For years my family would escape to Orcas Island for a summertime week in a waterfront cabin. In between bouts of hiking, fishing, reading, cooking and cocktailing, we might go gallery-hopping or venture into “town” for a treat, but we seldom dined out during those summer idylls. As a restaurant critic, that felt too much like work.
But recently I headed to Orcas for a weekend of gastronomic sleuthing and discovered much to excite the culinary adventurer. Agritourism is gaining a toehold. Orcas now boasts a brewery, winery and a goat-cheese creamery. Eastsound, the island’s villagelike commercial hub, even has a tiny cocktail lounge, The Barnacle, where house-made elixirs meet made-in-Washington spirits.
On this rural Washington island, the distance from farm to market to table can sometimes be measured in yards. Long an artists’ haven, Orcas now has a tightly woven fabric of passionate food folks, including restaurateurs who’ve retired to the farm, farmers who’ve opened a restaurant, chefs breeding rare pigs, and artisans bent on preserving the island’s heritage.
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For our weekend stay at Once in a Blue Moon Farm, I had booked the “Alpaca Suite.” So it seemed appropriate that we were greeted by several alpacas pastured next to the guest-parking area. Thanks to the resident rooster, my husband and I were up with the chickens the next morning. Their coop lay just outside the windows of our cozy, pine-paneled guest room, beyond cherry trees heavy with fruit.
Zach Lefton showed us around the 35-acre farm his family bought 20 years ago. Lefton works in construction in Seattle but commutes to Orcas on weekends to help on the farm. He renovated the farm’s five guest rooms using timber from the property.
Some people booking farm stays want a “working” vacation, he says. “Greenhorn farmers want to get their hands dirty, but they also want to see (the island’s) Mount Constitution. We make it fun for them.”
To the market
The fastest way to plug into the Orcas food scene is at the Saturday Farmers Market in Eastsound. I met Audra Query Lawlor and her husband, Gerry, and sampled their elegant line of “Girl Meets Dirt” preserves. Using heirloom Bramley apples, Bartlett pears and Italian plums, among other fruits, the Lawlors are helping the island’s old orchards revive.
Among tables overflowing with voluptuous organic produce, I found Christina and Bruce Orchid selling the jams, jellies, sauces and condiments they make in their cookhouse at Red Rabbit Farm, where they also grow their own fruit and raise chickens and steers.
“I’m afraid to commit to pigs,” Christina says. “I’ll get too attached. I feel bad when I lose a chicken.”
The farm is also the setting for family-style Sunday suppers, held throughout the summer. This is the couple’s idea of retirement after closing their Eastsound restaurant, Christina’s, in 2010 after 30 years.
Christina pointed me toward a guy named Steve making grilled-cheese sandwiches. We lined up for a “Deluxe,” oozing aged cheddar chunky with king trumpet and shiitake mushrooms. The cheese was Tillamook but sometimes it’s the local goat-milk cheddar from Myers Creamery. Their herb-coated fresh chèvre finds its way into the Inn at Ship Bay’s ravioli, onto Hogstone’s Wood Oven pizza, and into cheese cases at Rose’s and the new Orcas Food Co-op.
Next to me at a picnic table where I demolished the “Deluxe” was one of the owners of Brown Bear Baking. That bustling, veranda-wrapped bakery was our first stop the next morning for Victrola coffee, an orange-scented, sugar-dusted morning bun and a gorgeous, still warm, peach croissant.
The man in line ahead of me bought a dark, savory monkey-bread muffin. I ran into him later that day tending bar at Island Hoppin’ Brewery’s snug taproom. He set us up with a sampler ($14) of all seven of their beers, including the summery K-Pod Kolsch, sour Soccer Mom Saison and dark, toasty Riptide Porter.
The island’s one-and-only brewery is 2 years old; its first winery just opened. Young vintner R. Alexander Schemkes observed that, unlike neighboring San Juan and Lopez islands, Orcas didn’t have a winery. So he and his father seized the opportunity to open Orcas Island Winery. The crushed grapes were trucked from Eastern Washington for their first vintage — eight varietals and one blend, 200 cases in all. “We’re shooting for 1,000 cases next year,” he says, “then we’ll start a wine club.”
Shellfish, pigs and more
Seven years ago, out near Olga on the eastern side of Orcas, Mark Sawyer and Toni Hermansen resuscitated Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. The 26 acres of tidal land and 20-plus acres of upland have been in Sawyer’s family for three generations.
In addition to the oysters and clams they raise, Buck Bay sells crab and other shellfish caught by the Swinomish tribe. You can eat oysters right there, at picnic tables overlooking the shellfish beds, eyed by two ever-hopeful cats. Shucking the oysters is DIY but novices needn’t worry, says Hermansen. “I put the easy into it for them.”
Buck Bay shellfish, like Myers goat cheese, is on a lot of island menus. Few things travel very far to get to the kitchens of Orcas Island’s chefs. Some of them raise what they need themselves.
The “local Mangalitsa pork confit” on the menu at the Inn at Ship Bay comes from pigs bred and raised by chef/owner Geddes Martin. Mangalitsas are valued for their fat-marbled flesh and Martin managed to acquire one of very few breeding boars in the state. “For us it was a question of how do we get the pork that we like in the restaurant,” says Martin. “Otherwise we’d be crazy to do it.”
Papa boar Trip, two sows, Flora and Fauna, and their offspring graze on barley and orchard grass. Their movable pens sit amid fields cultivated by Maple Rock Farm, whose kale and rhubarb Martin used to complement the pork confit. The dish was the centerpiece of a meal so delicious it diverted my attention completely from the dining room’s splendid view.
Jay Blackinton of Maple Rock Farm shares ownership of some of the piglets. He and Maple Rock’s founder, John Steward, opened Hogstone’s Wood Oven in Eastsound last year. Ostensibly a pizzeria, Hogstone’s phenomenal pies are a worthy platform for island bounty they grow and forage.
But it’s clear from the rest of the menu, and from the cookbooks Blackinton keeps handy — Larousse, Noma, Coi and the full set of Modernist Cuisine among them — that the 26-year-old farmer/chef has bigger aspirations. “Pizza allows us to have a creative restaurant and also keep it afloat,” he says.
“Trust us with your dinner” Hogstone’s menu coaxes. So I did, opting for the $45 tasting menu. Everything had a story.
“Oysters from 344 yards away” were baked with “leaf lard from our pigs.” Raw littleneck clams wore sprigs of goosefoot harvested near the shellfish beds. Pickled chive buds were among “alliums old and new” with the braised pork neck. Leaves of miner’s lettuce paid further tribute to the animal: It was found growing wild on the spot where the pig died, less than a mile away.