It comes as no surprise to those of us lucky enough to live in the western part of the Triangle that we are surrounded by an amazing food scene. The Triangle consistently tops not only lists of best places to live and fastest growing metropolises, but best and fastest-growing food scenes as well; Durham was even named the tastiest town in the South by Southern Living magazine just last year. An abundance of farms producing fresh produce, a large population of talented chefs, and a population committed to farm-to-fork eating has come together to create one of the most promising food scenes in the Southeast.
To celebrate the bourgeoning local food scene in Orange and Durham counties, Chapel Hill Magazine, Durham Magazine, and the new TASTE magazine collaborated to sponsor TASTE 2014. TASTE 2014 is a five day festival celebrating the up-and-coming food, beer, and wine culture in the area, in hopes of becoming an annual event with additional events throughout the year. TASTE kicked off Thursday night with the Grand TASTE Experience at the Durham Performing Arts Center, featuring some of the most talented chefs in the area, as well as local breweries and wine distributors.
Not surprisingly, Orange County made quite the showing at the Grand TASTE Experience. Chapel Hill classics like Weathervane, Carolina Crossroads, and Il Palio served up delicious dishes highlighting local ingredients and food traditions, such as Carolina Crossroads’ pork shoulder confit served over charred pepper grits, topped with smoked corn and slaw. Even restaurants based in Durham County were highlighting Orange County products, like Piedmont, which was serving Chapel Hill Creamery Calvander crisps topped with Chapel Hill Creamery goat cheese and chives. However, the dishes that really stood out for me were a couple of Orange County restaurants that I had not visited before, though I will be remedying that after this event!
One Restaurant, which some may remember being hailed as the best restaurant in the Triangle by the Independent Weekly, had a particularly strong showing with its three offerings. First, there was a pimento cheese shortbread: pimento cheese sandwiched between cheese crackers that were reminiscent of the delicious cheese straws my grandmother used to make around Christmas time. My grandmother never made them this well, and I would be perfectly happy to swap them for these tangy bites. Second was a cocoa-chicken liver macaron. I was hesitant to try the cocoa cookies surrounding a chicken liver filling, but the mineral and raisin flavor of the chicken liver played off of the cocoa amazingly well, like a savory version of salted caramel and chocolate. Lastly (and hands-down my favorite thing of the entire evening) was the lob lollypop, a chocolate-covered raisin wrapped in foie gras and dusted in a yellow seasoning blend, making the pop strongly resemble the pollen that the loblolly pines have been gracing all of our cars with for the last few weeks. It sounds like a lot of flavors and textures going on, and it was, but in a really great way. The creaminess of the foie gras complemented the chewiness of the raisin, and the sweet, spicy, and fatty flavors of all of the parts came together into a wonderful whole. It was all I could do not to return for seconds!
Another strong showing from Orange County was Hillsborough-based Matthew’s Chocolates, a chocolate and pastry shop blending high-quality Belgian chocolate with unexpected flavors to make refreshing sweets that win over anyone who takes a bite. That’s to say nothing of the artistic decoration of the chocolates, which set out to seduce your eyes along with your tongue. They had a huge variety of options available, so I had to force myself to make hard choices, but I think it would have been impossible to make a bad choice. I chose an Earl Gray tea truffle, a dark chocolate toasted coconut truffle, a lemon cream scented with jasmine, and a vanilla cream puff drizzled with chocolate. The Earl Gray tea truffle was especially good, with a complex blend of chocolate, citrus, and a finish with the bitterness of tea. I think I may be heading to Hillsborough soon to find a Mother’s Day gift.
While the Grand TASTE Experience may be over, there are still three days of TASTE events for you to attend. Friday’s event, a TASTE of Italy wine dinner at Il Palio, is sold out, but there are four other opportunities to take part! On Saturday, there is the Durham Farmer’s Market Shop, Cook and TASTE event at Durham Spirits Company, as well as the Master vs. Master Wine Dinner at The Black House. On Sunday, you can enjoy some bluegrass and good old fashioned barbeque at the Bluegrass, Brews, and BBQ Dinner Buffet at Weathervane, or some gospel with your bloody mary at the Gospel Brunch at the Carolina Inn. For more information regarding upcoming events and tickets, visit www.tastetheevent.com