Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Well, I think now is as good a time as any to talk about avocados. I love them, I mention them often. Their gorgeous image graced the cover of Saveur magazine about a year ago. I'm holding on to that issue. But, unfortunately don't get to enjoy them often enough. See, here in Portland, an avocado the size of, mmm, a really small pear, is three dollars. That's a lot. And often, they're not even ripe. Even when they're soft.

In Hawaii, the avocados are so huge (bigger than a softball), and buttery, and yellow--not light yellow, like, mustard-yellow. So good. Great on tacos, salads, sandwiches, or just on toast. Avocado toast--putting ripe avocado on a piece of toasted bread with a squeeze of lime and Spike seasoning=heaven. They serve avocado on whole grain toast at my favorite cafe in the world, Cafe Gitane (NYC). I think I've just identified a comfort food. My mom's been preparing that snack combination my whole life, and she still eats it a couple times a week. I did the same when I was on Kauai in February.

When I was a kid (little--maybe three?), I was even permanently scarred from this food--the lime juice dripped off the avo onto my leg and, it being Hawaii, I went out into the sun and got this birthmark looking burn. It's gone now (okay so it wasn't exactly permanent), but I had it all through childhood. It was on my leg. Maybe I just wanted a birthmark. I used to say that I was allergic to lime juice. Ask my friends. Paranoia still prevents me from touching any kind of citrus if I'm in the sun--you'll never catch me taking that lime wedge from the side of my margarita and squeezing it poolside.

Back to avocados. I think the avocado sandwich is also a perfect food. Avo and monterey jack cheese on a sandwich is just so tasty. Or that as a quesadilla with salsa. I think all this must originate in Southern California, the land of citrus, and Mexican food. And a good sandwich. They know how to make a good sandwich in California. They don't here. To me, the ultimate sandwich has got to have sprouts on it. Avocado, and sprouts. On hearty, whole grain bread. I don't care too much about the rest--it could have turkey, it might have cheese. It might have grated carrots. Andy's in Manoa (Oahu) understands this--they serve their turkey avo sandwich with about three different variations. They roast their turkey on-site and shred it daily. Their customer base is so strong that they are somehow able to be closed on Saturdays. What I wouldn't give for one of Andy's sandwiches right now--I guess I'll have to settle for avocado on spelt toast.

A few weeks ago a friend and I took a gustatory day trip, but this time it wasn't about the food. It was about beer. We went to the source of the taste of beer. On a photo assignment for a local magazine, we drove a couple hundred miles out to the Yakima Valley in southern Washington to photograph the man in charge of this commodity. It is in Yakima where farmers harvest most of the country’s hops—that herbacious flower that gives India Pale Ale it’s distinguishable taste (and many beers their bitterness). We met with the President of HopUnion, the company that supplies most of the nation’s craft breweries with their hops (and given t-shirts and keychains bearing slogans like “Hop-Blooded!”). This may seem esoteric to many of you, but here in Portland, beer-speak is everyday lingo. Everybody knows the difference between an IPA, a lager, Heffeweizen, porters, stouts and ales. If they don’t know the difference, they can taste it, and they know what they like. No self-respecting Portlander is drinking Heinneken out here, that’s for sure. That would be of a category that I’ve come to refer to as “yellow beer.” I don’t drink it either (in fact, lately I’ve gotten into Belgian beers, but that’s a whole different story).

The issue at hand, and what put us on assignment in the first place, is that there is a hop shortage in this country right now. Craft brewing (microbrewing--the good stuff) has increased in popularity, and businesses have multiplied faster than the hops can grow. Farmers are depressed because there just isn’t enough to go around. The harvest is allocated a year out, and HopUnion has a long waiting list. In the winter, the fields are fallow, but the warehouses still have stock from last year (as well as imported hops from Europe). We were able to peak into these giant refrigerators (their cold storage areas are kept at 32 degrees, in the desert), and the moment we stepped in we could smell that distinctive floral scent that only hops can deliver. I do like hoppy beer, so of course my sensory memory immediately dreamt of a cold IPA. It still takes me by surprise sometimes how much a smell can conjure up such an acute association.

The whole trip was so fascinating—to see how this one plant can be the source of flavor, and joy and sorrow (not the kind caused by beer drinking--the hop growers are truly saddened by the shortage situation).

The Yakima Valley happens to be part of the Columbia Valley wine growing region—known primarily for cabernets and syrahs. We drove high into the hills above the hop fields to a brand-new tasting room in a renovated farm cottage. Surrounding the structure are vineyards recently planted with over 15 varietals from around the world. Quite ambitious and intriguing, I thought. The winemaker will wait years to see how these all pan out, how these grapes behave in those conditions.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the vineyard manager, then the tasting room stewards—an extremely welcoming and friendly couple, who invited us in to taste wines from Wilridge and Harlequin. We even chatted with one of the winemakers, who was just finishing his day tending to the property. More than with the wines, I was impressed by the hospitality of these people, and the beauty of the land up there. With the farms and vineyards in the distance, the steep hillsides were reminiscent of Italian hilltowns. The backside of the property dips into a wildlife preserve—Cowiche Canyon. Gorgeous. We watched the sunset with them, said good bye to our hosts and the sagebrush, and drove back home to Portland.