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3 foodie towns to know

Willamette Valley. Photo: @acrobat_wine

So much of food media is focused on cities. So how do you find small towns that love and cherish all things culinary?

Some things to look for:

  • the availability of locally grown food
  • farmer’s markets
  • butcher shops
  • meat lockers
  • food-themed festivals and fairs
  • farm subscription programs, such as community supported agriculture (CSA) programs
  • an abundance of restaurants and bars

And if those outlets can afford to serve local products and pay livable wages, that’s also a great indicator. The Escape Home’s Abigail Napp looked to three such regions where good food, not just good homes, are a defining characteristic.

 

Willamette, Oregon 

Chevonne Ball is an example of how a sommelier’s passion can have a trickle-down effect into the real estate market.

Chevonne Ball

“We’ve always been a fertile agricultural space, and I love that as far back as the 1820s we were called ‘the promised land of flowing milk and honey, ’” says Ball, a certified sommelier, winemaker and founder of Dirty Radish Travel & Consulting Company.

Ball leads tours departing from Portland, Oregon, through Willamette Valley wine country and others through the renowned wine regions of France. But the recipient of Wine Enthusiast’s prestigious “40 under 40 Tastemaker” award will tell you, it’s not just the vineyards, a roster of 600 and counting, and gorgeous country that bring people to the area. It’s also the food.

In this valley, farmers, chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers are not only connected by business ties, they’re friends. Thus, the farm-to-table experience extends to residents as well. “Meat shares,” where households butcher and share a whole animal, are common practice as are “farm fridges,” where farmers leave behind the excess bounty for others to take.

locally sourced dish of pici (hand-rolled plump spaghetti) with braised lamb, smoked clam relish, whipped lardo and chicories at Mac’s Market. Photo: @macmkt

For homecooks looking for something beyond the typical selection of grocery stores, there are several places where the freshest ingredients can be found. In McMinnville, Oregon, a weekly farmer’s market and an indoor marketplace in a former shoe grease factory, called Mac Market, makes it difficult to forget what’s growing outside and entices you to eat with the seasonal bounty. The Valley is known for its luscious mushrooms, fresh steelhead and Chinook salmon, coveted winter truffles, Marionberries (a kind of blackberry cultivated by Oregon State University) and Filberts, also known as a hazelnut.

“You know you’re not from around there if you don’t call them a Filbert,” Ball says. “Crush them up and put them in a salad or on salmon with crushed leeks. We love salmon because it’s an abundant fish. You can also do a romesco sauce.”

Since the 1960s, the area has cultivated pinot noir, a grape most commonly associated with the Burgundy region of France. In Oregon, these grapes thrive in the cooler growing conditions. Ball has fallen in love with both places, and spends her time between both countries, sharing the delights with her clients.

“To see France in its 10th, 11th, 12th generation of winemaking, and then to see Oregon barely getting into the second and third generation is really exciting,” she says.

In the summertime, the southern edge of the valley swells in size as more than 1,000 wine aficionados arrive in McMinnville for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. The three-day festival concludes with a legendary outdoor meal. Butterflied salmon are roasted on Alder wood stakes, a traditional Native American cooking method, and wine-lovers run from table to table, pouring a taste from their best bottles before heading home.

Ball is a frequent attendee and loves leading seminars. Always an impeccable guide, she can tick off the terroir zones without a map, listing her favorite AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) without hesitation.

“There are such distinct differences between them, and that’s what makes the Willamette Valley so interesting and unique.”

 

Ojai, California

Beneath the dusty peaks of the Topatopa Mountains, Ojai’s quiet country roads straddle stretches of orange groves and family fruit stands, piled high with avocado and lemons. Just a quick two-hour drive north of Los Angeles and just a little inland from the Pacific Ocean, the town (population 7,500) has long been known as an idyllic getaway and spiritual retreat for many Angelenos. The pandemic lured more newcomers. Many bought up the few homes that were available and opened businesses. With that, the appetite for delicious food grew.

Pinyon Ojai, a wood-fired pizzeria, bakery and natural wine shop, opened its door just months ago. The owners, Tony Montagnaro, Jeremy Alben and Sally Slade were attracted to the community because of the abundance of ingredients and farms.

“When we decided to open here, we were on the hunt for some place with year-round access to quality food and a community that already knew how to support them,” says owner-baker Montagnaro. “The farmer’s markets here run all the way up the coast.”

Ojai had one Sunday farmer’s market until recently, when the town approved a second, just for locals. On Thursdays, families, farmers, pizza-makers, restaurateurs and musicians gather in a schoolyard filled with oak trees.

“The most exciting part is the farms and restaurants are having convos about what to grow, which means there’s so much more collaboration happening. It feels like it’s limitless,” says Montagnaro.

Pinyon owners Tony, Sarah and Jeremy

Naturally, Pinyon’s menu changes with the seasons. As do other new restaurants in town, including The Dutchess, a Burmese-inspired restaurant, café and bakery, as well as Rory’s Place, a cozy restaurant specialized in preparing meals cooked on the open-fire.

With weather suitable for growing tomatoes year-long, the downside of this great climate are the wildfires. But even fire prevention has a pleasant connection to agriculture. Ventura Brush Goats will graze animals on your property, letting them nibble on the grasses and trim the plants that would easily catch fire. Pinyon, like many others, buy these free-ranging lambs for meat, and they end up on the menu.

 

Methow Valley, Washington 

Methow Valley. Photo: @bluebirdgrainfarms

In the foothills of the North Cascades, a matter of hours from Western Canada’s prime vacation land and just upriver from apple country, the Methow Valley welcomes wilderness lovers, Olympic athletes and good eaters.

Known for prime cross-country skiing, biking and hiking, the four towns — Mazama, Winthrop, Twisp and Carlton — offer a range of restaurants and healthy ingredients.

With two resorts — Sun Mountain Lodge and the Freestone Inn — and a large second-home community, the area keeps growing despite being quite remote — Seattle and Spokane are both four hours away. (And in the winter, depending on route conditions — even farther!)

Yet people make the journey anyhow. Unlike the rainy weather conditions of the Western side of the Cascades, here in the high-desert climate, fields of gold thrive. Bluebird farms harvests and mills organic ancestral grains, like farro, Pasayten hard white wheat, and Dark Northern Rye. In the towns of Mazama, Winthrop and Twisp, local bakeries turn the grains into rustic rounds of sourdough, pastries and hearty sandwiches.

In the summer months, farmers markets in Twisp and Winthrop display local veggies and fruits. Clover honey and stone fruit jams (arguably some of the best in the country!) are savored treats as are the libations from award-winning local brewpubs and coffee roasters.

With huge efforts to conserve local land from development, the community has now devised its own labeling system “Methow Made,” which can be found on products deriving 75% of labor or ingredients locally.

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