Pasture to Plate
By Mark Stock/Photos by Andrea Johnson
It’s an odd sight for those who’ve seen it: one of the largest bovids in the world wandering freely in open spaces as opposed to across your television screen during a nature special. African water buffalo, far away from the familiar vast expanses of the Serengeti and resident elephants, zebras, and lions. Instead, these beasts are roaming in the largest herd of its kind in the state, in the Portland suburb of Clackamas.
For Nicky USA, it’s just another great ingredient from another local rancher. The Southeast Portland butchery and specialty game purveyor processes the meat — along with other exotic offerings such as emu, llama and kangaroo — for a host of regional restaurants and food shops. And while the less familiar animals tend to capture the imagination, Nicky’s focus is very much the Pacific Northwest.
Nicky Farms is the company’s gourmet sausage division, focused on American meats and fresh — in many cases Oregon-sourced — ingredients. Perhaps the most American of them all is the bison, the majestic symbol of the West. A distant relative of the water buffalo, American bison is lauded for its lean nature and relatively nutritious makeup. Nicky Farms’ interest in this animal and its other wild siblings reflects a non-commercialized enthusiasm for sustainability and terroir. Much like a winemaker prides himself in showcasing the unique flavor personality of a site’s soil, exposure, climate, etc., Nicky Farms is fastened to the quality and taste inherent in not just the animal but its entire context.
This idea ranges from what the animal is fed to where it calls home, and most things in between. Nicky works with Tails & Trotters, for instance, a Northeast Portland pork purveyor that finishes their pigs with hazelnuts. It’s a philosophy harvested from Spain, where Iberian pigs fatten up on wild acorns, achieving healthier fats and new flavor profiles en route. Nicky has a similar relationship with Silvies Valley Ranch in Eastern Oregon, where it sources hormone- and antibiotic-free veal from heritage breeds fed on clover and wildflowers.
Using the entire animal, or “toe to tail,” is equally important. Traditional commercial operations tend to not only waste a lot of meat, but steer past a lot of flavor in the process. Custom orders via Nicky range from knucklebones to marrow, to oxtail, to shoulder clods. And that’s just a smattering of their veal offerings.
The sausages are concocted in-house by Nicky Farms Master Butcher Jace Hentges. The act of stuffing is left to the German-made Vemag 500 Reiser, a machine that molds and cases the meat blend into tubular segments ultimately cut into links. Imagine a large-scale version of the Play-Doh gadgets you toyed with as a kid. Hentges said he bought the machine last fall, and his production has been precise and growing ever since. What started as a “holiday” sausage made from venison, rabbit, cranberry and bacon has blossomed into a full line of 11 — and counting — different options.
While Nicky Farms’ offerings all pair well with certain wines, two of the links incorporate Oregon wine directly. Willamette Valley Vineyards provides Chardonnay for the veal porcini sausage and Pinot Noir for the elk and huckleberry sausage. Clad in a white jacket and hairnet, Hentges explains the process while weighing and grinding spices for his next batch.
“We incorporate water into all of the spice blends before it’s added to the meat,” Hentges said. “For the elk and the veal, we just swap water for wine.”
Hentges grew up in in the Midwest, a one-time film student, before moving into the world of meat. His transition from one end of the career spectrum to the other is not at all unlike many winemakers. “It’s not a total surprise I ended up in meat,” he said, citing his own German blood and strong agricultural ties.
When I ask him if he’s tired of sausage, Hentges says no. In fact, he prefers it for breakfast.
He pulls the first batch of raw meat out of the mixer, studying the consistency closely. Today, he and his staff will craft about 200 pounds of his five-spice water buffalo sausage. That equates to about 800 four-ounce links. “We like to showcase local ingredients as much as we can,” he said, reminding me that the huckleberries used in Nicky Farms’ elk sausage were hand-foraged nearby.
Owner Geoff Latham started Nicky USA in 1990, well before Portland’s foodie takeover. Legend has it: He began by selling rabbits from the trunk of his Ford Escort to metro area restaurants and retailers. Today, Latham governs a staff of close to 30, with a fixation on the Rose City but recent expansion into Seattle. He is a member of both the American Institute of Food & Wine and James Beard Foundation.
At his Portland office, a handful of faux animals hang on his wall and a few quail figures occupy his desk. Latham is telling me about a recent bonfire he had at a new farm property of his. Various orders are being rattled off by co-workers and Latham is casually arranging the day’s agenda. Before I know it, there are a few fresh strips of bacon in my hand — never a bad scenario.
The Portland facility used to be a Safeway storage space. Located in the heart of the inner-industrial area just a couple blocks south of Burnside, Nicky USA is a stone’s throw from many of its restaurant clients. Celebrated eateries like Le Pigeon, Paley’s Place, Imperial and Beast all feature Nicky meats. Many of the chefs Nicky serves compete at Wild About Game, a cook-off and culinary event hosted every September by Timberline Lodge. This year marks the 13th year of the Nicky USA-sponsored event.
Oregon wine country is no stranger to the Portland butchery. The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville has featured Nicky Farms proteins every year for the last decade. Several wineries team chefs up with Nicky meats for special holiday tastings or winemaker’s dinner. The Painted Lady in Newberg offers its take on Nicky products as well.
Witnessing the chefs manipulate these ingredients into memorable dishes is always intriguing. Seeing how they incorporate wine only pushes the experience more toward the extraordinary. And for those looking to entertain every facet of your palate at home, refer to the following. Use it as a guideline and pioneer your way to your own tasty conclusions.
Linking Sausage & Wine
Link: Venison, rabbit, dried cranberries and applewood smoked bacon
The sweetness of this unique sausage would overwhelm most whites, except a full and ideally considerably oaked Chardonnay. The buttery nature of the wine plays off the bacon without overwhelming the delicate, almost grassy quality of the venison.
Link: Water buffalo five spice
The fact that this sausage is cut with beef had me thinking red wine up front. However, the blend of spices and medium mouthfeel of the water buffalo (Nicky Farms uses younger, tender animals) come to life with this white wine, known for its classic lychee flavor and subtle spiciness.
Link: Elk with wild huckleberry and Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir
Wine: Pinot Noir
Predictable, yes, but this sausage demands Pinot. The whole huckleberries in the meat offer big flavor and a nice counterbalance to an otherwise earthy, slightly gamey meat. A leaner wine would do the sausage well, as the meat is milder than one might expect.
Link: Wild boar and pork with onion and roasted garlic
Bigger flavors require a bigger wine. Tempranillo does the job, standing up to the darker, forest-laden flavors of the boar without coating the palate to the point of missing the onion and garlic. It’s an even match while still being graceful.
Link: Russian-style wild boar
Wine: Cabernet Franc
The dill and cumin in this sausage play well with the leathery, grape-y qualities of most Cab Francs. The dark fruit flavors of the wine wonderfully accompany the rustic flavors of the boar.
Link: Veal porcini and Willamette Valley Vineyards Chardonnay
The richest link of the bunch demands a heavy, velvety red with an equal amount of richness and density of flavor. Merlot’s macho nature matches the intensely buttery characteristics of the veal, while its oft-peppery, tobacco qualities pair well with the mushrooms.