2000s Archive

Grown in the USA

Originally Published July 2001
Alice Waters once told us that in her dream restaurant, a garden overflows with ripe fruits and vegetables. Guests are given wine, bread, and olive oil, then led to the garden and told, “There it is. Help yourselves.” Ultimately, a good meal is the sum of the freshest ingredients, given life by farmers whose commitment to flavor and to the land is strong. We could fill volumes with profiles of these growers and the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors. Here are five whose produce we would very much like to taste in that restaurant of dreams.

Columbia Empire Farms: It’s the berries

Like America itself, black raspberries seem to have a manifest destiny. Once native to eastern forests, they made their way across the continent and are now chiefly grown in Oregon, where berry processing has become big business. This is especially true for Columbia Empire Farms. With its 400 acres of berries and its chain of retail stores, Columbia Empire has developed a recipe for success—premium varieties, a little experimentation, and a healthy helping of jam.

The company prides itself on its black raspberries—small and intensely aromatic fruits that a century ago were as familiar to many Americans as the red type prevalent today. The reds may have triumphed because of their greater productivity and resistance to disease, but one taste of inky, flavorful black-raspberry preserves demonstrates why the darker fruit is making converts and why Columbia Empire is making the effort. Conventional strawberries and red raspberries, as well as hybrids like Marionberries (a tender blackberry-raspberry mix), also have a firm presence in Columbia Empire’s fields.

But what’s most exciting to Columbia Empire president Floyd Aylor is the farm’s experimental plantings of two unusual fruits, lingonberries (a relative of the cranberry) and huckleberries.

In northern Europe, lingonberries are prized as the best-flavored of the cranberry family and are frequently used in sauces and preserves, yet cultivation is just beginning in North America. On a clear morning late last September, Ed Walker, who supervises berry farming for Columbia Empire, inspected his first lingonberry harvest while workers searched the low bushes for ripe red fruits.

Nearby, a new patch of waist-high bushes bore the farm’s first major crop of huckleberries, small, dark fruits with a strong, wild flavor. The termhuckleberryhas been used to refer to many different species of blueberries and related fruits—Columbia Empire’s are the evergreen huckleberryVacciniumovatum, a variety until recently found only in the wild. The farm’s cooks liked the taste so much that Aylor decided to cultivate them to guarantee a dependable supply.

“By growing the fruit we process, we can make preserves out of Grade A stock that typically would be going into ice cream or yogurt,” Aylor says. Columbia Empire not only packages and distributes nationally but also owns eight Portland-area Your NorthWest fancy foods stores, where it sells its products. (They also grow hazelnuts and wine grapes.) From fields to market shelves, Columbia has built an empire where experimentation and innovation have resulted in some of the finest berries in the West. —David Karp

Columbia Empire Farms sells jams, preserves, and syrups by mail order (888-252-0699; www.yournw.com), as well as fresh berries, in season, at Your NorthWest stores and Portland farmers markets.

Virginia Gold Orchard: A perfect pear

The story of Paul Estabrook and his Virginia Gold Orchard is one of boy meets girl … and boy meets pear. Estabrook, a Boston-born engineer, was in Korea on business in 1972 when he met YoungSuk Jung and fell in love with her. He fell in love again when he tasted the Asian pears from her family’s orchard. “I immediately knew that I had been missing something special in America,” Estabrook recalls. Combining the flavor and juiciness of a ripe European pear with the firm crunch (and shape) of an apple, the Asian pear is, he says, an amazing fruit. Three months later, he and Jung married, and the couple resolved that one day they would have an Asian pear orchard of their own.

It took a while, but when Paul retired, in 1985, he and YoungSuk planted 500 Asian pear trees on a farm they had bought in New Hampshire. But after five harsh winters in succession, they dug up the trees and transported them to Natural Bridge, Virginia. There, on 100 acres of red clay soil at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley, the Estabrooks devote 20 acres to 40 varieties of this luscious fruit. Yellow-skinned types such as 20th Century and Shinseiki, prized fortheir refreshing juice and crunch, arerepresented in the orchard, as are several mild-flavored, pear-shaped Chinese varieties. But the Estabrooks’ specialty are the russeted, candy-sweet pears—such as Arirang, Hosui, Shinsui, and Shinko—thatare beloved by Koreans.

At the time the couple started their new venture, Asian pears were rarely grown in the United States outside of California. “We virtually had to reinvent the wheel,” says Paul. “There was so little information about markets, climate, and farming practices on the East Coast.” Today, a handful of other eastern farms produce the fruit, but the Estabrooks’ crop, grown using organic methods, is exceptionally sweet and flavorful. They use no herbicides and have developed their own trellising system to admit maximum sunlight into the foliage. To make picking easy, most trees are kept trimmed to a height of six feet. And YoungSuk plays a vital role in making the farm an innovative operation. She breeds her own varieties of Asian pears, selected from thousands of seedlings for flavor, disease resistance, and keeping quality. The test orchard now contains around 25 experimental varieties.

In August, when the harvest begins,visitors drop by the orchard to feast on pears and to buy gift boxes and the Estabrooks’ own pear blossom honey and fresh pear pies (the fruits keep their shape splendidly). “I like to see people’s faces the first time they taste a sweet, juicy Asian pear,” says Paul.“Their eyes just light up.”

And if your eyes are dull with a cold, the Estabrooks can help. Their pears cooked in honey, a traditional Korean winter cure for coughs, should set you right in no time. —DavidKarp

Virginia Gold Orchard sells Asian pears August through December at the farm (100 Asian Pear Way, Natural Bridge, Virginia; 540-291-1481; www.virginiagoldorchard.com). Mail orders are shipped September through February, but order early. They often sell out by Thanksgiving.

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