Walk like an Epicurean – in Portland, Oregon

Today is all about FLOSS  – no, I am not on my way to the dentist, this is about exploring the Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonable, and Sustainable local produce of Portland. Portland, and indeed all of Oregon, has a reputation of being a clean, green, wet and rainy kind of place, populated by mountain biking, snow boarding, beer and pinot drinking locals. As I walk down the street to the meeting point for my epicurean walk, this stereotype seems confirmed by the rows of mountain bikes tied to the fence near where the queue of people are slowly inching their way into this weekend’s beer festival – but it is a bright sunny day, no rain, so that at least is beating the odds. I am looking forward to the treats in store on this small group walk – walking, drinking and eating being three of my favourite things to do.

Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon
Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon

The edgy Pearl District, Portland.

We start at the Flying Elephant deli with a sample of their award winning Tomato Orange soup, and then jump on the tram and head to the other end of the Pearl District. This is the once-rundown dodgy light industrial area long since transformed into the edgy, trendy, hipster, and expensive area of town. I had dinner here last night at the large communal table in an upmarket bar/restaurant called Clyde Common – delicious cocktails and locally sourced food, and lots of friendly ’20 something years younger than me’ hipster types to chat with around the communal table. I’m not convinced about the edgy tag though, it may have been originally, but now? I explored the area some more after dinner and found a number of homeless people, but not like homeless people anywhere else I’ve been – these ones  had trendy hairstyles and clothing (but maybe not very clean), their tatts looked very artistic, and I would not have been surprised if they had their mountain bikes stashed behind the rubbish bins. Maybe I had it all wrong and they were just actors taking a break from filming?

What’s brewing in Portland?

I am delighted to find our first stop in the Pearl District is at the iconic Bridgeport micro brewery (although pretty large in relation to the rest of the Oregon microbrewery scene I suspect). They have impeccable green credentials, recycling everything from the grains that form the base of the beer (into breads and pastries in their on-site bakery), to their glasses and bottles, to the fat from their kitchen. So while we sample their range of beers, the charming beermaker tells me the story behind IPA (Indian Pale Ale) beer – something I had never known in my ten years in the UK. He says that many people order it thinking they are getting a lite beer, and are then surprised by its dryness and bitterness. It all dates back to the days of colonial India, when the British found that too many of their soldiers were getting ill from the local water supply in India. So they instructed the soldiers to drink beer instead of water. But they had the problem of getting enough beer from Britain to India to supply their daily needs. Because of the long boat trip from Britain to India, around the coast of Africa and through a lot of heat, the beer was spoiling before it arrived. The solution they came up with was to add more hops as a preservative, and this is where the bitter flavours and dry aftertaste come from. So now I have a taste rule of thumb for ordering beer: dark beer is sweeter, amber beer is balanced, and pale ales are more dry and bitter.

What’s baking in Portland?

All that beer sampling has me ready for the next stop, the Pearl Bakery. Here we don hair nets and slippers to go behind the shop counter and into the bakery proper for some bread tasting to soak up a bit of the alcohol consumed so far. Their baguettes are crunchy with a soft centre that melts in the mouth, the sourdough is an interesting and healthy chewy wholegrain version, and the croissant is of perfect buttery flakiness. They also have some super sweet treats, a sweet bread with flavours of orange peel and anise, and a dark chocolate mini muffin, although I think the sweetness overwhelms the flavours a bit in both of these, a little bit less sugar would be a good idea. Maybe they just don’t mix well with that super dry IPA. One of the chefs explains that although they would like to be completely organic, all the best grains available in the US for breadmaking are grown in the mid west – not an area with a groundswell of organic farmers, so they just have to go with the best grains and make sure all the other ingredients are local and organic.

Portland Tea and Mustard anyone?

Escaping from our hair nets, and grateful that there’s no one who knows me here to see that particular look, we visit a specialist cookware shop for a glass of refreshing pinot and some mustard tasting. The mustard tasting was disappointing as each of the samples was busily disguising the mustard taste. One was  mixed with orange and egg and tasted like a mild mayonnaise, one was a lemon, mustard and dill sauce that tasted like mild sweet vinegar, and one was a mustard and curry paste that actually tasted like a nice strong curry paste (but also overly sweet – I am starting to worry about this trend of too much sugar added to things that should be savoury). This isn’t a problem at our next stop for a cuppa (of tea). The Tea Zone is one of those wonderfully cosy cafes with an extensive collection of quality teas from around the world, so I was able to refresh myself with samples of Lapsang Souchong, Camomile and a delicate white Green tea.

Portland Pizza divides opinion.

Now we get to sit in the sun outside Hot Lips Pizza in the Eco Trust building – yes, an environmentally friendly pizza place with vegan pizza bases and the source of each of the possible toppings listed by their farm and even paddock of origin, and located in the greenist 6star rated building in town. I like this place, they are of the “thin crust, no more than three ingredients on top simplicity” school rather than the “load it up with as many toppings as possible and then inject more cheese inside the crust” school of thought. Listening to the comments of my walking companions though, it seems I am in the minority on this. If only they didn’t go and spoil it by bringing out the pizza on trays about a metre in diameter – this isn’t Texas, there’s just no need for this kind of ridiculous oversizing – are you listening Hot Lips Pizza?

Portland’s cupcake sweetener.

And we finally fizzle out at Cupcake Jones, just down the street, where I mainline on more over the top sugar in the form of their organic mini cupcakes (from locally sourced ingredients) – at least these are supposed to be sweet, and these ones were not skimping on the sweetness. My head buzzing with the sugar high, I decide I need a lot more walking, so I head for the riverfront and start by strolling through the weekend market stalls. Plenty of spicy but not sweet organic soaps to sniff, and some pretty interesting jewellery as well. Then I find the beer tent, a tradition that too many markets miss out on, and I am able to grab another bitter IPA to keep me cool as I walk south along the riverbank for a couple of hours on this hot sunny day, watching the locals taking their kids swimming in the public fountains that pop up all around this city. On reaching the Downtown Waterfront area, I find an outdoor table, overlooking the river, and order a selection of baked olives with a flight of Oregon Pinot Noir, and settle in for some much needed savoury bliss. Which just goes to prove that one epicurean’s savoury special is another epicurean’s sweet nightmare.