How Viridian Farms Transformed Portland Menus

Thanks to a blend of Old World evangelism and Portland taste, this Spain-loving couple has become a bellwether of local food culture.

By Benjamin Tepler September 2, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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In 2006, no one in Portland knew what to do with a padron pepper. A product of northwest Spain’s Galicia region and a staple of that nation’s tapas culture, the padron is shiny, green, and hook-nosed. “We gave away more than we sold,” recalls Manuel Recio, farmer and co-owner of Viridian Farms, who began growing the padron on his 38 acres of land near Dayton that year. “People thought they were raw jalapeños.”

Manuel and his wife, Leslie, began slipping flavor notes, detailed cooking instructions (blister in a hot skillet, toss with a pinch of salt), and diagrams of Galicia into the pepper’s pint containers. Soon, a few early adopters—chefs like Toro Bravo’s John Gorham and Renee Erickson of Seattle’s the Walrus and the Carpenter—elevated the sweet, mild pepper from obscurity to Northwest culinary mainstay. By 2012, nearly every farm-centric restaurant in town was serving the enigmatic Spanish pepper with learned enthusiasm. 

Thanks to this blend of Old World evangelism and Portland taste, Viridian has become a bellwether of local food culture. Manuel and Leslie, 39 and 40, respectively, fell in love while studying in Seville, Spain, in 1995. Since taking over the farm owned by Leslie’s father in 2005, the couple has spent every winter studying in Spain, hunting flavors and seeds to bring back to Oregon.

To source red cardoons, for example, they journeyed to Tudela, the only town in Spain that produces them. For their next crop, they hiked up to Anguiano, the highest town in Northern Rioja, where just seven farms hold the secret DNA of the caparrones bean. In 2008, Viridian started growing, drying, and grinding its own piment d’espelette, a bright orange paprika from Southwest France. (Three years later, the Recios were forced to change the name to piment basquaise after the French threatened legal action.) 

With each move, this one farm has inspired local restaurant menus and, by osmosis and example, rearranged the market baskets of dedicated home cooks. “Oh my god,” exclaims Jose Chesa, a Baccelona native who learned his trade in some of Europe’s best modernist restaurants before opening Northwest Portland’s Ataula. “Imagine moving from the culinary center of Spain to a small city in the United States and finding the same high-end ingredients, grown locally. Unbelievable.”

As the country’s top chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jose Andres seek out Viridian’s rare peppers and citrusy glacier lettuce, the Recios ponder their next harvest. “With Spanish ingredients, I think we lucked out in terms of timing,” Manuel says. “Middle Eastern flavors are pretty hot right now. We’re working on Moroccoan pimente.”'

Find more local foods and drinks to swoon over in our A to Z Food Lover's Guide to Oregon.

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