By Lauren Westmoreland
If you live, eat and shop in Plumas County, you may have already heard of Pine Cone Kitchen Black Garlic, known to many as the “Caviar of the High Sierras.” Local musician Danny Horton has penned a song about the black garlic to the tune of Black Velvet. You may have even tasted it at a local restaurant. But what exactly is black garlic and who makes it?
Black garlic – an ancient treat
Black garlic is very popular in various Asian cuisines, and it is said that it likely originated in Korea, where it was reportedly developed as a health product so that people could experience the immunity and health benefits of garlic, as the process of roasting the garlic brought out a hidden sweetness that made it easier to consume in a raw state.
Black garlic is made when heads of regular garlic are aged under specialized conditions until the cloves turn a deep, inky black and develop a sticky, almost date-like texture.
Bulbs of garlic are kept in a humidity-controlled environment from 80 to 90 percent, for 15 to 90 days.
“There are no additives, preservatives, or burning of any kind, and the enzymes that give fresh garlic its sharpness break down,” Greg Lusson, a self-described chef and black garlic enthusiast, explained.
Those conditions are thought to facilitate the Maillard reaction, a chemical process that produces new flavor compounds responsible for the deep taste of seared meat and fried onions. When it comes to the taste test, Lusson says, “Think of the flavor as more of a truffle or mushroom with the consistency of a fig.”
At this time, garlic used for the delicacy is being sourced from local growers in Plumas County and in the Reno, Nevada area, but the couple look forward to harvesting their own garlic in the future. There are also plans for future runs of foraged wild garlic harvested from the area around Gold Lake.
“In an effort to accommodate demand, we have pioneered a process to make it that isn’t described anywhere on the internet,” Lusson said. “After several trial-and-error runs, we are really proud of the way we control the heat and humidity for 60 days with zero additives. Our challenge is simply scaling up to accommodate the demand. It’s kind of like pushing a rock up a hill then chasing it down the other side- it always seems to be ahead of us.”
A grassroots business born in the heart of Graeagle
Greg Lusson and Kayla Burton are the masterminds and culinary pioneers behind a local business called Pine Cone Kitchen.
The couple lives in Mohawk-Blairsden, having moved to the area in March 2021 after years of dreaming and visiting from the Bay Area, where Burton was a personal trainer and Lusson was “very much a true entrepreneur,” according to Burton.
“My grandpa built a cabin in Plumas Pines back in 1952 and brought all of my aunts, uncles, my dad; they all came up here for vacations over the years,” Burton said, explaining her and her fiancée’s journey to ultimately becoming business owners in the Lost Sierra. “My dad went on to do the same thing, so I have been coming up and spending time in Graeagle my entire life, and it has always had such a special place in my heart.”
The couple were finally able to go from part-time to full-time locals after a visit in January of 2021 that led to finding a home — but not before having an unexpectedly long adventure out of the country. A planned 21-day trip suddenly turned into an eight-month stay in Kenya due to covid lockdowns, and the pair came back to the United States to find that covid was “going full throttle.”
“We were working remotely, and we really wanted to put something new on the table,” Lusson reminisced.
The pair then made the move to Plumas County, which then led to the birth of a new Plumas County business — Pine Cone Kitchen.
“Pine Cone Kitchen was conceived at the Knotty Pine Tavern in Graeagle,” Burton said with a laugh. “We were brainstorming at the bar, and I had just made this new recipe for black garlic and I wanted to share it with the others there,” Lusson added.
Kandy Foard and her late husband Steve Conroy of the Knotty Pine Tavern were immediate supporters, raving about the unique flavors. “Steve was an enthusiastic supporter and a big part of the Knotty Pine team that embraced us. He always predicted our success but didn’t live long enough for us to share these moments with him,” the couple said.
Others also gave rave reviews of the garlic and business idea at the tavern, including a bartender named Rocky who Burton affectionately called her “long lost cousin” and the owner’s son, Tommy Foard.
“Suddenly people who didn’t get to try the black garlic were insulted,” Lusson said with a laugh.
After that, things quickly fell into place as the dream of a business where passion and creativity could intersect came to life. “We are hard-core foodies and this business is the first time that I have been able to put my passions in alignment with business,” Lusson said.
Burton explained that after they were licensed and obtained a professional facility to work from in Blairsden, the first place to stock jars of their product was the Knotty Pine, on a specially built shelf.
After that, with a huge amount of local support, the business took off, with the Graeagle Store stocking the sought-after garlic and other Pine Cone Kitchen products on their shelves.
“That was just the biggest dream come true for me, to see our product on the shelves where I grew up shopping at the Graeagle Store!” Burton said.
