Some of the greatest blue cheeses in the world are made in southern Oregon, by Rogue Creamery.
STEPHANIE ZONIS is a NIBBLE contributing editor.
Travels In Southern Oregon
Artisan Food, Wine & Shakespeare
CAPSULE REPORT: There’s a lot of exciting food in southern Oregon...along with wine and plenty of outdoor activities to work them both off. If you’d like a rewarding food and wine vacation and don’t want to cope with the crowds in Napa, try Oregon. It’s much smaller in terms of food and variety, but much grander in terms of scenery and the great oudoors. Like San Francisco, Portland has a thriving gourmet restaurant scene, including many chefs and front-of-the-house staff who escaped San Francisco’s high cost of living. So, plan your itinerary to fly in to this charming city on the Willamette River, and dine up a storm before heading south.
Southern Oregon is more sparsely-populated than the northern part of the state, with less rain, hotter summers and colder winters. Because there are no large population centers with a hip reputation, such as Portland or Eugene, a lot of people tend to overlook this region, but that’s a mistake; there’s more to see and do here than you might think. Perhaps most important of all, there’s some darn good food available—a lot more than I was able to try, in fact. A good starting point for gathering information is the Southern Oregon Visitors Association.
The Sportin’ Life
If you’re a fan of the great outdoors, it doesn’t get much greater than this. Whether you’re into fishing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, golfing, trail hiking, camping, biking, hunting, skiing and snowboarding or bird watching, there’s something for you in southern Oregon, in every season. There are quite a number of tour operators, as might be expected, but a lot of locals have their own favorite spots for these activities. Much of the scenic wonder buzz centers on Crater Lake National Park, but that’s not the only spot for natural beauty. Even if you just appreciate good scenery as you’re driving by, you’ll find much of it in this part of the state. There’s a lot of hilly or outright mountainous terrain, but, unlike some other regions of the U.S., not every square inch of it has been developed. Get out into the country, which is an easy matter of going just a few miles, and the landscape becomes prettier still. Work some outdoor activities into your schedule, and work off those calories.
Wine, Wine, Wine
The wines of southern Oregon are of greater variety than those made in the northern part of the state. The latter seems restricted to mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. You’ll still find some of those produced by the southern wineries, but, because of the differences in climate, you’ll also discover Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and even the occasional Port. How do the wines compare to those of northern California or France? I don’t drink wine, but the wine folks here tell me that it is the colder climate to the north that produces the wines Oregon is most famous for.
But here’s the funny thing: even if you don’t consume alcohol, the wineries here are still fabulous places to visit. They’re often in lovely settings—EdenVale Winery in Medford and Valley View Winery in Jacksonville (photo at right) are in spots of special beauty. Some have elegant tasting rooms, while others favor simpler and more rustic arrangements for sampling, but the majority offer specialty foods in addition to wines, so it’s hard to come away empty-handed. Some good local cheese or chocolate of regional renown might well accompany you back to your car. And, because many of the vineyards are out in the country, visiting a few of them can be a relaxing way to spend a weekend afternoon. Your first encounter with some of these wineries might well be for a wedding or other function, as there are wineries in this region that were obviously planned with an eye toward such activities (Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass is a fine example). I enjoy talking to the proprietors about their wines, because they all have their own ideas about everything from organic viticulture to aging techniques. Note that many of the wineries charge for tastings. For more information on the Applegate Wine Trail, visit AppleGateWineTrail.com; for other area wineries, see the Southern Oregon Visitors Association website.
Photo: The vineyards of Valley View Winery.
I was able to get to just two of these. The Medford Farmers Market is held on Thursday mornings, mid-March to mid-November; the Ashland Farmers Market is on Tuesday mornings during the same months. I was there toward the end of the season (mid-to-late October), but I was bowled over by the wonderful diversity of products still available. From the hydroponically-grown strawberries to the fresh, line-caught salmon to the biodynamically-farmed sprouts of many types...from the freshly-made tortillas to the Oregon truffles (the real ones, fungi!) to the cinnamon-roasted almonds to the sustainably-farmed bison sausages...a cornucopia of beautiful and lovingly-prepared foods greeted me. I didn’t know where to turn first. And this was the end of the season for these markets, when a number of vendors were no longer present. What must these markets be like in mid-summer? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the vendors are exactly the same at both markets, by the way. There is definitely overlap, but not all vendors sell at both venues, thus providing you with a neat excuse to attend both during your stay. For more information, see OregonFarmersMarkets.org.
Photo: Blue Fox Carrots at the Ashland Farmers Market.
Eat, drink and be merry as you drive through southern Oregon.
- Ashland: Ashland is a college town (Southern Oregon University is there). But it’s also home to an annual Shakespeare Festival of no little fame, many restaurants of good reputation and some hippies. I was unable to get to any restaurants here, but if you are a foodie, I can recommend the Ashland Food Co-op, at 237 North First Street. It’s a smallish place, but it’s packed with great food choices, from wild-caught, unbleached, non-precooked, canned tuna to local baked goods from companies like My Sweet Ol’ Etcetera, to the considerable number of choices in the store’s prepared foods section. For more details, see AshlandFood.coop. An attempt is being made to open another co-op in Medford.
