A perfect pickle makes an audible snap as you bite, unleashing a salty, spicy, herbaceous flavor across your taste buds. Its tang makes its way onto burgers and into salads with a fervor that far outpaces the pickle’s humble beginnings (cucumber, water, salt, spices). “People are passionate about pickles. We’ve had some pickle nuts in here. In a good way,” says Barrio Brinery owner Patrick Block. In part, it’s that sound—“One of the most exciting things is when I can hear the crunch from across the counter,” Patrick says—that he finds satisfying in his turn as Santa Fe’s pickle-maker in chief. Following maker and foodie trends in cities like Brooklyn and Portland, Patrick has renewed the ancient art of fermentation—and its resulting health benefits—with the first commercial pickle joint in Santa Fe.
Patrick spent 25 years in state government at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and upon his retirement was eager to pursue private-sector entrepreneurship. Because he’d moonlighted for nearly that long as a bartender at the Santa Fe Opera, where he met his wife, the food and beverage industry was a logical choice. He saw the restaurant biz as grueling and the beverage industry cost prohibitive, so the fermenting hobbyist turned a relatively unexplored niche in the digital age: pickling.
Fermentation was first documented in the Fertile Crescent in 6000 BC, and cultures across the globe have used the process to create Korean kimchi, Japanese natto (soybeans) and Indian chutney. Adopted at first by necessity before refrigeration, the ancient art of preservation has found renewed interest among farm-to-table and craft-culture enthusiasts. Patrick saw a similar ethos among Santa Feans, with their devotion to local food, wellness and handmade products.
Fermentation was largely new territory for the New Mexico Environment Department permitting arm, which required scientific data and peer-reviewed literature to support Patrick’s process. Regulations proved his largest challenge and delayed the shop’s opening several months. (While admitting the permitting process was a hurdle, Patrick also values the department’s dedication to food safety.) Patrick fought to protect the traditional, no-heat process that creates good bacteria.
Bacteria in food often bring salmonella, E. coli, and other strains that cause stomach-churning illness to the mind. The traditional pickling process, however, creates beneficial microorganisms. After the pickling ingredients are combined in an anaerobic environment, lactobacillus bacteria multiply, consuming the natural sugars of the produce. This creates lactic acid, which then acts as the preservative. That acidic environment isn’t hospitable to harmful bacteria, but it’s rich in lactobacillus acidophilus—the same probiotic many health-conscious consumers buy in capsule form or covet in yogurt and kombucha. Jarred pickles may not have the same benefits, since they are made using vinegar and are treated with a heat process that kills bacteria. Traditionally fermented pickles, however, are a rich source of the probiotic that aids digestion, and as doctors are discovering to a greater extent all the time, can have benefits beyond the digestive tract. Researchers have linked a healthy gut microbiome to a stronger immune system and lower inflammation, among other benefits. “We hope what we make is good and good for you. More and more people are learning about the health benefits of fermented foods, and they get excited about it,” Patrick says.
Barrio Brinery opened in November 2014, and it’s been a family affair from the start. Patrick and strong-backed friends (plied with the promise of free pickles) did much of the remodeling for the shop on West Alameda—a spot chosen for its easy access and location. The store’s name nods to adjacent neighborhoods, Barrio La Canada and Barrio Torreon, and communicates the homey feel Patrick wants to impart.
Entering the shop, you may immediately see Patrick’s wife, Yvette; son, Desmond; or sister, Kim De La O, working at the gleaming metal tables to trim cucumbers for pickles, beat cabbage for sauerkraut, or mix spices for the brine. The family members are the shop’s only employees; all are part-time, except for Patrick. “We often hear customers say, ‘Oh, you work with your sister? And you haven’t killed each other?’ We haven’t—and it’s been really nice,” Patrick says.
Making the best pickles begins with solid produce. When seasonality allows, Patrick purchases products from Española Valley Farm and Beneficial Farms CSA. When the produce isn’t in season, he works with a wholesaler. Although he opts for organic when possible, finding a plentiful and consistent supply chain has been a challenge. In 2015, the shop churned through four tons of produce.
These star ingredients—cucumbers, cabbage, carrots and onion in the escabeche—go into a brine with pickling spice from Savory Spice Shop (also in Santa Fe); peppercorn; salt; New Mexico red chile; dill; and other ingredients. The mix rests in a lined, BPA-free plastic bin submerged beneath a glass plate for a week or longer, depending on what the staff is pickling. Once complete, the products appear at Hotel Santa Fe, Duel Brewing (both in Santa Fe and at the Albuquerque tap room), Boxcar Bar & Grill, Bon Appétit (the food service provider for Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and the Institute of American Indian Art), Dr. Field Goods, Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, and into Squash Blossom’s weekly bags, featuring local farm products.
Patrick hopes to place his products in grocery stores soon and to work with more bars—he thinks the pickle brine is particularly delicious in Bloody Marys and martinis. He and his family are always experimenting with new recipes. Right now, Desmond is mixing up a promising blend of purple cabbage, carrots and lemons.
The best place to taste the product, however, is in the shop itself, where the pickles are fresh and pleasingly crunchy. The half-sour pickles—the shop’s take on the bread-and-butter pickle—stay in the brine for less time. Sweet pickles are usually made with sugar, but Barrio Brinery uses honey, so the pickles aren’t overly saccharin tasting. The garlic pickles have twice the number of heart-healthy cloves of the shop’s standard recipe—and the shop’s website jokes the pickles are sure to keep the vampires away. The hot-and-spicy fermented pickles pack extra chile punch that New Mexicans will love. Whereas sauerkraut is often mushy and metallic tasting, Barrio Brinery’s version also has a pleasing texture and a fresh, salty flavor. The escabeche—a blend of jalapeños, carrots and onions, can be used as a condiment on anything that needs a kick; Patrick likes it on ham sandwiches and burgers. He also enjoys his over-the-tasting-counter interactions with customers and the opportunity to teach them about the healthful small-batch product. He’s energized when he sees customers with a wrecked gut come in feeling better. It may be that you don’t need to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away—you may need to eat a pickle. And what a satisfying solution it is.
Barrio Brinery is located at 1413-B West Alameda Street in Santa Fe, 505.699.9812, barriobrinery.com.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers