Troy Hightower

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Gourmet Salt Spring Island


We are standing in golden, waving knee-high grain-stalks at the top of a swath of meadow-grasses and wildflowers, transfixed by a giant. Under the brow of Mount Maxwell, the highest point on Salt Spring Island, tucked in the lee of Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, Michael Ableman—a colossus of the sustainable organic agriculture movement—describes the transformation he plans to bring to the 26 acre meadow before us: how it will become a patchwork of organic produce plots—table grapes at the top, several parcels of alternative grains, like amaranth, kamut and millet in the middle, and rotating plots of seasonal vegetables down the gentle slope. A youngish and fit 53, Ableman, an author and photographer as well as visionary organic farmer, engages his listeners with dark eyes set in deep in sun crinkles and is mesmerizing with both his travel and farming tales, and his heart-felt passion for changing and improving the world’s farming practices. One of our troupe of hikers is Mary Risley, who is, as you will see, the instigator of this whole expedition. Roughly a dozen years ago, Ableman met Risley, the founder of Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco, when she contacted him to be the keynote speaker at a culinary conference in the bay area, and they have been friends and admirers of each other’s work ever since.

In addition to owning and running one of the most successful cooking schools in the country and authoring the “Tante Marie’s” cook book, Mary Risley was the winner of the James Beard Foundation “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1999 for her work in feeding the hungry through the non-profit Food Runners, which she founded in 1987. An old and dear friend of ours, she is a wonderful and crazy person, with a large group of friends and contacts in the food world across the nation. Every five years, she throws a party in honor of her birthday at some exotic or interesting place in the world, and invites dozens of her friends and foodies nationwide for several days of exploring, foraging, cooking and camaraderie—and, on this occasion, an up-close exploration of sustainable organic farming. In addition to chefs, food professionals and culinary lights, the group includes friends from all walks of life—pediatrician, lawyer, accountant, printer, writer, teacher, hairdresser and several retired executives and business people. All are talented cooks, interested in food, and bound by their friendship and love for Mary.

Ableman has won accolades and awards for his work in sustainable agriculture, written three books and been featured in print and on film. Ableman the author wrote “From the Good Earth” several years ago, an exploration of sustenance farmers and farming from China to Peru to Kenya, after extensive travels to those regions. Alice Waters, in the forward said “Michael Ableman's compelling stories remind us that the richness and beauty of our food is inextricably connected to a community of innovative and passionate farmers and to the land that they nurture.” More recently, he penned “Fields of Plenty—a farmer’s journey in search of real food and the people who grow it”, chronicling a journey with his teenage son Aaron to innovative and iconic sustainable farms from Maine to Mexico. I read much of the latter over the course of our island visit, and can eagerly state that it is a lyrical work.

Michael and his wife Jeanne-Marie recently bought Foxglove Farm, this 118 acre piece of heaven nestled in the old growth madrone, douglas fir and red cedar next to the largest lake on, and halfway up the south peak. As we stand in that glorious mountain meadow, he outlines their ambitious plans for an organic farm, conference center, and educational facility which will house interns, host conferences and festivals, and teach the precepts and concepts of modern organic sustainable farming, while simultaneously proving their feasibility and providing a living for his family. Ableman stated: “People can make a very good living doing this work. It requires a different type of creativity, a different instinct than the current industrial model, and it requires a level of artistry.”

Ableman’s first Salt Spring Island farm, Madrona Valley Farm and B&B, is the chosen site of this quintennial birthday festival, Mary’s 65th. The six acre farm and inn sit on Chu ‘ann Road, not far from tiny Vesuvius Harbor, with a view from the wraparound porch west over the Stuart Channel to the green, forested peaks of Vancouver Island. They moved to Madrona 5 years ago, after leaving the renowned organic farm Fairview Gardens near Santa Barbara, which he ran for many years, and where he waged and won a David & Goliath battle to save the farm by founding the Center for Urban Agriculture to purchase and preserve it from encroaching development.

