It's not just the Triangle's population that is expanding; in recent years, our local food culture has bloomed and evolved, too. Consumer demand seems to be at an all-time high for local, responsibly sourced produce and products, making homegrown eats and drinks a rapidly growing segment of the food industry.
Take a look around, and you'll find thoughtful and impassioned artisans operating with guild-like adherence to crafts, steeped in both ancient and new techniques, ingredients, and processes. These days, much of what you consume can come from somewhere local, linked to a face you can recognize and a hand you can shake.
We took a look around and selected ten of our favorite outstanding food artisans and their wares, from a one-woman, part-time show to a family-run company that has gone international.
Sitting in the cozy tasting room of Pittsboro's Fair Game Beverage Company, Chris Jude is quick with his response about the company's local ingredients. Jude, the head distiller for this maker of spirits and wines, references his latest concoction, the Flying Pepper Tobago Vodka. Fair Game doesn't distill its own vodka, so Jude sources it from Chapel Hill's Top of the Hill Distillery. TOPO's acclaimed vodka comes from organic, soft red winter wheat.
"TOPO was a natural fit for Fair Game because it's an American-made product and, just like us, they celebrate ingredients grown here in North Carolina," explains Jude, who landed in Pittsboro to work at Piedmont Biofuels after graduating from Appalachian State with a degree in biofuels technology.
Jude also found that the particularly sweet flavor profile of the crystal-clear spirit balanced well with the smoky, rich tobago peppers. Jude first encountered the little prune-shaped wonders seven years ago through Doug "Dr. Pepper" Jones, a local organic farmer for four decades.
"It had a mysterious, fascinating flavor," remembers Jude.
Enamored, he began to grow his own tobagos, which possess the complex, fruity flavors of habañeros without the burn. When he finally steeped the pepper in vodka, he knew after one sip he was on to something.
Sourcing an adequate supply of local tobagos proved a challenge, though. After many calls and emails, he found five North Carolina farmers to satisfy his demand after the end of this summer's growing season. He plans for a bumper crop in August. After more sleuthing, Jude, who learned that the pepper is popular in Cuban cuisine, found a specialist near Miami who will fill the gap until then.
As head distiller, Jude has been able to combine his scientific training with a passion for regional farming and sustainability.
"I perfected the science of my distilling and fermenting craft in renewable energy," says Jude. "And now I get to mix in the passionate, creative side of making something delicious and homegrown."