- Central Point: This community is home to Rogue Creamery (click here for our review). If you’re one of the six cheese-lovers in the U.S. who still hasn’t heard of them, listen up! They’re a boutique cheesemaker, producing some absolutely lovely offerings. Rogue is best-known for its blue cheeses, which come in many styles ranging from a Smokey Blue to Oregonzola; but they also offer several Cheddars and a handful of types of cheese curds (another NIBBLE favorite—read more). In addition to cheese, the retail store (conveniently located in front of the manufacturing facility) has regionally- or locally-produced salami, baked goods, and preserves, not to mention apparel. The address is 311 North Front Street. But wait! Rogue Creamery just acquired a neighbor that will be a foodie destination in its own right. Lillie Belle Farms (a NIBBLE Top Pick, read the review), a boutique chocolatier, moved into the building at 211 North Front Street in Central Point. In the interest of full disclosure, the proprietor, Jeff Shepherd, is a friend; I just spent two weeks working at his facility. I saw with my own eyes the care and attention that go into the making of these chocolates. These are no mass-produced, sweet candies, but genuinely-delicious chocolates made with first-quality ingredients. Try any of the berry cordials (made with organic berries—photo above) or the mouthwatering ganache chocolates (in flavors such as Espresso, Spearmint and Raspberry). If you crave spicy foods, the Cayenne Caramels are sure to hit the spot. LillieBelleFarms.com can fill you in on the latest information.
Photo of Lillie Belle Farms chocolates by Dhanraj Emanuel.
- Jacksonville: This entire town has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Jacksonville was once the commercial and cultural heart of southern Oregon, but the town’s fortune took a downward spiral when the citizens refused to pay the railroad to establish a stop in their community—a bit of extortion that was common practice in the days when the railroads were a power in the land. (Neighboring Medford did pay the railroad, the stop was established there instead, and Jacksonville’s population dwindled as the town became an agricultural center.) These days, Jacksonville has a small-town atmosphere, with a quaint downtown that’s pleasant for walking. The Britt Festival, an annual two-week celebration of music, is held in a pretty setting. If you’re in the area, don’t miss the Jacksonville Inn. This is a combination bed-and-breakfast and fine dining restaurant, featuring both structure and some décor salvaged from the town’s agricultural past. Note that I was given a meal here. I like the use of local and regional ingredients, beers and wines in this establishment. The Hazelnut Prawns (with a dill beurre blanc sauce), grilled salmon, Parmesan mashed potatoes and Cream of Chanterelle Soup are all delightful. You can do more reading up at JacksonvilleInn.com. Also in Jacksonville, you’ll find Gary West Meats, a NIBBLE Top Pick (photo above—read our review), known chiefly for their jerky (beef, elk and buffalo).
Photo: Gary West buffalo jerky—a NIBBLE favorite.
- Medford: I stayed in Medford, a good base for exploring the area. The TownePlace Suites, at 1395 Center Drive, are designed for longer stays. They have full (though small) kitchens and laundry facilities, and are comfortably arranged. For shorter stays, the SpringHill Suites, just across a parking lot, are a good bet. In recent years, there’s been a move to open more sophisticated dining spots in the downtown area. I was unable to visit 38 on Central, but their menu looks terrific. Elements, a tapas bar and lounge, is visually appealing, but I couldn’t eat there either; a friend was joining me for dinner and bringing her nine-year-old daughter, and Elements allows no minors due to a licensing requirement. See more at ElementsMedford.com. Here’s some of what I might have had (photo at right), delicious with the local wines, I’m sure. Finally, there’s Porter’s, in the building that once housed the railroad depot. I ended up eating here twice; I purchased one meal and was given a second. I’ve heard Porter’s described as a steak house, but their menu is more varied than that, as they also offer some fish and poultry entrées. If the halibut with a Parmesan crust is available, I’d certainly suggest it, ditto the great steelhead that’s pan-seared and served with a pinot noir sauce. There’s also a baby spinach salad with apples, candied hazelnuts, blue cheese, caramelized onions and balsamic vinaigrette that should not be passed up. All three of these eating establishments pride themselves on using local and regional ingredients; isn’t that the way all restaurants.
More To Munch
I must mention three additional businesses that didn’t quite fit into any of the above sections. Southern Oregon Sauce & Spice Company LLC makes a dandy Plum-Ginger Teriyaki Sauce. I ran into them at a bash thrown by Rising Sun Farms. I don’t think Southern Oregon Sauce has a retail location, but you can order from them online. Pholia Farm, in Rogue River, makes glorious raw milk cheeses from their own Nigerian Dwarf goats, the goat breed with the highest percentage of butterfat in its milk (read: the richest cheese). These cheeses are produced in small quantities, so get them while you can. I’m very fond of both the Elk Mountain and the Hillis Peak. The farm is open to the public on a limited basis; tours can also be made by appointment. See PholiaFarm.com for more information—and if you visit, watch out for Pigsy, as she may well try to eat your shoelaces.
Photo: Wheels of Pholia Farm’s Covered Bridge, a mild and creamy washed curd goat cheese named after the historic Wimer Covered Bridge. We find the cheese much more attractive than the actual bridge (at right). However, out of respect, we page homage to the historic Jackson County bridge, built in 1892, collapsed suddenly in July 2003, and is in the process of being restored.
Finally, there’s Pennington Farms, or, as I call them, the Wizards of Pears. I’ve never cared much for pears, but supermarket pears are not such stellar examples of the category, and this company might just change my mind single-handedly. The company sells at both the Ashland and Medford Farmers Markets. Promise me you’ll try some of their Pear Butter (really more of a pear preserve) or one of their Pear Pies, large turnovers with a sensational filling of sliced pears, a little sugar and not much else. They also produce preserves and fruit syrups in other varieties and for shipping. Their website, PenningtonFarms.net, does not have online ordering, but you can call for a brochure.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’d like to point out some other NIBBLE favorites in the area:
- Cary’s of Oregon, outstanding toffees, in Grants Pass
- Dagoba Chocolate, the county’s most famous organic chocolatier, in Ashland
- Pete’s Gourmet Confections, in Central Point
- Rogue Spirits distillery, in Newport
Special thanks to Sue Stephens, of the Medford Visitors and Convention Bureau, VisitMedford.org.