In the Orchard with Girl Meets Dirt

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The new star of our seasonal cheese boards, Girl Meets Dirt cutting preserves are a ‘membrillo’ style confection made from highly-concentrated fruit purees. Thicker than standard jams, cutting preserves can be sliced for snacking; in Spain, they're traditionally paired with cheeses and charcuterie. Girl Meets Dirt preserves offer a unique twist on this classic accompaniment, made using heritage fruits grown on Washington's San Juan Islands. These remote islands have an unexpected tradition of orchard keeping, and we recently caught up with Girl Meets Dirt founder Audra Lawlor to learn more. She also shared a look at life on Orcas Island, and some of her favorite preserve pairings. 

terrain: Can you tell us about living on Orcas Island? How did you come to live there and start Girl Meets Dirt?

Audra: Orcas Island is part of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago about 90 miles northwest of Seattle. There are hundreds of islands in total, but only four have ferry service. Orcas itself is the largest island, but it's not densely populated since it’s more remote. However, it has a very thriving community for art and food.

I was raised in the Pacific Northwest and grew up boating around the islands with my family. I always knew that I’d like to end up here, but I didn’t think I would make it when I was so young! My husband is from Ireland, but he promised to go out West with me when I was ready to leave my finance career in New York. We wanted to make a big change, and Orcas offered us a chance to own some property and be exactly where we wanted to be. Once we moved, I started a garden; we also inherited a bunch of fruit trees with the property. I taught myself to preserve and fell in love with growing my own food—with knowing the terroir of what’s on my table. I really like the idea of preserving the bounty of the season and sharing that pop of bright fruit with friends throughout the year 

terrain: Can you share more about the history of orchard keeping on the islands?

Audra: It’s a very fascinating story! We have a very unusual climate because the islands are in a rain shadow between the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Mountains—rain falls on the peninsula, skips the islands, and goes on to the mountains. This means we get about 30% more sun than the surrounding area, so our climate is a sort of “banana belt,” similar to Northern California in our ability to grow crops. Most of the northwest is known for berries, but the climate here is better adapted for orchard fruits like peaches, plums, pears, apples, and quince.

Settlers in the 1800s brought many varieties of fruit trees, and these hardier trees are still the types that thrive today. In the early 1900s this was a major fruit-producing region, but visitors today might not be able to spot a legacy orchard unless someone points it out. Many are in disarray or have been divided apart. The orchard industry started to decline after the rise of irrigation in eastern Washington in the 1920s. So today, orchard keeping is really a legacy—the islands aren’t a major producing region, but lots of wonderful fruit still grows here.

terrain: Where do you source your fruit?

Audra: Girl Meets Dirt works to revitalize orchard keeping on the island; we establish stewardship arrangements with landowners, in which we cover the cost of tree care in exchange for fruit. There’s really something to be said for a fruit tree that’s over 100 years old! All our fruit is personally hand-harvested; there aren’t really commercial farms here, and even the largest ones are run by families. I seek out historical legacy varieties, like Italian plums that are traditionally used to make prunes or an original varietal of Bartlett pears from 1800s Europe. We also have the Orcas pear, a variety discovered here on the islands in the 1970s. The trees adapted themselves to the island climate, and only a few orchards outside the islands grow them.

terrain: How did you begin making cutting preserves?

Audra: My travels inspired me to make cutting preserves. When visiting Argentina and Spain I enjoyed membrillo, a dense and very fruity quince paste served in every bar with cheese and ham. I loved the combination of sweet comfiture and something savory. When I moved here, I got access to a freefall quince harvest and decided to make my own membrillo. Cutting preserves last a long time and are a very traditional way of preserving. You steep and cook down the fruit for a long time, mill it into a superfine puree, then cook it until all the water is gone. It will set naturally with no pectin—the set is a result of time, evaporation, and love. It’s best to work with fruits that are high in natural pectin, like plums and quince. I really love the historical precedent of cutting preserves and membrillos, which are described in texts as far back as Pliny the Elder. I also like that they’re so practical and versatile!

terrain: What are some of your favorite preserve pairings?

Audra: Since the fruit essence is super concentrated, these are all ideal for cheese and charcuterie pairings. You can also use them in cooking to infuse fruit flavor into sauces, glazes, and more. Here are some of my favorite combinations.

Quince: A natural pairing for any sheep’s milk cheese, aged manchego, or charcuterie including prosciutto, serrano ham, and soppressata. Wonderful for glazing lamb with shallots, butter, and white wine.

Italian Plum: Pair with a super rich, high butter fat cow’s milk cheese like Saint-André or Délice de Bourgogne, where the prune flavor will cut through the richness. Also great with salty cured meats.

Crabapple: This one is very versatile thanks to a hint of bright, tart flavor; crabapples are basically ancient apples, so they’re full of pectin and have a slightly bitter finish. Pair with a hard cheese like parmesan, cheddar, or gouda.

Pink Bartlett: With a complex finish and a hint of spice, this is a go-to pairing for any blue cheese. Also great with Cambozola Black Label (a mix of blue and double-crème cheeses), chèvre, or Humboldt Fog.

Images courtesy of Girl Meets Dirt. Portrait by Roman Cho Photography.

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  • thefolia said...

    Viva la membrillo and to living out your dream! These sound divine. Happy harvesting and feasting!

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