Monday, June 27, 2011

Orcas Tour: Doe Bay, Salmon and Oysters, Becoming an Infovore

After last night's tumultuous realizations, it's a blessing to wake up and feel the freshness of morning, with the crows loudly cawing to each other from the distant trees. I'm squeezing in an expedition around the Doe Bay area of the island with Chris, who rolls in at 9:00am just as I'm finishing my coffee. Because Chris lives in the area, which requires a good 20 minute drive from the Inn, he's the ideal guide to this part of the island, which includes the Doe Bay resort, the town of Olga, and a handful of very special farmers who provide ingredients to the Inn.

On the drive out to Doe Bay, we turn down a tiny gravel road and stop at the salmon hatchery.
I've always been a salmon eater, but I assumed that catching it was a fairly straightforward matter: go out into deep waters in the early morning, bait a line, possess never-ending patience. But Chris tells me that a salmon's life cycle is in fact much more similar to that of a human being. They start out as chum in freshwater lakes and ponds, then make their way into salt water to grow to their full size, then as adults swim back toward freshwater sources (some say the same sources that they were born in) to reproduce. It's a little bit like growing up in a small town, living a wild adulthood out in the wide world, then going back to suburbia to raise kids and grow old. Of course, returning to freshwater after a lifetime in salt water is a suicide mission, and the full-grown salmon often die soon after reproducing and laying their eggs. What threatens a salmon's life even more is fishermen scooping them up out of the ocean before they have a chance to go home and reproduce. Overfishing of salmon in saltwaters means that the salmon population gets depleted rapidly; hence, the growth in popularity of farmed salmon, in which fish live their entire lives in pens, given genetically-modified feed that make them grow faster and fatter, and growing under very controlled conditions. It's sustainable, but hardly the most natural way to live life as a salmon, when your nature is to travel and to return home when you're ready. And the fish is more commercial--each filet has the same thickness and color, like a prepackaged McDonald's hamburger.

Hatchery is a step towards a sustainable middle ground for fisheries--instead of trapping the salmon in pens until ready for harvesting, a hatchery nurtures the salmon's natural lifecycle, making sure that the fish get a full period of growing fresh, swimming to sea, and coming home again before being fished. It's a little like being a free-range chicken: the salmon are watched and nurtured, but never contained. Using the techniques first developed by the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, hatcheries use man-made channels built into the natural landscape to easily funnel the fish to and from freshwater ponds. During the first part of their lives, in which they grow in freshwater, the hatchery workers clip the adipose fin (the little nubbin near the fish's tail, a vestigal fin that doesn't affect their swimming) to identify the future grown fish as wild hatchery fish.
When the fish are ready to go into saltwater, they swim down the manmade channels out into the sea, clearly marked so that fishermen know that they are not permissible for catching. Given a free pass from being fished, the salmon grow to full size, make their way back into the freshwater inlets...
And here's where things get really interesting. The hatchery workers pull the fish out of the water and lay them in long trays, where they scoop out the roe and semen. They put the fertilized eggs in trays and place them back in the freshwater pond (while keeping the caught fish they need to sell.)
This is not only a more humane way of catching and killing the fish (they die without being bruised by nets or mutilated by hooks), but it also guarantees that every fish that's caught still lives on with its eggs being hand-delivered back to freshwater. What you get in return is a sustainable salmon population, and a fish that looks, tastes, and behaves almost exactly like wild fish. The sign at the hatchery reads "Long Live the Kings,"--the hatchery is all about keeping the king (and sockeye) salmon alive and available for the future.

This is an INCREDIBLE amount of work, and it means a huge amount of dedication on the part of the people who work at the hatchery. They spend hours hunched over the chum with nail clippers cutting the adiposals, monitor their swimming paths and water and weather patterns, and sit poised ready to pull them in when they start to return home. Their channels make it possible for the salmon to grow up on top of the Island's naturally-occurring aquifers, layers of water-permeable rock, underground fountains whose water drips from melting glaciers, creating some of the purest and most mineral-rich water available anywhere.
"I've done some experiments with the aquifer water," Chris says," and used some of it in my garden. The plants that got aquifer water grew twice as big as the others." My mind is reeling at the potential in these hatcheries, where fish get the best water, the most nurturing, and the biggest chance at a sustainable future. If all restaurants were like the Inn at Ship Bay, all would carry this kind of protected, yet totally natural-tasting fish, and the flavor and dining experience would be exponentially richer.