Salt Spring is one island in the verdant, striated island chain angling off the west coast of British Columbia known as the southern gulf islands. Named in the early 1800’s by Hudson’s Bay Company officers after the brackish salty spring on the north lobe, the island extends roughly 15x30 kilometers, and is covered in a patchwork of forests, lakes, wild-flowered mountain meadows, and cultivated patches, with craggy bluffs of weathered red rock showing through. With the snow-caps of the BC mainland in the background to the east, and the peaks of Vancouver Island to the west, the setting and vistas are nothing short of spectacular.

Salt Spring enjoys a relatively mild climate for these north latitudes, often referred to as the “Banana Belt” of Canada, and in recent years has seen a real renaissance in small, quality farming and dairying. The island has become very “foodie” with many small organic, natural and artisanal producers of all types. Lambs grazed in island pastures tend to take on a unique flavor similar to pre-salé lamb in Normandy. Mary says “Salt Spring Island would be an absolutely great place to move when you want to live a simpler life in a civilized country where the residents are kind, respectful, and speak well.” Small numbers of organic beef, heritage pigs and chickens are produced, mostly for local consumption. Two artisanal cheese makers—Moonstruck Organic and Salt Spring Cheese turn out delicious varieties from the organic milk of their cows, sheep and goats. Soft-ripened Julliet by Salt Spring is a perfect goat-camembert; their Montana is wonderful nutty, dry aged sheep cheese similar to Pyrenees Brebis. Several blues are produced by Moonstruck, with tangy Beddis Blue our favorite. Heather Campbell the “bread lady”, bakes crusty loaves of country, whole wheat, olive and focaccia breads in her wood-fired oven at SaltSpring Island Bread Company near the southern tip. Salt Spring Flour Mill, a one-person operation run by Pat Reichert, mills several types of flour from organic grains shipped in from Saskatchewan. The oft-stormy seas surrounding the island abound with marine bounty, and the Fishery, a co-op of local fishermen, sells impeccably fresh wild king salmon, halibut, delicate black cod, rock scallops, and Dungeness crabs. Mark and Lauren Shipley have found a ready market for their roughly 60 flavors of hand made gelato and sorbetto, and Ille Jocelyn crafts dozens of varieties of Belgian-style chocolates. At Monsoon Coast, Doug Hall, who refers to himself as the island’s “masala wallah” blends several types of Indian spice mixtures and curries.

Dozens of small holders such as Big Foot Organic Farms and the Ablemans’ own Madrona Valley Farms grow organic herbs and vegetables, apples, pears, quince, kiwis, melons and strawberries. Blackberries grow wild all over the island, and are harvested for jam, baking and a blackberry port produced by Salt Springs Winery, one of two wineries on the island. The second, Garry Oak Vineyards, is named not for a person, but a unique species of local oak. The winery was started in 1999 by two corporate-world refugees, Elaine Kozak and Marcel Mercier—Mercier is the winemaker, and Kozak does everything else. Warm and friendly, Elaine took us through a tasting of their wines, whose varietals have been specifically chosen and planted on the winery’s ten acres of gravelly land overlooking the Burgoyne Valley for the island’s relatively cool growing climate. The Pinot Gris, barrel-fermented and aged on its lees, is halfway between an Alsatian wine and one from California or Oregon—fruity, but not overly so, with a mineral undertone and long finish.

Most of the local farmers and producers sell at one of the two weekly farmer’s markets held in Centennial Park in Ganges—the year-round Tuesday market, and, in summer, the big Saturday morning market, which draws people from all over the island, as well as neighboring islands and the mainland. Half farmstands and half arts and crafts stalls, the market has a definite 60’s hippie/beat feel. Artists of various stripes—potters, wood-turners and carvers, weavers and gold and silversmiths ply their wares. Chatting with some of these elicits the fact that few were originally locals, but migrated from San Francisco or New York or Montreal or New Zeeland—all drawn by the laid-back, close-knit community lifestyle and idyllic setting. We spot a colorful oil sketch of the market silk-screened onto a market bag by artist Andrea Palframan, and buy one as an additional birthday present for Mary. The market is proud of its “Homespun Guarantee”—vendors must “make it, bake it or grow it” themselves. There are quite a number of “bakers” and one can just about make a lunch tasting the cheeses, breads, pastries, tapenade, chutneys, jams and preserves.