Burton went on to explain the quick momentum of their first year in business, with small batches of the black garlic being crafted and sold at the Blairsden Community Market at the Blairsden Garden Center. “We just can’t thank Lauren Houston at the garden center enough,” Burton said. “She has witnessed our little booth blow up and we have shared those magic moments with her every step of the way.”
The garlic sold out in no time at the market on the first trip and many to follow, leading to new community connections and friendly rivalry in the process.
“Georges Serdyukov’s Lost Sierra Honey is a very popular booth at the Blairsden community market, and we quickly became neighbors and now affectionately compete with the size of the crowds we can draw,” Lusson said with a grin. “We take turns buying the winner beers at Charlie Johnson’s Brewery Ronin.”
“We celebrate market days by going to Ronin brewery after and occasionally customers find us there when they miss us at the market to buy whatever jars we didn’t sell, if there are any at all. It’s a market tradition, and most of the vendors can be found there immediately after market close,” the couple explained. “Charlie and his wife Lisa have been passionate supports of our little mom and pop. Charlie is one a fermentation wizard and one of our mountain mentors!”
“It wasn’t until our merch, beanies and hats, provided by local legend Nick Calder at Calder Solutions, that Kayla and I realized this is really happening! It was a big moment for us, just like our first sale, our first market blow-out, and now this interview!” Lusson added.
From there operations snowballed, and the business has experienced the thrill of rapid growth and been forced into three expansions.
“The demand just goes up with the supply and we haven’t yet been able to accommodate all our orders or even get to our vendor waiting list — local demand exhausts our supply before we can even think about other territories,” Burton explained. “We are always looking for expansion opportunities and ways to streamline our production to accommodate the ever-growing demand.”
The couple is ready and willing to continue to bring fresh flavors to the tables of Plumas County, and has been embraced on their journey as they near their one-year anniversary at Pine Cone Kitchen.
“We couldn’t have made it up here without Gina Cuccia and the whole Cuccia family supporting our entrepreneurial endeavors, with her love, wisdom and awesome counsel,” Lusson said. “Gina mentors Kayla and is like her mountain auntie.”
Burton chimed in that there have been too many community embracers to name, but that they “couldn’t have done it without them.” “Everyone who has published a positive review, values shopping local, and lives vicariously through our shared victories are part of our journey and have witnessed us bloom, blossom and grow,” she added. “Some mornings we wake up and still can’t believe we are Mr. and Mrs. black garlic. It’s really a dream come true!”
The couple has always viewed food as more than just nutrition. It is an opportunity to learn, to explore and to unite eaters in a shared experience.
“Our approach to culinary is best described as the cutting edge of familiarly strange,” Lusson said. “It’s fine if you don’t like it at first, but I bet you won’t forget it, and you will see it again later- remember you saw it here first!”
The “Garlicologists” at Pine Cone Kitchen have already been featured in local restaurants, such as the Whitehawk Ranch restaurant in Clio, where local favorite Chef Chris served a black garlic noodle made by Burton and Lusson during one special.
Pine Cone Kitchen has also been featured at Bell Lane Baked Goods in Quincy, where they created a black garlic, brie, and ham croissant, as well as at the Knotty Pine Tavern in a “Knotty Mary Fully Loaded.”
“We like things that people will never forget, and plan on rocking the culinary boat even more in the future with similarly unforgettable products like our black garlic,” the pair said. “Our passion is to make impacts in every kitchen we can reach, whether we are in business or not. This will always be what propels us in the future just as it has in the past.”
Black garlic was just the beginning for Pine Cone Kitchen. “As far as our next product goes, we will follow our in-demand black salt with a black garlic hot honey sauce to be released in June,” Burton added.
The business will also be releasing products such as a special ‘Taste of the Pines” dry rub made in partnership with local business Simply Roots Coffee, as well as a High Sierra Mountain sauce made in partnership with Lost Sierra Honey, which the couple says will be “similar to a Polynesian sauce- very umami, with some red wine to cut the sweetness of the honey.”
Black garlic and other Pine Cone Kitchen products can be found in Graeagle at the Graeagle Store, Knotty Pine Tavern, The Peak, Olive and Fig, and the Brewing Lair. Products are also found at the Quincy Natural Foods Co-op and at the Portola Village Pharmacy.
Aside from the listed local vendors and the Blairsden Community Market, Pine Cone Kitchen has plans to have a presence at the Reno Garlic Festival this summer as well.
“The community has placed us here and we look for any way to reciprocate and give back,” the couple said. “It’s a team dream and we play our ever-growing part.”