Sunday, May 13, 2012
Last week I was in Asheville, NC – the self-proclaimed FoodTopia. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is a city with a population of about 83,000. It is surrounded by natural beauty. I took a trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mount Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Rockies) and visited the Biltmore House (the largest house in the U.S). My favorite rooms in the Biltmore House were the kitchen areas: vegetable pantry, walk-in refrigerators, (pretty nice for 1895), pastry kitchen, rotisserie kitchen, kitchen pantry (with dumb waiters), and the main kitchen.
On my trip I also visited the Botanical Gardens of Asheville; the plants were labeled which was helpful. There were wild strawberries and edible/medicinal plants growing there. Recent news events aside, the Asheville residents are generally considered quite progressive; they are definitely into food. There are many locally-owned small restaurants.
I guess I got here too early in the year. I found that the restaurants often listed farm sources on their menus and the websites stated that they use local food – when available. But, I found that there were not a lot of local foods being served. And, often the staff was not educated on exactly which farms which foods came from; the menus did not appear (to me) to be seasonal. But, the food in the South is different than the North. Collard greens, pickled beets, and pimento cheese was everywhere. I had to ask – pimento cheese is a mixture of shredded cheddar cheese, pimentos, and mayonnaise. Each restaurant adds their own combination of herbs and spices to customize the recipe.
One day late in the week, I set out to really figure out the local food scene. I went to the 27 acre Western North Carolina Farmers Market. It is a great market, but a lot of the current produce was from South Carolina and Florida. They also sold Vermont maple syrup and Amish cheese and butter. There is a restaurant on site. I spoke with a staff person and looked over the menu. I asked if the meats, cheeses, and eggs were local, and they were not. I was told that they use local crops when they are available which right now are potatoes, pickled beets, and lettuces/greens. I stopped by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services office. They gave me a link to a list of what is in season as the year progresses. I spoke with a local at a restaurant at the Grove Park Inn and learned that they are beginning to source local produce and natural meat (the free-range chicken served was from Georgia) at their restaurant. She also said that her neighborhood ‘tailgate’ farmers market had more options than what I described at the market I visited, such as turnips and other roots. I also came across the AppalachianSustainable Agriculture Project website which appears to be a wealth of information.
While in Asheville, I did eat locally made tempeh (with local cheese on a sandwich) and had real Tupelo honey (from Northern FL) on a warm biscuit. My treat was (local fruit) strawberry sorbetto and (local milk) toasted almond gelato from Chocolate Gems. There are at least four chocolatiers in downtown Asheville. One of them is Michigan-based Kilwins. It was nice to walk by Kilwins and smell ‘home’.
I also picked up local, organic eggs at the food co-op (named after the local river) and organic multi-grain bread from Well-Bred bakery for my breakfasts in my chalet. The nice thing about shopping at a food co-op when traveling is the flexibility. I was shopping for one person for only one week and was able to purchase from a large bulk food selection as well as buy six eggs and one stick of butter. Last year I posted a blog about vacationing called Eating Local on the Road.
I avoided the local grits. But, the greens were divine. I was able to substitute them for French fries with sandwiches. That is a lesson that Michigan could take from North Carolina.
Here in Grand Rapids it seems that our local food options are based on relationships with the farmers. I would not assume that Asheville wouldn’t have that connection too. Because Michigan is second only to California (and let’s face it – they need to irrigate a lot) in the number of crops we can grow and at the very least Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and even tiny Fennville have many farm to table restaurants…. I think that MI is Foodtopia. Should we vote on THAT too?