ALONG CHUCKANUT DRIVE — It was the perfect impromptu picnic as my wife and I sat, bundled in winter coats, looking out over a log-strewn beach at Larrabee State Park, just south of Bellingham. We ate fresh goat cheese from a farm down the road, slathered atop sour-cherry lemon bread from Breadfarm bakery in Edison.
May I just say, ahem: “Yum.”
It was a pairing we’d chosen on a whim in a couple of quick stops along our drive, but apparently we weren’t the first.
“That’s a match made in heaven,” said Suzie Clark, working the counter at Breadfarm.
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“That’s what everybody does!” we heard when we met up at Bellingham Farmers Market with Debbie Matyas, a farmhand and cheesemonger from Gothberg Farms in Bow, where we’d bought the fresh chevre at a serve-yourself, leave-money-in-the-box stand.
It was a tasty mouthful to moan over — pleasurably — and the view was sweet, too: gnarled madrona trees hanging over sandstone banks carved like filigree art by wind and tide. Across the water rose the whale’s-back hump of Lummi Island.
Chuckanut Drive, the 21-mile highway built in 1896 to link Bellingham to the Skagit Valley, meanders steep hillsides overlooking all this, and it’s worth a day-trip drive just for the scenery. Add stops at farms, bakeries and cafes along the way — or a short detour off the highway — and it’s a food-lover’s tour-de-force.
Here are some suggested stops, traveling from the south.
Say cheese (and say it again)
• We stopped for goat cheese at Gothberg Farms, 15203 Sunset Road, Bow. Besides the fresh chevre, available only during milking months, temptations included Gruyere, chic choc cheddar (with chicory and chocolate), Gouda, dill and garlic, or Matyas’ favorite, Welsh-style Caerphilly (“It’s made like a cheddar and brined like a Gouda and gets really soft and creamy with a buttery finish”). 360-202-2436 or gothbergfarms.com.
• Samish Bay Cheese, 15115 Bow Hill Road, Bow. A tiny retail shop and tasting room offers organic cheese from the farm’s cows. Owner Roger Wechsler might tell you about his signature Ladysmith fresh cheese, named for a Mrs. Smith who was a pioneer in the area. It’s popular with added flavorings such as chives or arugula. Farm-grown pork and beef also available. 360-766-6707 or samishbaycheese.com.
• Golden Glen Creamery, 15098 Field Road, Bow. Store open Monday-Saturday offers everything from farm-made Parmesan to lavender cheddar. 360-766-6455 or goldenglencreamery.com.
The loaves of your life
For picnic-fare extraordinaire, or a loaf to take home, turn west at Bow Hill Road and take the mile detour off Chuckanut Drive to downtown Edison and Breadfarm, my favorite bakery in the hemisphere.
Here you’ll find a busy crew, young and old, busily turning out baked goods ranging from the aforementioned delectable sour-cherry lemon bread ($7) to hearty Chuckanut Multigrain, as well as rustic pastries, Fredonia Fig Bars, gingerbread cupcakes with chocolate ganache and more. It’ll make you a glutton for gluten. No credit cards; 360-766-4065 or breadfarm.com.
Other picnic fixings
Next to Breadfarm, John DeGloria’s Slough Food has fine wines and a selection of top-notch deli meats from around the region, sourced from Seattle’s Salumi, Bavarian Meats, Cascioppo Bros. and more. Want to picnic here? Their next backdoor oyster party is noon-4 p.m. April 13, overlooking Edison Slough. Paella parties May to September. 360-766-4458 or sloughfood.com.
Berry good eating
Skagit Valley’s oldest family-run blueberry farm, Bow Hill Blueberries, is now run by former Seattle Times photographer Harley Soltes and his family. On Bow Hill Road a short distance east off Chuckanut, in mid- to late summer you can pick blueberries here for your picnic or to take home. The rest of the year a farm store sells jam as well as frozen, dried and pickled blueberries. Soltes urged us to try his pickled blueberries, made from Rubels, a heritage berry originally from the pine barrens of New Jersey, on grilled salmon with crème fraîche. (It was our Christmas dinner this year. They sell a recipe card.) 360-399-1006 or bowhillblueberries.com.
Unselfish with shellfish
Taylor Shellfish’s Samish Bay oyster farm could well be your whole reason for making the trip.
Follow a narrow drive down a steep hill and across the railroad tracks to find a bevy of idyllically situated waterfront picnic tables and Weber charcoal grills ready for you to barbecue oysters fresh from the shellfish store (they even sell charcoal and mini-bottles of Tabasco). A dozen succulent little native Olympic oysters, grown in the bay just outside, were $12 when we stopped by. People come no matter the weather.
“The other day there were dark, stormy clouds and you couldn’t even see any of the (San Juan) islands, but people were out under the awning shucking oysters,” said Irene Fadden, seafood-store manager. “The only rule is you have to leave when we close.”
Plans are to serve beer and wine from their own little oyster bar, maybe by this summer. 360-766-6002 or taylorsamish.com.
Farmers Market feast
If it’s Saturday (April through Christmas), Bellingham Farmers Market features many of the farm foods listed here. So another strategy is to zoom up Interstate 5 to Bellingham first, provision your picnic at the market and head down Chuckanut for a roadside feed at Larrabee park or wherever the appetite moves you. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays, Depot Market Square, Railroad Avenue at Maple Street, Bellingham. More info: bellinghamfarmers.org.
Or let them feed you
If picnic or take-home food isn’t your fancy, you still won’t suffer. Here’s a sampling of favorite eateries along the way:
• Rhododendron Cafe, Chuckanut Drive at Bow Hill Road. The 29-year owners of this popular little roadside cafe sold out last fall to Jim and Lisa Kowalski, the former operators of Edison’s Farm to Market Bakery, and it’s a poetic segue. Here’s the place to find your Senegalese peanut soup or Mexican posole ($6.75-$9), and maybe a tasty oyster po’boy ($12.95), too. 360-766-6667 or rhodycafe.com
• Tweets vegan-friendly restaurant, downtown Edison, which one local described as “the best restaurant in the state.” On our visit, the menu included artichoke frittata, $14; chicken mole and black rice, $17. “We’re organic and local and hippie, hippie, hippie,” said proprietor Charles Atkinson, who gave me a business card handwritten on a piece of cardboard torn from a food box. 360-820-9912.
• Chuckanut Manor, 3056 Chuckanut Drive, is an old-fashioned roadhouse perched on Samish Bay just before the road starts its serpentine embrace of hillsides to the north. Loyal fans rave about the Whiskey Crab Soup and Coconut Prawns. (There’s a two-bedroom suite to rent, too.) 360-766-6191 or chuckanutmanor.com.
• The Oyster Bar, 2578 Chuckanut Drive. It occupies a narrow little building perched between the road and a cliff, with fine dining, a fabled, award-winning wine cellar and a San Juan Islands view that doesn’t quit. Open for lunch and dinner; fried oysters on the lunch menu, $17.95. 360-766-6185 or theoysterbar.net.
• Oyster Creek Inn, 2190 Chuckanut Drive. Built in the 1920s, originally with the words LUNCH and BEER painted on the side, this is another narrow little eatery, this one tucked like a treehouse in the curl of a hairpin-turn above the creek for which it’s named. Taylor Shellfish is next door, so you know the oysters and clams are fresh. 360-766-6179 or oystercreekinn.net.
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org.