By Hope Nelson, Photos by Sarah Culver
Move over, store-bought salt-drowned pickles and limp sauerkraut. Pickling and fermenting has been standard operating procedure for home cooks, small makers and restaurants around the region, with an array of diverse pickle makers who are doing their own thing and doing it right.
Blue Duck Tavern, Washington, DC
His colleagues call him the “King of Fermentation Nation,” and by all accounts Blue Duck’s Chef Brad Deboy lives up to the title. With Deboy at the helm, the upscale restaurant nestled within the Park Hyatt Washington sports a fermented food within nearly every menu item—and he’s only just begun.
“Almost everything that we’re trying to do here has a little bit of history, a little story to it,” Deboy said. The history of fermentation runs deep—and shares a connection to the name of the restaurant, too.
“I started digging into the word tavern … the things they used to do in taverns is they either made it in house, they had a guy next door who did it or they brought it from the surrounding area,” Deboy said. “So I said, ‘All right, let’s dig into the Old-World techniques and really anchor down because I feel like that fits our concept really well too.’”
Deboy’s fascination with fermentation began at home. He began experimenting with krauts and other foods by keeping a closet full of jars in several stages of preparation, just to monitor what worked and what didn’t in various conditions. That hobby became part of his day-to-day job at Blue Duck, and it’s easy to see the results in myriad ways.
One of the fruits of his labor: chicken-fried quail with koji marinade.
“I’m in love with koji right now,” Deboy says, referring to a fungus used in making soy sauce. “It’s my thing.” The quail dish is a prime example of taking an Old-World technique and bringing it into the modern realm by adding in a twist of American-style Southern fried chicken. The koji itself—borrowed from Japanese cooking—sings with umami and a salty, hearty, need-to-have more taste.
Deboy takes only partial credit for creating such dishes. The rest, he says, is owed to the process of fermentation itself.
“It’s really Mother Nature doing her job. It’s amazing,” he said. “You can’t fake it, let’s just be honest. None of those flavors you can fake.”
Admittedly, it’s a rare pickle purveyor who gets their start in pies. But for Lydia and Jeff Bhaskarla, the owners of DC Dills, it took an unusual origin story to find their place in the fermentation world.
The Bhaskarlas’ pie business, Lovebirds, took flight in 2010 and introduced them to the world of small-business food sales. What started as a farmers market offering became a staple at local grocery stores, and the Bhaskarlas realized they were onto something. But they also realized they needed to grow.
“Even though we had a good product and had gotten into a lot of the local big grocery stores like Roots and Mom’s, I knew we needed to start focusing on other things,” Lydia Bhaskarla said.
So the Bhaskarlas landed on their next big idea.
“My father planted this huge quarter-acre garden, and I would watch him and my mom can and make jelly,” Lydia said. “My mom used to make peach jelly. I just kind of grew up in that atmosphere and started to appreciate it, and kind of started to see a trend. … My husband envisioned the pies, and I started to envision the pickle trend.”
In March 2013, DC Dills was born.
“I just really wanted to focus on doing something that was very good, something very down-home and something very unique. And that’s kind of what we did,” Lydia said. DC Dills started off with six or seven flavors and styles and now have more than 20, expanding their wares from traditional cucumber pickles to sauerkraut and pickled beets and tomatoes.
In terms of their top sellers, Lydia Bhaskarla says, “It really depends on the demographic. If I go into Baltimore and Southern Maryland, our Chesapeake dill and our sweetened Krabbies are two of our most popular. If you’re in Bethesda and it’s more of a Jewish demographic, then our kosher dills and our half-sours are extremely popular. You go into places like Sykesville, not only do they like the Chesapeake and sweetened Krabbies, but they’re crazy about the other flavors.”
For a market list and more information, visit dcdills.com.
No. 1 Sons, Arlington
Venture nearly anywhere in the DMV region and you’re sure to spy No. 1 Sons’ wares at a farmers market. The family-owned company has expanded from five to two dozen markets over the past four years and has capped off its traditionally slower wintertime season with a full-throttle pop-up adventure in Del Ray.
“All our growth has been self-funded and very organic,” says co-owner Caitlin Roberts, who runs the business with her brother, Yi Wah.
As a fresh-foods vendor, No. 1 Sons shifts its focus throughout the year, homing in on the flavors of each season and bringing its freshest wares to market. Up next for spring: the Sons’ annual batch of spring ramp kraut.
“It’s sauerkraut that’s done with ramps and dill and a few of our spices. It’s really delicious and we have that wild garlicky taste,” Roberts said. “It’s complemented by the sourness of the sauerkraut, but people love the fresh dill taste contrasted with the sharp taste of the ramps.”
For summer, keep an eye out for the company’s half-sour and full-sour pickles—“People always comment on how crisp they are,” Roberts says—and their fermented chili sauces.
Over the winter, No. 1 Sons paired with local favorite Bagel Uprising to open up Salt | Bagel, a pop-up enterprise in Del Ray at the home of the Dairy Godmother. The experiment was a decided success: Customers found a lengthy line nearly every day and sellouts by the afternoon. Does this mean a future in brick-and-mortar?
“As of right now, nope! We’re both just farmers market businesses and this is our downtime,” Roberts said.
For more information and a list of market locations, visit number1sons.com.