Take your taste buds to their full potential with an exploration of five Outer Banks–made foods.
Your mouth can perceive five main flavors — sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami — and several subflavors. Depending on your age and a number of other factors, you probably have between 5,000 and 10,000 taste buds on your tongue and along the roof, sides and back of your mouth. But did you know you lose taste buds as you age? The first taste sensations to dwindle are salty and sweet, usually followed by bitter and sour. Adding insult to injury, as you age there is also a decrease in the number of sensor cells in your nose, a factor that also diminishes your sense of taste. Why the bad news? It’s a wake-up call, people. Taste buds are atrophying as you read this. Go, taste. Revel in the sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami flavors of life.
Outer Banks SeaSalt
“We live by the ocean, so where is the locally made sea salt?” It was a logical question for an Outer Banks chef and Slow Food Movement devotee going to great lengths to procure only the freshest local and regional ingredients for her recipes.
So when Amy Huggins Gaw learned that the closest saltworks was in Maine, she took her local-food focus to the extreme and made her own salt by boiling down ocean water in an aluminum pot in her kitchen. Her first attempts in 2009 were crude, but in the last five years she and her husband, John Gaw, have perfected the art of making artisan sea salt in the humid climate of the Outer Banks, and their business, Outer Banks SeaSalt, is going gangbusters.
The Gaws make salt in the heritage method, boiling and resting, the same way that Outer Bankers harvested it in the 1700s. After she had been experimenting with salt-making for a while, Amy discovered a unique bit of salty Outer Banks history: It seems there was a salt shortage in the mid-1700s, and the island residents were in a panic because without salt they could not preserve their meat and fish. Supposedly Benjamin Franklin came to the rescue by sending William Brownrigg’s 350-page “The Art of Making Common Salt” to the people of coastal North Carolina. Amy has read the whole thing, in old English, and it documents the same process she and John are using.
The Gaws’ salt is more than a functional preserving salt, however. Their salt is course and flaky, not grainy like table salt. Amy calls it a finishing salt, perfect for sprinkling on final dishes or bringing out the sweetness in chocolate and caramel. It is completely natural — no preservatives, colorants, iodine or anti-caking agents are added.
The only problem now is how to meet the ever-growing demand without getting so big that the salt loses its handmade magic. The Gaws have help transporting ocean water in 5-gallon buckets to their newly acquired country haven in Currituck County, but they still make the salt themselves. Amy personally hand-fluffs and sorts every batch.
It’s a labor intensive process. One gallon of ocean water creates about 4 ounces of sea salt — which sounds like a lot until you start toting gallons of sea water to Currituck. But they love the job just the same.
“It’s like magic from the Atlantic Ocean,” says Amy.
The salt is sold in five states and at numerous retailers on the Outer Banks. Many chefs also have also disovered it.
“It has a life of its own,” says Amy. “It’s taking us along for the ride.” obxseasalt.com
Full Moon Brewery
This microbrewery is physically tiny — it consists of a bar with about 20 seats right in the fermenting room — but the small-batch beer made here is big on flavor. Owner Paul Charron and brewmaster Owen Sullivan craft nine different British- and Irish-style beers.
If bitter is your taste preference in beer, Full Moon’s Extra Special Bitter (ESB), the Vitamin O, is the first one to try. It’s a very balanced, drinkable beer that’s mildly bitter with a slightly fruity finish. Also try the Devil’s Own IPA, which is a light and clean English-style IPA that’s not as highly hopped as an American-style IPA. The Baltimore Blonde, a British-style Pale Ale, is a crowd pleaser, with a very light citrus-bitterness that comes in at the end.
Other beers brewed here include the Lost Colony Ale, a Northern English Nut Brown ale; Charron Stout, a dry Irish stout; Stone of Destiny, a Scotch ale; Paddy Wagon Red, an Irish red ale; Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, an Imperial stout; and the Manteo Porter.
Of course, flights are great for sampling several of Full Moon’s offerings, but the best way to get to know the beers is in Charron’s Beer School 101. Witty, intellectual and infectiously enthusiastic about brewing, Charron offers up repartee that includes anecdotes, jokes, history and process alongside tastings. It’s offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 4 p.m., and advance reservations are required.
Charron brewed his first beer from a home kit with a friend in 2000. “I was immediately hooked,” he says. He graduated from making five gallons at a time in his garage to opening his own brewery by 2011, and he hired Sullivan, a self-taught craft brewer, in 2012. They make a great brewing team — eight of their nine beers have won a silver or bronze medal from the World Beer Championships (one award is pending).
If you love drinking beer and talking about beer in an intimate setting, Full Moon Brewery is the place. Growlers are available, as is food from the Full Moon Cafe next door. thefullmooncafe.com
Ocracoke Fig Preserves
A fresh-picked, sun-ripened fig is a package of naturally sweet summer perfection. But its lifespan is too short, and that’s where preserves come in.
In the old days on Ocracoke Island, where there is a fig tree in almost every yard, just about every household cook “put up” their annual fig harvest. The tradition is not what it once was, but enough people are still doing it that the island is known for its fig preserves.
