Out on the Oregon (Tasting) Trail

Culinary delights make new wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail

written by Sheila G. Miller

The pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail brought more than dutch ovens, bacon and rifles when they headed for our great state. They brought ideas, innovations and skills.

Oregon’s motto, “She flies with her own wings,” was coined by Judge Jessie Quinn Thornton, an Oregon pioneer (albeit one who diverged onto the California Trail before settling in Yamhill County) and the delegate who established Oregon Territory. The motto was meant to honor Oregon’s independent spirit. That spirit hasn’t gone away.

The trail’s influence on our state can be seen in the landscape, in the rugged commitment Oregonians show to forging new paths and seeing ideas to fruition. To celebrate the 175th anniversary of those who came before us, this year you can hike among the wagon wheel ruts and visit the interpretive centers. But you can also celebrate a new Oregon Trail–the Oregon Tasting Trail.

Because one thing Oregonians have done and continue to do well is make some of the most delicious food and drink this side of the Mississippi. Whether it’s a hoppy IPA, a perfect watermelon or tender beef, the Oregon Tasting Trail hits all the right notes. We hope you’ll join us.

Libations

When you cover these miles, you’re going to be thirsty. Luckily, Oregon’s got you covered with no shortage of beer, wine and liquor.

Let’s start with beer. This state has a reputation for making great suds, and there are plenty of breweries along the historic trail that will satiate you after a long day of exploring. Take a cruise on the Eastern Oregon Brews Byway, with eleven breweries along I-84 from Boardman in the west to Ontario in the east (and with a few detours to Burns, Mitchell, Enterprise, Milton-Freewater and John Day).

Must-tastes include Barley Brown’s, Baker City’s purveyor of fine beers and the city’s biggest tourism draw––even bigger than the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center up the road. Start with the 2013 national champion Pallet Jack IPA and go from there. Off the beaten path but no less delightful, try Ordnance Brewing in Boardman. This brewery is blazing new trails and taking beer wherever the brewer wants––or rather, the libations engineer. With beers like Bloops (that’s a blueberry wheat ale), Ordnance will convince you to leave IPAs in the dust.

Once you finish the brews byway, head 172 miles west to the end of the Oregon Trail in Oregon City, to Coin Toss Brewing. Named for the famous 1845 coin toss between Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy to name the city Portland or Boston (Pettygrove won, and Portland it is), this brewery is a perfect stop at the end of the Oregon Trail. Try a beer from the Heritage Series, brewed from historical recipes.

Oregon’s not just about beer, though. In addition to our many wineries, we can also count on our state to offer innovative distillers. In Pendleton, Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery has an Oregon-inspired vodka called Ouragon. Bonus: distillery dogs Barley and Chester. Or try Stein Distillery, in Joseph, which offers flights of spirits and seasonal mini-cocktails.

Closer to Mount Hood, swing by Camp 1805 in Hood River, with its Endurance White Whiskey and cocktails like the French 1805, which marries its vodka with blood orange, lemon and a champagne float. If you’re an Oregon history buff, perhaps the Bhagwan’s Downfall rum cocktail is more your style?

Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the many wineries populating the Oregon Trail’s old path. The arid Eastern Oregon climate might not seem the spot for top-shelf wines, but you’re wrong. Swing through the Rocks District AVA, on the Washington border in Milton-Freewater. It’s the only AVA in the country whose boundary is almost entirely made of a single landform. It’s called Rocks District for a reason––the stones are everywhere, and were moved there by the flow of the Walla Walla River out of the Blue Mountains. One of the highlights in the AVA is the Watermill Estate Vineyard, a Milton-Freewater winery started by apple growers. It shares a tasting room with Blue Mountain Cider, its sister company.

On the Ranch

photography by Timothy Bishop

Eastern Oregon ranching has its roots on the Oregon Trail. Beef cattle have been raised here since the 1860s, primarily because some pioneers chose to stop their wagons and make their homes east of the Cascades. We benefit from their decision.

A prime example is Painted Hills Natural Beef. The seven families that founded Painted Hills Natural Beef have ranched Wheeler County lands for generations. The cows are pasture-raised, without antibiotics or added hormones. You may not want to head all the way to Fossil, where the company is based, but the meat is available in markets and restaurants around the state.

