My grandparents weren’t usually much for fine dining, but their standards were Empire-State high for good deli. When they came to visit us in Delaware, the car would be loaded with the best meats, breads, and pickles New York and New Jersey could produce. They didn’t think anything so good could be found across those state lines.
I have to wonder, then, what they’d make of Britt’s Pickles, clear across the country. I picked up a few of Britt’s naturally fermented half-sour pickles (made on Whidbey Island) when my mom was in town last week, thinking she would get a kick out of the evocative smell and right-on taste. Then I learned that the pickles and kimchi and preserved lemons and other fermented goods made by Britt Eustis, previously just available in specialty markets, will star at a full-scale shop opening Saturday at Pike Place Market.
(Saturday’s the official date, but you may get a taste if you stop by a day or so early. The shop is in the Corner Market building across from BB Ranch and Shy Giant (pickles and ice cream, in one aisle?). Opening supplies will include pickles, of course — Eustis makes several varieties — plus a supply of kimchi, fermented black garlic, and preserved lemons, with plans to move on to seasonal specialties like fermented full-head cabbages for the holidays.
Eustis has a lengthy and high-powered resume for a professional pickler. He worked for Eden Foods (“to establish third-party certification for organic food processing,” according to his bio), and was president and CEO of Ceres Organic Harvest in Minnesota. He’d briefly worked for Seattle-based Charlie’s Produce back in 1988, distributing organic produce to mainstream markets.
His interest in natural foods goes back to his college days. “It’s not my family business. My dad was an investment banker on Wall Street, it was about as far away from that as you can get,” Eustis said by phone from the storefront Tuesday after fielding final health department inspections. But he began reading Wendell Berry and other pioneers of the sustainable agriculture movement. He got involved in making organic apple juice on Colorado’s western slope in the 1970s — “the certification process wasn’t what it is today, but it was quite an experience.” He got involved in organics early on, and in related fields like sourcing traditional crops from the Southwest.
“I guess whatever’s attracted me, where I’ve gone, has been the culture as well as the agriculture, and the connection between the two,” he said.
Fermented foods piqued his interest after a tour through the factories of traditional Japanese producers.
“What really struck my fancy was that I think the youngest company I visited was 150 years old, one family. The oldest was 500 years old. These traditions, obviously there’s some strength to the quality of the products they make.”
After Ceres was sold, he returned to Seattle, where his sister and her husband lived. “I came out here thinking about other things I might be able to do — how to start over, if you will — and started playing with fermented cucumbers down in their basement, doing some sauerkraut, doing a product called black garlic, handing out the samples to her friends.
“I was aware of the trends, obviously, in fermented foods — there’s a lot of interest these days in the health benefits — but mostly I just wanted to create a product that was a good-tasting product and had something that people could relate to and have an interest in.”
Standard storebought pickles cooked in vinegar didn’t appeal to him. They don’t have the probiotic benefits and “you don’t get the flavor profile” either. His, instead, are fermented with lactic acid bacteria in oak barrels.
In the shop, he’ll start out selling pickles from ceramic crocks inside the barrels, and hopes to sell them straight from the barrels when they’ve got the volume of sales to support that.
“Honestly, I just think the flavor of a pickle when you take it out of the barrel is something unique.”
Photo courtesy of Britt’s Pickles