Edible San Luis Obispo Article Drizzle Me This
Edible San Luis Obispo — Summer 2013
By Hayley Thomas • Photos By Jayme Burrows
Drizzle Me This The growing grounds at Chaparral Gardens Thigh deep in a sea of green fava beans and sweet peas, Cari Bourquin-Clark and Craig Clark literally wade through their two-acre organic farm, located off Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero. Surrounded by another 20 acres of untouched scenery, the cover crop is lush and alive with bumblebees. On the ground, heirloom lettuce, baby garlic and a bounty of ripening berries await picking. Craig pops a small purple flower into his mouth, deciding on the salad he'll mix up for dinner. This is the good life at Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars. There's only one rule: Thou shall drizzle wisely. "It's been a constant education for us," says Craig. "A lot of people who haven't used vinegars are confused by them. They're afraid that if they use vinegar in their food, they're going to get a mouthful of sour, overpowering taste." If that sort of thinking is black-and-white, a visit to Chaparral Gardens' on-site tasting room is pure Technicolor. With light varieties like champagne mimosa, lusty balsamics like pear ginger wasabi and plum basil and specialty oils like mandarin orange and cilantro-jalapeño, these vinegars are more than food enhancers: They're culinary game-changers. Each bottle starts with hand-selected, handpicked fruits, herbs and veggies. That bounty is then placed in small vats along with an organic kosher base vinegar. The infusions are taken through a mild fermentation process that can take months to complete. According to the couple, "time and patience" are the keys to their flavors. I was fortunate enough to experience spring in the Chaparral Gardens kitchen: Cari whipped up a berry balsamic shrub infused with fresh strawberries and basil, a refreshing shrimp cocktail marinated in their nationally recognized Pacific Spice vinegar, and pork shoulder sliders with a lingering, spicy kick. Also on the menu: a salad picked just 30 minutes prior, bursting with herbs, sweet pea tendrils, violas and arugula flowers. Craig says creating homemade dressings is a snap: Combine any vinegar with your favorite (good) olive oil and whisk for two minutes to emulsify. "We have one gentleman who visits us at the farmers market, and he hated salads; wouldn't do anything green," Craig says, salad fork at the ready. "He found our vinegars, and now says we have converted him over. He now eats a salad every night." It's that ability to enhance – not overpower – food that has made the 1,500-caseper-year operation popular all over the world. Everyone from the sous-chef at Disney Hong Kong to discerning restaurants across the country are looking for a drizzle. The couple bought their property in 2001 with the dream of selling fruits and veggies. In 2005, they bought some extra berries from their neighbor, who hosted a U-pick berry stand. With equal parts raspberries and curiosity, Cari crafted a vinegar so good that it would change the course of their lives forever. City friends are still flabbergasted at this turn of events. Cari just smiles knowingly. Like a new flavor, life is always in a constant state of development. "It's called manifest destiny," she says, tucking her blond surfer hair behind one ear. "We can create our own world here. We had an idea of what we wanted to do, and it kept changing." Now, chefs across the country are virtually "smuggling" Chaparral vinegars onto their menus. The brand has developed a loyal cult following. "Chefs really understand our vinegars and they view them as an ingredient," Cari says. "We don't pursue the restaurants – it happens word of mouth. It's a huge compliment." The couple agrees that their main priority has always been quality, not quantity. Eighty percent of what you'll find in a bottle of Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegar was grown in their garden, currently at full capacity. "We are still challenged with making sure we have berries in the middle of December, and we're just beginning to understand our rotations and how much we have to freeze," she says. New flavor Head Ancho actually resulted from that very conundrum. Strapped for space last year, the couple preserved their freshly picked ancho chile crop in vinegar, reserving it for their popular Blackberry Roasted Pepper blend. But when Craig got a call from a local oak pit joint looking for a barbecue sauce base, a light bulb went off. As it turned out, that highly concentrated ancho flavor combined with a dose of bell peppers and habanero heat provided instant magic. Now up for a Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation award, the flavor will compete against a slew of barbecue sauces, among other flavor enhancers. Champagne Mimosa and Blackberry Balsamic took gold last year, with Pacific Spice winning silver in 2011. "It's always a little tricky when we're bringing out a new flavor, because we don't know where it's going to go, how far it's going to go and what needs to be done to back it up," says Cari. "It's a juggling act." From planning and picking to production, Cari and Craig have created their brand – literally – from the ground up. The couple agrees: Working with Mother Nature is risky, but it's worth the payoff. "Creating a product is really quite intense, and in order to know if it's something you want to do, you have to try it," Cari says. "That's why it's important that if you're going to do something, you need it to be really good. Otherwise, why compete?"