Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sampling Southern Oregon

If you go to Costco simply to graze on the food samples, you are going to love Southern Oregon. Since the early 1900s, the area has been famous as a top fruit producer and was home to some of Oregon’s first wineries. Today, the Rogue River Valley produces 10,000 acres of pears and is the headquarters of fruit distributing giant Harry and David. There are also dozens of local artisan food producers, wineries, and organic farms that contribute to this region’s reputation as a gourmet Garden of Eden.

Begin your tasting tour in Grants Pass. When you reach the downtown section and the huge banner sign proclaiming, “It’s the Climate!” roll down the car window and sniff the air. If conditions are right, you should get a strong whiff of freshly popped corn and who can resist? The source of this enticing aroma is Blind George’s Popcorn located in an old-fashioned newsstand on historic G Street. Started in 1922 by George Spencer, who really was blind, this tiny shop’s popcorn has become a Grants Pass tradition. You can sample an amazing array of flavors from banana to jalapeno cheese, but the plain, old-fashioned buttered popcorn is hard to beat.

Also located in Grants Pass is Cary’s of Oregon, producers of superb English toffee…think Heath Bar only a thousand times better. Cooking maven Rachael Ray chose it as her favorite snack food. The toffee, based on a family recipe, is available plain or with various combinations of dark and milk chocolate, hazelnuts, and almonds. The small retail room offers samples, as well as one-pound bags of seconds at a discounted price.

Applegate Valley
 From Grants Pass, Highway 238, follows the Applegate River south and east towards Jacksonville through some gorgeous countryside. Sunset Magazine described the Applegate Valley as “wine country the way it used to be,” an acknowledgment of its idyllic setting and rural ambiance. The Siskiyou Mountains protect the region from coastal influence and create a unique grape growing region much warmer than the Willamette Valley. Heat-loving varietals like Cabernet, Syrah and Temparnello do quite well here. More than a dozen wineries in the valley welcome visitors and offer an opportunity to sample wines.

Be sure to visit Schmidt Family Vineyards, a new winery with a spectacular tasting room. Designed in the craftsman style, it resembles a ski lodge with its stone fireplace, soaring ceilings and wooden, open beams. The grounds are filled with herb and flower gardens; a large pond, and beautiful landscaping make it a perfect place for a picnic.

If you have worked up an appetite after all this wine tasting, and are adventurous enough to try a rustic, out-of-the-way roadhouse, stop at the McKee Bridge Restaurant and Store, south of Ruch, along the Applegate River. Extremely popular with locals and fishermen, the restaurant has been serving its famous fried chicken and big, hearty breakfasts for over 70 years. Just outside the restaurant is the McKee covered bridge with a pretty, shaded picnic area along the river.

In Jacksonville, you will find Gary West Smoked Meats. Here you may sample an assortment of hickory-smoked steak strips, jerky, and sausages made from a recipe that traveled over the Oregon Trail. This is not your gas station jerky, but flavorful and tender strips of beef, buffalo, or elk meat seasoned to perfection.

In nearby Central Point, are two culinary gems located next to each other in a nondescript industrial area. The first is the Rogue Creamery where milk from grass-fed, local cows is transformed into international award-winning cheeses. Their famous blue cheeses as well as cheddars and curds are available for tasting in the small retail store. Next door is Lillie Belle Chocolates. Jeff Shepherd began concocting chocolates in his own kitchen using organic berries from his farm. Today, his homemade artisan caramels, truffles and bon bons come in a variety of unusual flavors. Not only do they taste great, but they are artistic masterpieces almost too pretty to eat.
Blue cheese and chocolates!

Down the road in Phoenix, a little north of Ashland, is Rising Sun Farms. The owners started raising organic basil and creating fresh pesto sauces over 25 years ago and now offer a variety of cheese tortas and vinegar drizzles as well. Their retail store showcases these products along with a wine-tasting bar.

This is just a sampling of the food scene in Southern Oregon. There are many more artisan food producers, wineries, farmers’ markets and restaurants to enjoy. Check out this web site for links to these and other edible delights:

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