Mary had broadly hinted that she would like an iPod pre-loaded with songs selected and gifted by her friends as a birthday present. The next morning, after leisurely coffee, toasted “bread lady” slices and just-plucked eggs, we gather ‘round her in the cozy, slightly cluttered farmhouse living room as she opens card after hilarious, insulting card, and then the tiny black Nano with its trove of music. Soon she sits cross-legged in her Nantucket Red capri pants on the oak floor, ears plugged, cords dangling, conducting the imaginary orchestra around her and singing with her favorite aria from the Pearl Fishers.

The view west across the Stuart Channel to Vancouver Island is one of those proverbial million dollar ones. We stare meditatively at the sea from the deck of the Vesuvius Café as we await lunch of morning-fresh halibut turned into hot, shattering shards of fish with crispy chips, piquant coleslaw, and bitter, hoppy Gulf Islands Brewery IPA. Fish-full, we return to Madrona, where Michael leads a brief tour of the farm. He highlights the composting program, talks about water-conserving irrigation, and describes an innovative scheme where over the course of a single year a mobile chicken coop—moved slightly every few days—will completely invigorate and re-condition the soil in a field—“it’ll go from virtually barren, to incredibly rich” he states. After the visit, he and his elder son Aaron harvest baby greens, scallions, carrots, new potatoes, asparagus, herbs, strawberries and rhubarb for us to combine into a feast in the homey farmhouse kitchen, and on an outdoor stone fire pit. Tante Marie enthuses “there is nothing like lettuces, spinach, and strawberries picked the same day. I never knew green onions could taste so good.”

The party participants go to work: two legs of the redolent Salt Spring lamb have been acquired from a nearby sheep-farm—TiTi M. deftly bones them, marinates them in just-picked thyme and marjoram, and reduces the bones into a heady sauce. Pam G. oven roasts hours-old pencils of asparagus and marbles of new potatoes with those “so-good” scallions. Irene W. adroitly dresses delicate new lettuces, which will be served with Heather Campbell’s crusty wood-fired sourdough and rye breads, and sheep and goat cheeses from Moonstruck and Salt Spring Cheese. Elmer G. fashions an enormous and superb strawberry-rhubarb tart (he’s the right man—a couple of years ago he researched and published an article on the use of leaf lard to make the ideal pastry crust). Joyce M. and Troy H. concoct appetizers from ingredients foraged from the fridge. Cooks’ whistles need wetting, too, and Jude D. pulls the cork on some local Garry Oaks wines, as well as Domaine Tempier from the Bandol region of France, while Harriet D. works on two imposing magnums of Silver Oak Cabernet brought from Napa.

Mary is everywhere in the kitchen, and intones her trademark phrase “does anyone need any help or advice!?” Of course, everyone ignores her. Soon Randy D. is hunched over the fire-pit, backlit by an extraordinary island sunset, and expertly grills the two hulking slabs of lamb over the coals of the madrone-log fire, advised on doneness by Lynn C. Farmer Michael and Phil M. set up sawhorses and plank tables on the lawn, facing the late-setting midsummer sun. The makeshift tables are laden with food, bottles of good wine passed, and as the yolk-colored orb drops into the sea, two dozen warm, caring real-food loving people sit to feast and raise a toast to one of the lions of the culinary establishment in commemoration of a milestone birthday. Quite in character, Mary says “where should we go for my 70th?

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Reader Comments (1)

This is the reason I read Fascinating posts.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathy
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