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Originally published November 12, 2011 at 7:01 PM | Page modified November 14, 2011 at 6:37 AM

Eating locally is no longer such a longshot

Eating local foods, at least as one focus of a daily diet, has turned from an esoteric experiment to just-shy-of-mainstream. As demand grows, for reasons of health, environment or the local economy, more producers have taken the time to grow or stock ingredients that were once unattainable.

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quotes Local saffron? And tea? I had no idea. Thanks for a great article! Read more

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT

WHEN A YOUNG Canadian couple first tried eating a "100 Mile Diet" in the Northwest, choosing only ingredients grown within 100 miles of their home, the struggle was enough to fill a book.

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon of Vancouver, B.C., battled so hard to find locally grown grains, they wrote in their 2007 memoir "Plenty," that they wound up hand-separating wheat berries from chaff — not to mention from rat droppings and weevils. They found that nine out of 10 aisles in the supermarket were off-limits to them.

For purists who want to go the whole way with the original challenge, the diet can still be a mind-boggling exercise: At the Herbfarm restaurant's annual 100-mile dinner, chefs gather their own seawater to evaporate into salt; grind elk horn into an ancient baking-powder substitute, and obtain rennet for cheese-making from the stomachs of young calves.

But for most others, the doors are opening wide. Eating local foods, at least as one focus of a daily diet, has turned from an esoteric experiment to just-shy-of-mainstream. As demand grows, for reasons of health, environment or the local economy, more producers have taken the time to grow or stock ingredients that were once unattainable.

It's a simple case of supply and demand — with a bit of creativity and entrepreneurism thrown in.

"I like that type of a challenge," says Richard Sakuma of Burlington-based Sakuma Bros. Farms, believed to be one of just two commercial tea growers in the continental U.S. New 100-milers can walk into peaceful Miro Tea in Ballard, which stocks Sakuma's brews, and order a steaming cup that fits with their ethos.

But the biggest change over the years is on a mass level, that mainstream grocery stores have taken notice of what people want, says Melissa Larson, a naturopathic physician who tried a month of the diet as part of a Sustainable Ballard project in 2007 modeled on the "Plenty" book.

Kroger-owned QFC now boasts flours milled in Bellingham. Walmart made a stir last year by pledging to increase the percentage of produce it buys from small- to medium-size local farms.

Sugar is still out. But honey from Ballard-based hives is available through the Ballard Bee Company, which sells at Pasta & Co., Picnic and other outlets; and the sweetener goes right down to the ZIP code (care for some blackberry-scented 98117?) through Seattle Urban Honey, which sells in season at the Phinney Farmers Market.

For those willing to stretch the boundaries, even dining out is an option: In West Seattle you'll find bacon dogs at the lunch counter of The Swinery, which sources animals from a 300-mile radius; in Belltown, try crab melts and cocktails at Local 360, which sources 90 percent of its ingredients from a 360-mile radius; and head to the Pike-Pine corridor for dessert at Cupcake Royale, committed to 66 percent local ingredients.

We'll never have everything we want to eat within 100 miles. Citrus and coffee are fairly permanently out of reach. Yet, wouldn't tea have seemed just as unlikely a few years back?

"This isn't really the ideal climate," acknowledged Sakuma, a berry grower who began the tea experiment in 1997 with a partner who had been working on a trial plot. The Northwest chill meant low yields even if he could find varietals that would survive here. Labor costs for his small plot would be high.

It took years of experimentation before they found Camellia sinensis varieties that developed well north of Seattle, and learned to efficiently weed and harvest and dry and roll the buds and leaves. It took a tour far outside 100 miles — to Taiwan — to acquire better techniques and tools. This year they've produced about 50 pounds of tea, garnering editorial reviews like a recent online assessment of "buttery, creamy, sweet, leafy, berrylike and earthy — all in one sip."

For the even unlikelier crop of saffron, harvested near Sequim rather than in Spain or Kashmir, "it's the beauty of the Northwest in our many microclimates," says Jim Robinson of Phocas Farms.

His saffron grows in "a bit of a sweet spot" in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, at an elevation above the fog blanket that would otherwise compromise its quality. He was prompted to try it by his own love of arroz con pollo and the expense of commercial saffron.

Farming the prized crop is "a hands-on, labor-intensive act, it's more of an avocation than a vocation," says Robinson, who otherwise specializes in succulents. He's out at first light during the autumn harvest season, spending most of his waking hours handpicking and processing the red-gold strands, which he sells at the Ballard farmers market. "It's a gorgeous product, I'm actually quite proud of it."

Physician Larson is glad to see the increased availability of local foods, which her family still leans toward, even without the strict confines of the 100-mile challenge. The challenge was an experiment, and a healthy one. But it also required serious advance planning to make it affordable. Local meat, for instance, is far more expensive than factory-farmed cuts, "so maybe we need to eat less meat."

One highlight she remembers was that "it made me see, more than anything, what we do have." Surprisingly, for instance, her family could eat a great salad made of local chickpeas and kale, or Brussels sprouts with bacon.

One of their favorite treats still is making their own ice cream from milk and cream and honey all produced within the 100-mile boundaries. She does flavor it with imported vanilla beans, a tropical crop that no one here would ever imagine trying to grow. At least, not yet.

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer and blogger.

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