Two weekends ago, we traded the cacti of California for the Douglas firs (and snappy wildflowers!) of the Pacific Northwest. This mini-vacation included an enlightening trek to The Herbfarm, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant and dining tour-de-force in Woodinville, Washington. We also visited its five-acre farm to see what was cropping up for dinner.
“The radishes are kind of fun; they’re looking really good,” head farmer Bill Vingelen said when we arrived at the farm, 30 minutes outside Seattle and about a mile down the road from the kitchen. “It’s one of the first roots to come up — it came up in 30 days. These French breakfast radishes are a beautiful little size, and taste nice and crunchy, and a little spicy.”
We shadowed Bill that morning as he harvested produce for that evening’s dinner. Then we headed over to the kitchen to chat with Chef Chris Weber to see how he planned to make this bounty sing.
The Herbfarm, the only five-diamond resto in the Northwest, is famed for its thematic nine-course dinners; there’s just one seating a night, and meals last about four and a half hours. But it could be said that the experience of eating a vividly imagined and deftly executed meal — with Puget Sound perch on salsify purée, or fir tree gelée with salted lavender shortbread, or fried lichen, for example — is one that lasts forever.
Similarly fearless, collaborative combinations can be found at the farm. Beneficial insects, companion plants and an industrious gang of chickens all work in tandem to produce spectacular crops.
Guided by the “pick list” written by the chefs, Bill harvested edibles for that night’s Spring Forager’s Dinner. (Mother’s Day was the next day, so lemon balm, crimson clover and kale flowers were also cut to make aromatic boutonnieres.)
“Imagine if you came back to this area 200 years ago,” said Ron Zimmerman, a native Northwester who owns The Herbfarm with his wife, New York-born Carrie Van Dyck. “The [indigenous] Coast Salish peoples lived in cedar longhouses on the water’s edge. Most of the winter you would be subsisting on salmon that was dried in the fall; and pemmican, which is dried berries and fish oil; and, when tide goes out, clams. But when the plants start coming up in the spring, suddenly you have whole foods coming back to your neighborhood. So you go up to the estuaries, streams and rivers to pick salmonberry shoots, and to gather nettles and fiddlehead ferns. All these things [you would] take back and roast in a big feast.”
Tonight’s menu would include smoked slow-roasted Columbia River wild king salmon with onion spaetzle and kelp-oxalis sauce, a black angus duo with onion-caraway jus and glazed morels, and foraged native greens with three-hour farm yolk.
Back on the farm, Bill walked us over to the chicken coops, where hens of all stripes were strutting in and out of converted horse trailers.
“These are the happy ladies,” he said. “They’re all heritage breed foragers, so they can survive over the winter no problem.” The hens had just been moved from a winter pasture of rye and vetch that had been planted as soil builders. “The vetch will climb the rye with its tendrils,” he explained. “We always set aside enough land so the chickens can tunnel around and eat. They also love to scratch around and look for bugs. It really helps their eggs, which have a bright, bright yellow yolk.”
The different breeds of hens lay different color eggs. The araucana lays the light blue “Easter eggs,” and the brown eggs are courtesy of the black australorp, known for its gentle personality (“even the roosters are really nice,” Bill said).
The farm’s diversity pre-empts many of the problems you’ll find on monoculture properties. Bees and ladybugs reign. Rye and vetch are companion crops for the blueberries, and raspberries are “nursed” by crimson clovers, which provide soil-building and protection from the wind and rain for the berries.
Other foods harvested throughout the year include (just to name a few) currants, yellow plums, carrots, hazelnuts, quince, cherries, basil, mint, fennel, potatoes, rosemary, lettuce, beets and strawberries, which are now ripe thanks to their growing under plastic cover. Rows of poplar trees shield the farm from the wind.
The most important thing Bill has learned as a farmer? “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Every site is different,” he said. “They say, ‘plant peas by Presidents Day,’ but I planted them three weeks earlier than that, and now we’re harvesting peas. We’re probably the only one in the valley that has them.”
For tonight’s dinner, Bill’s harvest will be complemented by foraged morels, wild onions, cattail shoots, Japanese knotweed and fiddlehead ferns gathered by a staff forager.
We asked Chef Chris Weber about the dish he was most excited to unveil. “The salmon dish — we worked on the preparation of it for quite a while,” he said. “We’re doing it with oxalis sauce, a seaweed and wild sorrel sauce. The flavor is really bright. There’s a fair amount of cream and butter in it, but it’s still really light and bright because of the acidity that’s in the sorrel.”
Dessert will include sweet woodruff macarons; we sampled some of the ganache, whose taste defies description. The closest we can get is to say it was simultaneously herbal and nutty and wildly aromatic.
“It’s a pretty shocking flavor — unlike anything else,” Chef Chris said. “When it’s fresh, it’s really unassuming. It doesn’t really have an aroma or anything, but when it’s dried, it changes completely. For the macarons, [sous chef] Jack [Gingrich] and I were talking about how it kind of reminds us of pistachio a little bit. Pistachio macarons are super classic — so, why not make macarons with sweet woodruff?”