America’s North West
“The best types of salmon are chinook, followed by sockeye and then coho.” These words of wisdom were imparted by Kevin Moffit, President and CEO, Pear Bureau Northwest. A friend and I were at Paley’s Place, a small, intimate restaurant in Moffit’s hometown, Portland, Oregon. Moffit was the host and much as he tried to be casual, the staff bowed and scraped: Moffit was a frequent diner and liked to order a bottle of fine wine with every course. Given that each meal in Paley’s Place had four courses, Moffit never got off cheap, but he was definitely the darling of the restaurant.
I was used to eating farmed salmon. In India, it’s the default variety available in supermarkets, and because of the high cost, we think highly of the rather tasteless, pink flesh. In the Northwest of the United States, it’s a different story altogether. The salmon there is wild, not farmed, the plethora of rivers; the proximity to the Pacific Ocean is the ideal breeding ground for the fish. And the taste is rich and flavourful.
Three states combine to form the Northwest: Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Visiting Idaho wasn’t part of my itinerary, but Portland and the remote valleys of Washington State was. The rocky, hilly terrain, interspersed with tracts of flat land reminded me of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, or should I say, what Kashmir and Himachal would look like with a lot more care and upkeep. The population is lower than the USA average, and whoever I met shuddered with horror at the crowded cities of the East Coast. Opinions were divided on whether New York or Boston was the greater horror.
Young Danelle Trovato put into perspective for me. As we careered from one valley to the next in her large pick-up truck, we drove from Yakima to Wenatchee to the Columbia Basin. All these are the country’s key area for the apples that are seen in faraway India and China. During the drive, she told me a little about her life. While working for the Washington Apple Commission was her day job, breeding horses was her passion in life. Her beautiful brown eyes lit up at the thought of her horses, each of which had a name, one more funky than the next! No, she didn’t breed them to show them in exhibitions, though there were others that did: she just bred them for the love of horses. And she transported them from one location to another in the very same pick-up van that she was driving me in! Some members of her extended family who arrived in USA from native Sicily three generations are strung out all over the States, but it’s Washington State where Danelle could pursue her lifestyle of choice.
Because of its pristine air, the Northwest is famous for a number of ingredients. Washington State grows apples in its series of valleys that seem to have been expressly designed by nature for the very purpose of shielding the orchards from winds. Over a magnificent dinner I had with Kyle Mathison and his wife in their house on a hill, designed by him, Mathison and his wife, the gourmet cook Jan, waxed eloquent about Washington apples. At first I wondered what all the fuss was about, but when I saw the sheer passion and technology that goes into them, it all made sense. Mathison, fourth generation of Stemilt Growers, combines passion (“I want my final customer to be able to taste the magic of my apples”) with hard-headed science (“watch while I subject this apple to 12 pounds pressure”). He talks about the apples in and around Wenatchee: the valley’s hot autumn days combined with cold autumn nights at the very last stage of maturation, colours them the deep red that makes them a premium product around the world.
The next day, I met Peter Verbrugge of Sage Fruit Company, an apple grower, packer and exporter. Having just returned from a trip to South India, where demand for Washington Apples are high, I asked him if he had been able to tell apart Kashmiri and Washington Red Delicious, the one variety that dominates both places. He gave me a piercing stare, the kind that one gives an imbecile. It was only after I returned, and spied a pile of Kashmiri apples in Spencer’s that I realized exactly how foolish my question was. The prominent lenticels – those little golden dots on Kashmiri apples that are such an attractive feature – are notable by their absence in Washington apples. Also, Washington Apples have a much more deeper and uniform colour and the five ‘points’ on their base are far more pronounced than Kashmiri apples.
If Washington’s apples are dominated by one variety, Portland pears come in several varieties. Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc, Starkrimson and Seckel to name just a few varieties. None of them bear any relationship to Indian pears. It could be argued that Green Bartlett – there’s a Red Bartlett too – has a distant country cousin in the fat, yellow babbugosha, but that’s it. Kevin Moffit of the Pear Bureau had a wry observation to make. Everyone who bought apples had them on their shopping list. Those who bought pears did so as an afterthought, or when their local supermarket had a particularly fine display.
Then there is the wine. Forget Californian wines: the small vineyards of the northwest could take them by storm. The grape that grows best here is the Syrah, and during my week there, I aimed at sticking to this varietal, sampling as many vineyards as I could. The other great ingredient hereabouts is tenderloin. If there is a world of difference between the farmed salmon of a certain Northern European country and that found in the Pacific Northwest, there is a universe of difference between our very own buffalo meat and prime US beef. The smallest town I visited was Wenatchee, but even there, a tiny restaurant showcased two of their native products to great effects. A fillet of wild salmon rolled in a shaving of apple wood and gently smoked.
By the time I went to Seattle’s Pike Market and saw all the irresistible seafood on display, I was convinced: the Northwest is much more than just the richest fruit basket of the United States.