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Whidbey and Camano Islands: Food Uncomplicated

Crab photo by Jack Penland Large - Whidbey and Camano Islands: Food Uncomplicated

photo by Jack Penland

One of the extraordinary things about Washington state’s Whidbey and Camano Islands is that much of the food is sourced right here on the islands. Located north of Seattle, life moves at a slower pace, and the food is uncompromised and uncomplicated.

Camano Island

The waters off Camano Island boast world class crabbing for sweet Dungeness. For a real adventure, rent a boat and crab pot at Cama Beach State Park’s Center for Wooden Boats. Then, cruise out into Saratoga Passage and catch and cook your own.

Another fun way to dine on the island’s abundance is at Cama Beach Café’s “Dinner in the Park” event, featuring Chef Kris Gerlach who honed his craft from the beaches of Key Largo to the shores of Camano. This feast brings together the best of Chef Kris’ experiences in a simple, yet elegant style in this 1930’s fishing resort-turned-state-park. Not only does this unique setting offer dozens of historic cabins, it has created a significant farm-to-table dining and catering program under the attentive care of owner Donna King.

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Artisans collaborate to offer products like ice cream. photo by Sherrye Wyatt

Camano Island also brims with libations, eateries, and artisan products. At Camano Marketplace, enjoy a cup of Camano Island Coffee that is organic, fair traded and shade grown. The Papua New Guinea medium roast is one of the best sellers. Pair it with a flaky, freshly baked croissant from the French patisserie Pierre Fauvet Pasty Café, also located at the Marketplace, and you’ve got a real treat. (And be sure to check out RFT’s review of Camano Island Coffee.)

The island’s luxury accommodation, Camano Island Inn and Spa offer guests rustic elegance and a waterfront experience so exceptional, it draws diners from Seattle, about an hour away. The inn’s menu is composed of ingredients as local as possible, including salad greens from Chef Dylen Alexander’s garden.

Whidbey Island

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Penn Cove Shellfish grows and harvests fresh mussels year round. photo by Sherrye Wyatt

Whidbey Island is famous for Penn Cove mussels, which are harvested daily and sought around the globe. The Jeffords family started Penn Cove Shellfish in 1975, and it is now the oldest commercial mussel farm in North America. The company’s mission is to be the premier producer of the finest sustainably farmed shellfish in the market. Each March, the island celebrates its mussel culture at the Penn Cove Musselfest in Coupeville and attendees can take farm tours, and taste chowders and mussels prepared every way imaginable. You can even see the mussel rafts from the shore. You’ll find this signature island ingredient featured at restaurants all over the island. And, if you decide to make them at home, there are dozens of recipes available on the company’s website

(Read RFT Editor Bobbie Hasselbring’s story about the Penn Cove Mussel Fest.)

Near Coupeville, the historic 3 Sisters Farm has an expansive new farm store, fully-stocked with local products that range from their own grass-fed beef pepperoni sticks to lavender ice cream from Lavender Wind Farm, and Turner and Bea’s rosemary crackers.

On the south end of the island near Clinton, Glendale Shepherd offers scheduled farm tours by reservation. The farm is home to a herd of milking sheep and offers sweeping vistas of Saratoga Passage. The tour always ends with a tasting of their mouth-watering farmstead cheese. Their flagship cheese, Island Brebis, is a flavorful wholesheep’s milk Tomme, aged in rustic wheels, which won a 2014 Good Food Award.

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Rye harvest at Quail’s Run Farm. photo by Patti Imes

Other island farmers are resurrecting sought-after heirlooms like Sugar Hubbard Squash and Rockwell Beans. Both are in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and locals and visitors seek them out at farm stands and seasonal farmers markets which run April-October. Even chefs are often seen shopping for pantry staples like local garlic, carrots or kale. Farms like Deep Harvest and Foxtail offer a wide variety of produce. Each fall, Quail’s Run hand-harvests the rye with sickles hand grinds their corn meal and flour.

In the spring, students arrive from all over the country to be transformed into farmers during 34 weeks of field immersion and classroom instruction at the Organic Farm School. This farm is expansive, and one graduate is John Burks, owner of Kettle’s Edge Farm.

“Farming on Whidbey is about the extensive preservation of the rural environment,” said Burks, who now grows over 100 varieties of flowers and produce. His farm sits next to geologic kettles (depressions made from  melting of ancient glacial ice) within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, a public-private partnership with the National Park Service.

“Surrounded by water, we are insulated from the warming effects of a greater land mass” Burks continues. “That aids the cultivation of crops that benefit from a cooler climate.”

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Chefs partner with local farms for fresh produce. photo by Sherrye Wyatt

Not surprisingly, Burks’ signature crop is lettuce. He grows about a dozen varieties on his island farm.

Burks is among those leading the charge to grow the Whidbey Island Grown (WIG) brand into the local dining, lodging, and farming scene. The first WIG Week is September 29-October 8 and an ideal time for tasting your way through the local culinary scene. The new Whidbey Island Cider Festival kicks off this special week on September 30 at the Pacific Rim Institute.

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Penn Cove mussels are readily available at Whidbey and Camano Island restaurants. photo by Jack Penland

The strong rural food movement is present all over the island, and organizations such as Slow Food and Goosefoot Community Fund, and chefs like Scott Fraser, are committed to locavore culture. Fraser, the owner of Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway, created an annual Pig Roast for families stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Chef Scott also works with the culinary program at Oak Harbor High School. Under his mentorship, their team has claimed the state ProStart Invitational culinary competition title eight times, out of the last 12 years.

Also making delicious waves is Chef Vincent Nattress, a Coupeville native who returned home with his wife Tyla after extensive experience in Europe and Napa Valley. Their new venture is the Orchard Kitchen. Events include “in the field” and farmhouse dinners, cooking classes, and wine appreciation.

“We’ve put together an experience that is more like a dinner party than a restaurant,” said Nattress. “We have one menu a week, and it is always different based on the season. That way we may feature what is fresh and beautiful, either from local farms or the Salish Sea.”  By Sherrye Wyatt, RFT Contributor

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Sherrye Wyatt

Sherrye Wyatt is a freelance writer with deep agricultural roots. She and her brothers still own and manage the family farm where she was raised in Eastern Washington. She has vast experience in the Pacific Northwest wine and cider industries. She was the first executive director of the Northwest Cider Association. Her feature writing has appeared in American Vineyard, Washington Magazine, Capital Press, The Grapepost, Wheat Life and Vineyard & Winery Management.