This is what passion tastes like

Recently I had back-to-back conferences in Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon—two cities that are geographically far apart but very close in heart and soul. Both are home to a vibrant DIY movement, and for many of these urban artisans and crafters, food and drink are their raw materials. I had the chance to meet several small producers during my travels and although I was impressed by their excellent products, I was seriously blown over by the tremendous passion they shared.

I’ll start with the shrub ladies…as in drinking vinegars, not landscape designers. These entrepreneurs are not 20-something hipsters selling their wares out of a truck in a farmer’s market. They were clearly in the baby boomer demographic, having started this business after careers in other fields. In mid-2012, Cathy Tarasovic and Cynthia Guido started Shrub Drinks, hand blending in small batches just three ingredients—seasonal fresh fruit, sugar and vinegar—to create a dozen or so flavors.

During a mixology workshop, I sampled Very Berry mixed with vodka for a cocktail that could quickly become a favorite. There was also Pear & Ginger shrub, Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit and a couple of savory variations, including Tomatillo Lime Serrano. I tried the Pear & Ginger with sparkling water for a refreshing mocktail. Tarasovic and Guido told us that they love to putter around creating new fruity combinations and “every flavor has had its turn at being our favorite.” Wish I could have carted a few samples back, but my luggage was already stuffed to bursting.

I also met a woman rancher who, with her husband, has built a profitable and sought-after grass-fed beef business called Burgundy PastureBeef. Over many years of trial and error, Wendy Taggart learned how to carefully control the diet and care of her herd so the cows produce very flavorful, juicy meat … not the dry grass-fed beef that has turned me off to the product in the past. She explained how the lush pastures around her home in Grandview, Texas allow her to raise cattle in a sustainable manner without any growth hormones or other additives.  All her meats are cut, dry aged and packaged at The Burgundy Boucherie and sold direct to consumers as well as to a few restaurants. Taggart’s affection for her animals and her business shines through in her excellent products.

In Portland, I was lucky enough to tour the facility of another passionate butcher—Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions. Cairo’s enthusiasm was contagious, as he described how he discovered a passion for charcuterie in Europe and apprenticed to a master chef for five years. When he returned to the States, he still wasn’t sure how he would make a living, but he and his sister Michelle partnered up, raised some funds and opened Oregon’s first USDA-approved salumeria four years ago. Now Olympic Provisions boasts two locations, each with a retail shop and restaurant.

The back of the location that we visited is where the magic happens. It houses a huge, spotless kitchen where local heritage pigs are hand-butchered and turned into an array of salamis, pates and other porky delights crafted in an Old World style. We got to see the dry curing process up-close-and-personal, witnessing racks of salamis covered with a fine, white “good” mold mellowing in curing cabinets. But the best part was tasting the dozen or so selections.

Cairo takes great care in trimming the pork of its fatback, then meticulously adding just the right amount back into the grind for the salamis. Fresh garlic, spices, salt and pepper are the only other ingredients he uses. He led us through a graduated tasting, starting with the simplest salami—saucisson sec, the French classic and Olympic Provisions’ best seller. It had a well-rounded flavor with just the right peppery bite. We ate our way through three more French-style salamis, four Italian-style products (including my favorite, the toasted fennel seed-enhanced finocchiona) and several Spanish-style chorizos. Our last bite of salami was called loukanika, a sausage created in the Greek style in homage to the Cairos’ Greek father. It’s described as having “an absurd amount of cumin, orange zest and garlic.” You could taste the love.

Right next door to Olympic Provisions is teamaker Steve Smith. His shop looks like a Parisian atelier crossed with a scene from a British novel, with beautifully designed boxes lining the shelves and an apothecary-style counter for sitting and sipping. Smith launched two very successful tea brands—Stash and Tazo—but after selling the latter to Starbucks, he decided to become a small batch teamaker once again.

Smith and his wife, Kim, led us through a tasting, starting with the fragrant White Petal—a tea that is harvested from the tips of the tea plant and is very high in anti-oxidants. We progressed from there to green tea and two black teas—Assam and Lord Bergamot (an Earl Grey type), then to a couple of herbal infusions. All the teas were brewed from large, whole leaves, not like the powdery substance found inside many commercial tea bags. My favorite variety was Meadow, an herbal tea that’s a blend of chamomile and assorted flowers. It smelled divine and had an immediate relaxing effect. I was ready to curl up in the Zen garden out behind the tea shop.

As rewarding as all my tasting and sipping in Austin and Portland was (these are just a few highlights!), so much more rewarding was hearing from these artisans themselves. The passion they pour into every product is palpable. And restaurants all over the country are increasingly sourcing from these small producers to spread a little of that passion to their customers.


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