A Little Word on Tasting the Tastiest Town [The Traveling Bite]

Local Seven-Pepper Jelly, Aged Goat Cheese, and a biscuit from Rise, the famous Durham shop serving only biscuits and donuts. In some ways, everything I thought I knew about the South was right. And in some ways, the Carolinian culinary-scene is about to take the local, sustainable, restrictive-diet world by storm. (And no, I didn't eat that biscuit all by myself.)

Local Seven-Pepper Jelly, Aged Goat Cheese, and a biscuit from Rise, the famous Durham shop serving only biscuits and donuts. In some ways, everything I thought I knew about the South was right. And in some ways, the Carolinian culinary-scene is about to take the local, sustainable, restrictive-diet world by storm. (And no, I didn’t eat that biscuit all by myself.)

The South has a reputation for the best vinegar-based barbeque sauces in the country. It’s also known for grits, biscuits, hush puppies, and a variety of other foods that typically come deep-fried and butter-basted.

Last weekend, I dropped below the Mason Dixon line for the first time to visit my best friend, Heather, who recently moved to Durham, North Carolina. Fortunately, I arrived just in time for the third annual TerraVITA Food & Wine Festival. I didn’t know it when I booked my ticket, but the quick weekend jaunt to the South became an inspiring and eye-opening culinary experience that may very well have  shattered my perception of the Southern kitchen.

Maybe.

Heather’s birthday was the day I flew in, and we had scheduled a wine tasting at a local wine shop. My first taste of the South came as a generous sip of wine from Wine Authorities in Durham. The owner, Craig Heffley, has made his mark on the Research Triangle by traveling the globe to find the best undiscovered wineries. Every bottle in his modest shop was hand-selected, and represents a family-owned vineyard, many of which have never before been distributed in the US. Heffley is committed to circumventing the primary problems associated with the corporate wine industry – mainly, the domination of liquor store shelves by a few major companies, and the hundreds of additives present in the wines produced by these leading wine tycoons.

At the same time, Heffley was frustrated by the way many boutique wine shops isolated the average customer with astronomical prices and complicated jargon. From a desire to remedy these serious problems with the wine world, Heffley’s accessible, casual store and lounge was born.

We sampled five exquisite wines, all of which were hand-selected by Heffley. They represent family-run vineyards around the world who are making their US debuts.

We sampled five exquisite wines, all of which were hand-selected by Heffley. They represent family-run vineyards around the world, many of which are making their US debuts. Shoppers can try a wide selection of wines at any given time with the Wine Authorities’ Enomatic “Cellar Door” tasting bar. 

Heffley started us (me, Heather, and her boyfriend, also a Craig), with a Brut Cava he discovered on the final day of a recent trip to Spain. It’s a clean, luxe-tasting bubbly produced on Mas Codina, the estate owned by the Garriga family, and they’ve been making it like this since the 1600’s. We moved on to a pale rosé, and then a nearly-fuschia French red, when Craig encouraged us to cut into the aged local Prodigal Farms goat cheese on the bar so the fat could cut the tannin. We concluded with a dessert Moscato d’Asti Vignot that was so remarkable, I took a bottle back to Heather’s.

The commitment to local goods and producers quickly became the theme of the weekend, and the saving grace to the meat-focused meals and hearty fare I repeatedly encountered.

For dinner, we enjoyed Spanish-style tapas with Southern flair at a favorite local haunt, Mateo. Both cuisines are extremely meat-oriented, and the menu at Mateo reflected the joint passion for pork.

The first round of pinchos was entirely vegan, gluten-free, and grain-free. It was a light start to an indulgent meal.

The first round of pinchos was entirely vegan, gluten-free, and grain-free. It was a light start to an indulgent meal, and the Crispy Moorish Chickpeas are one of my top recommendations.

This, of course, was a perfect place to celebrate Heather’s birthday: she practices a grain-free lifestyle, and primarily eats proteins and vegetables. We were started with a selection of smoked barbeque marcona almonds, Spanish olives, and Moorish-spiced crispy garbanzo beans. Each pincho was perfectly flavored to enhance the natural qualities of the focal ingredient. After that, however, the selection of vegetarian dishes was limited.

At one moment in the evening, our table was covered with plates of barbeque pulled pork sliders with piquillo cheese, pepper-jelly spare ribs, paper-thin jamon, and more. I sampled the cheese-stuffed date, but stuck primarily to my personal order: roasted beets and watermelon asada and the chared local vegetables – a plate with enormous wedges of squash, roasted peppers, and an earthy eggplant puree.

The Escalavida is my top recommended plate for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone looking to dine lightly at Mateo. It was one of the few meat and dairy-free dishes, and the vegetables had a wonderful charred flavor.

The Escalavida is my top recommended plate for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone looking to dine lightly at Mateo. It was one of the few meat and dairy-free dishes, and the vegetables had a wonderful charred flavor.

Mateo’s chef/owner Matt Kelly clearly has a vision for the future of Southern cuisine. The menu is smart – the local North Carolinian ingredients are acknowledged throughout the dishes in a refined and modest style. From the evening’s local crispy okra special to the Ensalada Verde with North Carolina peaches, or the Brinkley Farm Snap Pea, and even the Smithfield mangalista ham, there’s no doubt that the fare is fresh and truly of the Carolinas – even with all the mojo verdes and chorizo butter you can slather onto a slice of local baked bread.