Janie Garrish, a native Ocracoker, comes from a long line of cooks who made fig preserves, and she carries on the tradition. From the last week in July through the first couple of weeks in August, she harvests figs and makes fig preserves. In 2013, a banner year, she and her brother harvested 425 pounds of figs off her pound fig and 60-year-old blue fig trees. In the old metal Ocracoke Navy base cook pot that’s been handed down through her family, she made 18 cases of pint jars, 11 cases of half-pint jars and 17 quarts of fig syrup. Her concoction of figs, sugar and lemon is a dark, almost molasses-colored preserve, with chewy figs, chunks of lemon and a rich syrup.
She sells most of her preserves to regular customers by the case and also sells some at the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum and to Back Porch Restaurant. She saves some for herself — not to eat; she doesn’t like figs, raw or cooked — but to make another Ocracoke staple: fig cakes. Fig cakes are made with fig preserves. Garrish makes her super-moist by using a combination of preserves and fig syrup.
You can find fig preserves made by Garrish and other locals at Ocracoke Preservation Soceity and at many other places on the island, including Village Craftsmen, The Variety Store, The Community Store and the Fish House. Also keep an eye out for fig cakes in local restaurants and bakeries. Your sweet tooth will thank you. ocracokepreservation.org
The Brine and Bottle’s Pickled Products
Did you know that the term pickle comes from the Dutch word pekel, which means brine?
So you’d expect a restaurant with “brine” in its name to be pickle oriented, and such is the case with The Brine and Bottle restaurant in Nags Head.
The restaurant’s display case is loaded with jars of pickles, and their dishes are studded with pickled products. We’re not just talking about cucumbers, although their Old-Fashioned Bread and Butters are one of their best sellers. We’re talking about pickled beets, jalapenos, carrots, okra, cauliflower, beans, celery, anaheim peppers, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and even lemons.
Proprietor/Chef Andrew Donovan and his kitchen staff make pickled products all year round and not because pickling is trendy. For Donovan, pickling is a way to connect to his Southern roots.
He grew up in western North Carolina, often alongside a grandmother who tended a garden and pickled and preserved food to feed the family. He traces his interest in pickling to spending time with her.
“I got most of my rough education from her,” he says, “but full-scale service production is much different.”
Pickling is also a necessity when cooking with a hyper-focus on seasonal food, as Donovan does. “Ramps, fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes and asparagus are not around for long,” he says. “If you enjoy cooking with them you need to pickle and preserve.”
In 2013 Donovan and his staff pickled 500 pounds of ramps — and sold them all.
Not all of the pickles they create make it to retail; they have a stockpile in the back to use for cooking and completing dishes. Donovan says the sour/acidic flavor is a component of 90 percent of the dishes at The Brine and Bottle. “We try to have an acid/sour component to nearly every dish we do,” he says. “Acidity is an important component of any kind of finished product. When a dish comes together, acidity is one of our building blocks.”
For example, on a recent spring menu, pickled cauliflower showed up on a dish of pan-seared scallops/cauliflower velouté with local asparagus and fennel salad. In some dishes the acidity comes not from pickles but from a twist of citrus juice. And some recipes, like the deviled eggs, pimiento cheese and bacon jam, call for pickle juice to add a subtle acidity. The most popular item on the menu is pickle-based: fried house pickles with buttermilk-chive dressing.
“I’m a firm believer that pickles are a staple of the Southern kitchen,” he says. thebrineandbottle.com
Jim Douglas, owner of Chilli Peppers Coastal Grill in Kill Devil Hills, has been experimenting with making jerky for 20 years — mainly because he likes it as a healthy, high-protein snack. For a long time it was just a hobby, but then he started to share it with friends, mostly to other dads at youth sporting events. But people got hooked and he had to make more. Now he sells it commercially, so people can stop by the restaurant to pick up their fix.
Using thin-sliced USDA choice eye of round, a dehydrator and his own sauces and salt blends, Douglas has perfected five flavors of house-made jerky: Cracked Pepper; Sweet and Sassy, with chipotle and brown sugar; Asian, with a hint of soy and wasabi; Mesquite, with a light smoky flavor; and The Good, The Bad and the Diablo, with spicy habanero that is not too hot to enjoy but just hot enough to keep you reaching into the bag for more endorphin stimulation. The jerky has the savory, meaty taste of umami blended with touches of salty, sweet and spicy, depending on the flavorings.
Douglas’s philosophy with making the jerky is similar to that of his restaurant: “Rather than focus on one particular flavor style, I touch base on many flavors from around the world,” he says.
It’s not a widely advertised item, but those in the know can stop by the restaurant to purchase it. Douglas has plans to sell it beyond the restaurant one day. He also sells his Chilli Peppers Spice Co. salt blends and sauces and encourages people to use them when making their own jerky. They can be bought locally at Harris Teeters and at Chilli Peppers. chilli-peppers.com
story by Molly Harrison
photographs by Erin Lundy