Harvested but sustainable food is not an oxymoron--what it requires is a deliberate practice of living one's life in harmony with the natural rhythms of the world. As Chris explains to me over breakfast at Doe Bay, the resort on this end of the Island, living on Orcas often means being more in touch with your surroundings. I slurp up my breakfast (a ridiculously flavorful duck egg poached in olive oil, served over spicy greens, tomatoes, smoked mushrooms, and grits), and envy his early morning patterns: wake up, go for a walk, swim, sweat, eat a good breakfast, work on his garden and boat. All this before coming into work, where he crafts beautiful ingredients into gorgeous dishes for the community to enjoy. The last few years have been rough for Chris, with a series of personal setbacks, but he's actively pursuing a more balanced, happy life, and it shows in the way he carries himself in the kitchen. If someone has made something he loves, he'll bound over to them, eyes wide with glee, and say, "What's in this?" He brings energy and joy to his work, and it's not clear if that's a byproduct of the Island or just one of his natural traits.

It's something that's in full swing as we walk around the resort after breakfast--unlike the space at Rosario, replete with gorgeous architecture and luxurious amenities, Doe Bay is more like an adult summer camp (with more youth-friendly pricing). Cabins and yurts cover the property, which looks out over the gorgeous Otter Cove and a small private beach, and there are open-air hot tubs, saunas, and massage and yoga studios.
It's a lot more like a nature retreat than a hotel, but that makes it all the more appealing, especially once we get a look at the garden, which provides an enormous amount of the resort's produce and poultry. Young staffers are weeding and watering everywhere--many volunteers at Doe Bay, as well as at several other farms on the island, found these opportunities through the WWOOF program, which connects people to local farms for seasonal work. They receive a small stipend, room and board, and in return work in gardens and in the local community. It's a great educational experience, as well as great enthusiastic staff for the summer season.
Of course, Doe Bay's farm is designed to feed the Doe Bay community--it's a great farm, but fairly minimal compared to the sprawling fields of Orcas Farm, our major farm stop today.
Owned by George Orser, there are at least 50-60 beds of growing produce. If Jay-Z had a farm, this is basically what it would be. Chris basically wanders into the territory--when you've lived on the Island for over 15 years, you know your neighbors well enough to drop in unannounced. He points out the flowering arugula, growing in tall, spicy stalks.
He's growing things on this farm I've never seen before--on our right is a bed of what looks like four-leaf cloves, but will eventually grow into buckwheat.
On our left, beds of strawberries are nestled beneath white netting. A robin flaps wildly about underneath it, and eventually frees itself and flies away. When Chris picks off a few berries to taste, I can see why a bird would risk its life to get in: they're the sweetest, juiciest I've ever tasted.
But George, just like any other farmer on Orcas, is subject to the unpredictability of the season. When the rainy season lasted much longer than expected, he told Chris that he was sure his seedlings would be drowned. Looking at the cracked earth now, it's hard to believe that, but when Chris steps down on the still-slightly-squelchy ground, you start to wonder just how long it will take to see if George is correct.
Farming is quite different than cooking--when you're tasting a sauce, you can tell midway through its cooking process if it might need more salt, more spice, more butter. By contrast, farming is a lot more like baking--you can put all the required ingredients into the batter early on, but until you see it puffing up or lying flat in the oven, you can't know if it will turn out ok. The proof is in the final product.