Digesting could have taken the entire weekend, but we still concluded the night with so that we could celebrate with a glass of the Wine Authorities exclusive when we returned home.

First thing in the morning, our stomachs still full, Heather and I braved our pre-determined tasting trail. We grabbed coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon, a highly-recommended coffee shop that hand-grinds all of their beans, and creates unforgettable natural flavors from inside a converted garage.

My Iced Middle Eastern Coffee was slow-brewed with rose, cardamom, and vanilla bean. The incredibly aromatic coffee was a shock to my taste buds. There was no added sugar, no artificial flavorings, and no dairy. Yet the beverage was naturally sweet and highly floral – a true treat, and a far cry from Southern sweet tea.

With our brews in hand, we made haste to Foster’s Market. This shop serves Durham as a distributor of specialty goods, a coffee shop, a partial-service restaurant, and is home to award-winning private-label Seven Pepper Jelly.

Despite the TerraVITA Grand Tasting on the Green being only hours away, Heather insisted this was one of her personal favorite eateries, and not-to-be-missed.

I estimate this small cup of dairy-free soup was no more than 100 calories. The coconut flavor was mild, but added sweetness to the bright heat of the ginger.

I estimate this small cup of dairy-free soup was no more than 100 calories. The coconut flavor was mild, but added sweetness to the bright heat of the ginger.

I ordered a vegan Carrot Ginger Soup (made with a splash of coconut milk and a generous helping of green onion) and Heather took their signature breakfast. On the way out, I snagged a sample of Rain Holloway’s “BrittleBits” hand-baked peanut brittle.

Neither Heather nor I worried about making room for the almost 40 chefs and producers presenting at TerraVITA. By the time we arrived in Chapel Hill, our stomachs were empty and ready to go.

Because this was, after all, a grand tasting, I’m saving TerraVITA for a post of its own. How else can I do justice to the extensive range of fall-inspired bisques, the innovative takes on classic grits, the vegetarian terrines and banh mi, and of course, the local Carolina spirits and cider?

After TerraVITA, Heather and I retired for the evening, to dig through our bounty (a few pocketed truffles and a gift bag full of magazines, coffee beans, and local North Carolina Burt’s Bees.)

It wasn’t until the following morning that we resumed our three-day feast. At La Farm Bakery in Cary, Heather, Craig and myself met famed baker and first-time author Lionel Vatinet. I first had the pleasure of meeting Lionel back in New York, in the Food & Wine / Travel + Leisure magazine lobby. There, surrounded by bags and bags of fresh-baked bread, flown in that morning from Cary, was Lionel. That afternoon, the entire office took tears of White Chocolate Baguettes to their desk, tossed sad packaged lunches for slices of North Carolina whole wheat, hand-rolled baguettes, and bite of the enormous wheel of sourdough that was a carb-pocalypse in it of itself.

Naturally, the first thing I did when I booked my flight to Durham was tell Heather we were having brunch at La Farm.

Heather, I’m sorry to say, picked a very bad time to stop eating wheat.

As always, share your breakfast potatoes, hold the hollandaise, and eat only half of whatever bread you're served to make sure you don't overdo it at brunch. Asking for extra fruit is an easy way to take the edge off the tempting mini scone.

As always, share your breakfast potatoes, hold the hollandaise, and eat only half of whatever bread you’re served to make sure you don’t overdo it at brunch. Asking for extra fruit is an easy way to take the edge off the tempting mini scone.

For myself, I enjoyed a healthy, vegetarian breakfast of poached eggs on English muffin-style bread, with asparagus, spinach, and fresh-cut chives. I kept the hollandaise on the side as a final gesture of calorie and health-conscious eating. But the breakfast potatoes were too good no to try, as was the miniature cinnamon and white chocolate scone.

Fortunately, Craig was a happy recipient of our cherished leftovers. Because even on vacation – even in the South – sometimes the scone is just too much.

Nevertheless, I still found myself with an entire White Chocolate Baguette in my carry-on, which I have frozen in my freezer for a day when a slice of light, whole wheat, 35-calorie toast just won’t cut it. It may not be vegan, and it’s most certainly not gluten-free, but it was baked with Vatinet’s intense respect for ingredient-driven breads.

During my stay, I was amazed to see how accommodating all the chefs and bakers, sommeliers and baristas were. My impression of Southern-style food has always been that of a heavy, comfort-food cuisine rooted in traditions which are not meant to be modified, broken, or ignored.

But at every place I ate, while there was no shortage of meat, I was never for want of delicious, local vegetables, hand-prepared goods, and a little more soul than I’m used to seeing in my food. Southern Living recently named Durham the Tastiest Town in the South – and I can see why. What’s more, the Research Triangle is a modern, quickly developing region on everyone’s radar. It’s modern, multi-cultural, and all of that is clearly reflected in the presence of thoughtful events such as TerraVITA, the rapidly increasing vegetarian and vegan options, and the proud commitment to whole, good foods.

Until tomorrow, when I take a giant bite out of the Third Annual TerraVITA Grand Tasting.

Melanie

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