot and the headquarters for a farm-to-chef networking group that helps area chefs localize their menus. After introducing me to the staff and a visiting farmer, Executive Director Sherri Schneider (a dedicated mushroom hunter) mentioned a project called the Pybus Public Market. The city secured a federal grant to begin the conversion of a big old warehouse into a year-round indoor farmers market: think San Francisco’s Ferry Building, or Vancouver’s Granville Island. If all goes according to plan, the first stages of infrastructure improvement will begin later this year, and the local farmers market will be able to move in for the 2012 market season.

Recently, a lot of early-adopter organic farmers have said that their conventional farmer neighbors are finally asking questions about their methods, rather than scoffing at them. It seems that Wenatchee is tip-toeing into the same sort of phase, where farm-to-table makes obvious sense, and apples won’t be shipped in from New Zealand. It’s a place where the economics of slow food make an immediate, positive impact on the community, and in another year or so, Wenatchee will be known as a positive role model for agricultural communities around the country. At the moment, it’s a very inspiring place to spend the weekend.

 

Jill Lightner is the editor of Edible Seattle. She ends up in the valley every year around this time, to raft the Wenatchee River and visit with the marmots.

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