George emerges from the trees and gives us a hearty hello on his way out to town. He points out his ducks as we make our way to the exit--it's a good thing he pointed, because otherwise I'd never have spotted them, perfectly camouflaged as they are against the tool shed...
We've got one more stop to make on our way back to the Inn: I've been craving a taste of fresh oysters for the last three weeks, but a 7-mile bike ride seems hardly the best way to get it. Chris makes up the difference, and we turn up the dusty road to Buck Bay, where we load up on oysters and manila clams, pulled fresh from the water...
The oysters are huge, as big as my hand--their rings can tell you how many years old they are (most are at least 3-4 years.) The manilas, Chris says, will be perfect for steamers, and we buy two pounds' worth. Surrounding our "catch" with ice will keep them fresh until we're ready to eat them. Chris hoists them high, a bounty of treats for our lunch.
Several other people are pulling into Buck Bay as we drive down to the shore. Chris shows me how to pick sea beans, which initially make me pucker up with saltiness but then turn crisp and flavorful. Foraging for ingredients seems, ultimately, about finding the right spots, and keeping your eyes open for that perfect patch of seaside vegetables.
When we get back to the Inn, Chris throws the sea beans and clams into a pot, dousing them with butter, white wine, and green garlic, and steaming them open. We slurp them up, with lots of bread to mop up the sauce. It's a true indulgence, a perfect treat in the hot afternoon sun.
As I'm wiping the plate with a hunk of bread, I start to wonder where my appreciation of this day comes from. I'm not a farmer. I'm not a fishermen. I have little to no success growing or catching my own ingredients. But visiting the hatchery, walking the rows of the farms I've visited, meeting the butchers and farmers as they deliver their goods to the Inn, has transformed the way I experience my food. Instead of solely tasting the butter and wine of the clams, I taste the limey acidity of the shore. When I slurp the oysters, they taste (as fresh fish should) exactly like the sea. The location of my food, and the people who brought it to me, have become as important as the food itself.

But I have my doubts: could this engagement with food's origin story continue to a more remote location? Would people really like to know where their food comes from, if they can't easily get to the farm, the fishery, the picked-over woods? Can you call yourself a locavore if your ingredients are local, but not your information? Surely thrilling at a flavorful seafood dish sits at one end of the foodie spectrum, and way at the other end is those who know all about the salmon's life cycle, from the freshwater krill to the saltwater growth to the suicidal mission towards reproduction. But I have to believe that being a foodie means, at least for a good chunk of those who would claim the title, having an investment in food's backstory, being interested in how dishes and culinary experiences come together over a long period of time. At tonight's pizza, which sold like crazy, a little boy was so fascinated by Annie's rolling out the dough and decorating the pizzas that he had to literally be dragged back to his parents' side to select his choice of soda. (He went with Jamaican Ginger Ale.) Another little girl said, when she approached the table with her parents, "I'm not hungry, so I don't want one," but came back with dustings of flour and tomato sauce on her face, saying "I'm still hungry--it was yummy!"

There are many stages to being a locavore: you can buy regionally, buy locally, buy neighborly. On an island like Orcas, much more so than an island like Manhattan, you can buy your greens from one farmer, your fruits from another, your eggs from your neighbor's coop, your fish from your local fishermen, and your oysters from the beach a mile away. If you go one step farther, where buying food is tantamount to buying information, you might as well be an "infovore" as well--someone whose experience of food comes from knowing it intimately. There's a reason New Englanders will pay $8 per person to go picking at the height of berry or apple season--they like the proximity to the experience of getting their food. They pay to know the heft of a bag of freshly picked apples, the finger pricks of a raspberry bush, the heatstroke of a day spent in fruit fields. They live vicariously through their food.

At your moment of deepest involvement and immersion, food transforms your state of mind--not just what you know, but how much you determine is worth knowing. There is a vast difference between picking over fillets of salmon at a good grocery store, and learning the science of how a fish should live and die. Knowing that tomatoes and strawberries withstand Bikram-level heat for months in a greenhouse makes you savor the ripe sweetness of the fruit even more. Munching on tonight's pizza--carrying the last seven oysters, a juicy, salty addition to the sweet tomato and herb crust--I know that my mind has been changed by what I've learned, what I've seen goes into the food I eat. A dish tastes richer because I know not only where its components have come from, but also what stories it contains.

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