Robert and I recently got to experience The Willows Inn’s Fish, Forage, and Farm package. Building on the success of their acclaimed restaurant, The Willows has just started offering this all-inclusive, culinary getaway. For two nights, you get to stay in one of their seaside guest houses and learn how The Willows sources the food they serve in their famous restaurant. It is a hands-on adventure devoted to showing guests such things as sustainable farming, how to forage for wild edibles, butchery, and traditional food preservation techniques. As you might expect, you also get to eat plenty of great food prepared by Willows Inn chefs.
Not long after arriving on Lummi Island, we joined our friends who would be sharing the weekend with us. We all hiked down to the beach where we were greeted by Ben and Mike, our expert guides for most of the weekend’s activities. They welcomed us with steaming bowls of clam and seaweed soup that had been warmed over an open campfire. I love anything smoky and/or briny so this soup was right up my alley. To my mind, soups like this are the ultimate comfort food: simple, clean flavors made from stunningly fresh ingredients harvested straight out of the waters in front of us. It doesn’t get much better than that. As we stood around the fire, warming up with our soup and getting acquainted, I knew we were in for a wonderful weekend.
The weekend’s activities were mostly centered around food. But our nature walk with island local, Sharon Grainger, took us beyond food as she told us stories of the island’s rich history. Sharon is a photographer who has worked extensively with the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. She is a funny, sweet, all-around awesome woman with a great knowledge of the area. As we hiked along the beach, Sharon pointed out some of the island’s amazing geology, shared interesting tales about the local tribes, and provided information about the indigenous flora and fauna. She even showed us which of the many seaweed varieties we were spotting are best to harvest. Although the vibrant green sea lettuce was tasty eaten straight off the rocks, my ears perked up as soon as Sharon mentioned that you could pickle bull kelp. It’s no secret that I love pickles, and I immediately started dreaming about what I could make with kelp pickles. Our nature walk ended back at the guest house where we returned to the world of food by learning how to fillet and can steelhead trout. This was followed by a delicious lunch of cedar-roasted trout with seaweed butter. It was what I would consider an ideal day in the Pacific Northwest
Later that day, Ben gave us a brief demo on how to butcher a venison leg. I doubt I’ll ever need to butcher a leg of any kind, but it was still very interesting seeing it done in-person and having the ability to ask questions. It brings you closer to the food you are about to eat which is the goal of the Fish, Forage, and Farm experience. Once the leg was carved, Ben ground up some of the meat using an antique meat grinder, and it became a “mix your own tartare” dish. Available toppings included dried blackberries, dried chanterelle mushrooms, juniper oil, horseradish and pine salt. We were instructed to grab a helping of venison, garnish it to our liking, and eat it with freshly grilled flatbread. Tartare isn’t something I would normally go for, but the experience was so much fun. I loved the DIY aspect. As nice as it is to sit down for a gourmet meal with friends, I sometimes enjoy standing around and eating casually like this even more.
We ate so much great food over the weekend, it would be impossible to cover it all. Highlights for me included a young kale salad with croutons that had been cleverly fused together with anchovies, beef marrow with razor clams, wilted chard, and Olympia oysters (which I helped shuck!), a mixed grain breakfast porridge with stewed blueberries and–my favorite dish of the trip–simple grilled oysters with brown butter and wild capers. I was a bit leery of oysters before this weekend, but now I’m officially sold. Last but not least, I absolutely fell in love with the fantastic sourdough bread made by Isaac, another member of the Willows Inn team. It has inspired me to try my hand at sourdough bread again.
In fact, I was inspired by many things during our Fish, Forage, and Farm weekend. As much as I love discovering new, unusual ethnic cuisines and ingredients, the food available in my own backyard is pretty hard to beat. Now that I’ve learned how to shuck my own oysters, I’m excited to tackle that at home sometime. And next time we backpack at Toleak Point, I may just whip up an impromptu seaweed salad. The overall experience was unforgettable, and I am so happy to have been able to share it with good friends. Thanks to Ben, Mike, and Isaac for the wonderful food and thanks to Jason for inviting us on this adventure!