Foodie paradise in the San Juans

A bounty of farm-fresh ingredients and a beautiful setting make Orcas Island irresistible

Fresh plums

Fresh Westsound plums

Thomas J. Story

The plums, dusky and warm from the sun, are steadily disappearing under my greedy fingers. The lamb has just come off the grill; my husband is slicing the tomatoes we bought at the market that morning.

I'm assembling the salad for our impromptu dinner party ― a bowl of Maple Rock Farm lettuces with blue cheese and a simple dressing.

"This could be the best trip my stomach's ever taken," my husband says with a contented sigh, surveying the feast on our backyard picnic table. Mouth full of plum, I find it hard to disagree. We've rented a house for a lazy week on Orcas Island, possibly the loveliest of the populated landmasses in Washington's San Juan archipelago.

Our turn-of-the-century cottage faces south over East Sound, with a wide deck and a narrow path leading to a steep and rocky beach.

We hadn't planned to base our entire vacation around our appetites. But after finding a map of local farms on our kitchen table, we eagerly plot a week's worth of visits. For anyone who loves to cook, it's a seductive prospect: preparing your meals in a beautiful setting with ingredients purchased from the source.

 

As foodie tourism goes, Orcas is one of the West's most enchanting options. Settlers have farmed the island since the 1870s, but only recently have they begun to organize themselves for visitors ― setting up on-site produce stands, perma-culture classes, even an informal petting zoo. At the Saturday farmers' market, lines form for Armand Bryl, the master Swiss baker, and Rob Kirby, who sells barbecued oysters along with his own roasted coffee and hand-blended spices.

The farmers themselves are a modern breed. Take John Steward, a former snowboard apparel company co-owner from Oregon, who started Maple Rock Farm six years ago. The sign on his vintage milk truck reads know your farmer, know your food. "It's not just about organic anymore ― it's about authenticity," he says. At the 56-year-old Coffelts Farm, a little stand stocks several cuts of lamb and pork, as well as wool comforters and Sidney Coffelt's superlative seasonal plum-lime marmalade. "We like to say they only have one bad day in their lives," she says, with an affectionate glance at her sheep.

 

We eat out just once that week ― at the very fine Christina's, where Maple Rock Farm's heirloom tomatoes and salad greens make a star appearance. Chef-owner Christina Orchid introduces me to her mother, 87-year-old Emily Reid, who with her husband maintained one of the island's main apple orchards in the 1950s. On our last day, we visit Reid's roadside stand to marvel at the bounty from her garden: golden raspberries, dahlias, tomatillos, peas. She laughs as I take my first taste of ground cherry ― a sweet yellow fruit enclosed in a papery husk.

I can already feel the pull this island has on me, and how much I will miss it when I'm gone. I think of John Steward sailing in for a quick stop at the market and ending up owner of a farm. What would it take to make the leap? I tell Emily Reid how lucky she is to live here, and she gives me an indulgent look. "It's not luck," she says. "You have to earn it."

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