At Carman Ranch in Wallowa, generations of family work the land and raise some of the finest beef cattle in Oregon. These descendants of the Weinhard family (famous for Oregon beer) still raise grass-fed beef, but have diversified, now offering pastured pork, chicken and eggs. Carman beef and other products are used in a number of restaurants, especially in Portland, and are available at grocery stores like New Seasons Market and Market of Choice. But the ranch has another plan to get their meats to you––for Portlanders, at least. Through Carman Ranch direct, you can order cuts online, then pick up the food at a warehouse in Portland. It’s a great example of the innovation Oregon is famous for.
If you’re not interested in driving through the ranches of Oregon’s countryside, many ranches and small farms will happily bring their products to you in the form of CSAs (short for community supported agriculture). Moomaw Family Farm in Oregon City, for example, offers delivery between Portland and Salem for its boxes of chicken, beef, pork, lamb and rabbit.

Dairy Delights

The Oregon Trail didn’t go all the way to Tillamook, and while the famous dairy’s cheese and other milk products are legendarily delicious, you don’t have to go all the way to the coast for farm-fresh dairy, either. In Milton-Freewater, you’ll even find former Tillamook dairy farmers who moved east to find the sun. The owners of the Walla Walla Cheese Company initially worked with Umapine Creamery before branching off into their own business. Visitors are welcome, and the company makes cheddar, gouda and jack cheese, as well as havarti. Bonus: cheese curds with flavors as diverse as Walla Walla sweet onion and “drunken” from being soaked in Dragon’s Gate porter.

Nearby Brevon Farm and Umapine Dairy is a small setup seeking to make the best in artisan cheeses. Visitors are welcome, and the creamery puts out a variety of cheeses, including several types of gouda. They can be bought on-site or at nearby markets.

The Cheese Fairy Cheese Shop in Baker City is a brand-new option for the cheese lover in your life. The shop, right on Main Street, has a cheese case full of gouda, chevre, parmesan and more. Plus, it shares the space with Copper Belt Winery, giving you extra incentive for pairings.

Step away from the cheese for a moment. In Mulino, Lady-Lane Farm is home to Garry’s Meadow Fresh Jersey Milk Products. Grab a glass bottle of milk, which is the only milk made from Jersey cows in Oregon. Insider tip: the company also makes eggnog and chocolate milk, and you can rinse and return the glass bottles to any of the retail locations that carry the milk.

Farm Fresh

 

Still hungry? Make sure you get your fruits and veggies. There are the obvious must-stops. For example, the Hood River County Fruit Loop is well known for having twenty-nine stops ranging from farm stands to berry farms to wineries and cideries, all around Hood River and nearby Mount Hood. Grab a handful of blueberries, try a glass of fresh-made cider or buy a bunch of lavender, all in one short trip.

But there are so many farms and farm stands sprinkled along the Oregon Trail, you’d be hard-pressed to find a way to try them all. The Cove-Union Farm Loop similarly organizes its local farms and attractions for visitors, with self-serve farm stands, a pumpkin patch, even a spot with baked goods and soup.

If it’s a bevy of fruit you seek, Thomas Orchards in Kimberly sells apples, pears, plums, cherries and more. The orchard also produces applesauce, jams and dried fruit, and also sells them at the property’s farmstand. If you prefer, you can pick your own fruit.

Oregon doesn’t stop with berries and apples. Hermiston is famous for its watermelons, and you can swing by Walchli Farms or Bellinger Farms and see them grown in person. Walchli, the largest watermelon growers in the Pacific Northwest, also grow asparagus, potatoes, corn and cantaloupe. Pick up your produce on site, or grab some from the local markets. Bellinger Farms’ stand started simply enough but has grown to include a bistro and The Gourmet Shoppe. The store sells the farms’ fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as pickled products, stuffed olives, dips, sauces, even food gift baskets.

 

Something Sweet

If it’s sweets you crave, the Oregon Tasting Trail has you covered there, too. Arrowhead Chocolates in Joseph that sells more than forty flavors or truffles and caramels, nut clusters and other confections. The downtown shop is a good spot for a cup of hot chocolate or a some Stumptown coffee.

There are a number of other chocolatiers in Eastern Oregon––Peterson’s Gallery & Chocolatier, in Baker City, where you can look at local art while trying truffles; Petits Noirs in Milton-Freewater, run by well-trained New York City transplants; and Alexander’s Chocolate Classics in Pendleton, which holds chocolate classes so you can learn to make your own truffles.

But dessert can take on so many forms. At Sweet Wife Baking in Baker City, you can go classic with the usual flavors, or you can dip your toe into more interesting options like bacon apple scones and brown butter rice krispie treats. The bakeshop also runs a bustling wedding cake business.

Finally, donuts don’t have to be just for breakfast. Joe’s Donuts, in Sandy, has been a local tradition since the 1970s. It’s an easy spot to find––it’s the red-and-white checked building on Highway 26.

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Mt. Hood Scenic Byway

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