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There comes a point when girlsâ€™ night out just doesnâ€™t seem long enoughâ€”at that winter-weary moment when you are compelled to cash in your frequent flyer miles and get as far out of Dodge as you possibly can. So when my friend Maggie, the best cook I know in the Pacific Northwest, talked of a slow-food weekend in her newly appointed kitchen, I packed my parka and, with two other friends, made the 2,600-mile-trip west to Mount Vernon, Wash.
Midway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, Mount Vernon is only a stoneâ€™s throw from the Puget Sound and its marvelous network of inland waterways. Mount Vernon is best known for its tulip festival, held every year during the first two weeks in April. But our visit was in January, when the bulbs lay dormant, and the mist drifted over the Skagit Valley like a warm, tufted comforter.
Maggieâ€™s husband, Brad, is grinding coffee when we arrive, a mellow, French Roast from Seattleâ€™s Best that would characterize our long weekend getaway.
Aside from a quick trip to a yarn shop, museum, and clothing store in the historic downtown business district, the next dayâ€™s sightseeing is focused on gathering ingredients for the menus Maggie has prepared. And tonight weâ€™re having mussels, a luscious bean salad, and homemade bread. We are in heaven.
Jesus once strolled the streets of Mount Vernon, Maggie tells us as we head up the coast in search of fresh loaves and fishes. The Jesus she is speaking of is Jim Caviezel, the hunky actor who played the lead in Mel Gibsonâ€™s The Passion of the Christ. Turns out Caviezel grew up Catholic in Mount Vernon and played basketball at Oâ€™Dea High School. A pre-pubescent Demi Moore spent some time here, too. But weâ€™re only half listening as we weave our way through coastal forests on cliff-hugging Chuckanut Drive, the first highway in Washington to be built exclusively as a scenic drive. Weâ€™re craning our necks for a view of the hilly San Juan Archipelago off in the distance.
The light is quickly fading as we arrive at our destination--Taylorâ€™s Shellfish Farm on Samish Bay. A blue heron all but disappears along the shoreline, and the oyster cages are stacked neatly on the dock. But workers here donâ€™t mind staying past closing time to package up a few pounds of mussels, Manila clams, and oysters, and to brag about goeduck clams, the largest burrowing clams in the world that can grow to more than 14 pounds each.Â â€œCome back at low tide,â€ they tell us, and we can see for ourselves.
The Taylor family has been farming these tidelands for more than a century. But this is no small operation. Headquartered in Shelton, Wash., a town southwest of Seattle, Taylor Shellfish now has nearly 500 employees farming shellfish on 9,500 acres in Washington state, British Columbia and Mexico. We learn that the company has hatcheries in Kona, Hawaii, and Quilcene, Wash., a pearl farm in Fiji, and a distribution company in Hong Kong. While most of the shellfish from Taylor Shellfish Farms is sold fresh to seafood wholesalers in the United States, there is increasing demand for their product worldwide, including the finest markets in Asia and Europe.
We are happy to take our mussels home to Maggieâ€™s house, where we will savor every morsel and kick back with a selection of regional wines. On a return visit we can take the ferry to the wildlife refuge at San Juan Island National Historic Park or go whale watching off Vancouver Island, or sample Seattleâ€™s trendy nightlife. Tonight weâ€™re in the mood for some comfort food.
Photos by Jon Rowley
MATTâ€™S FABULOUS MUSSELS
Trade thoughts of rippling biceps for this sublime dish, best served with artisan bread and crisp, white wine.
Â½ stick butter
2 Tbs. olive oil
One onion, chopped
1 to 2 cups dry white wine
3 cloves garlic
Ready-made pesto sauce
Fresh ground pepper
2 lbs. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Slide the chopped onion into a large, heavy pot sizzling with butter and olive oil. SautÃ© for 10 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the chopped garlic and sautÃ© for another minute, savoring the fragrance. Slowly pour in the wine and simmer for three minutes. Add the juice of one lemon, freshly squeezed, then spoon in pesto sauce to taste, about four to six generous tablespoons. Finally, add some fresh ground pepper. Turn heat to very low heat and simmer.
Scrub the mussels, pulling off the tuft of fibers, or beard, that attaches each mussel to its shell. Add the mussels to the large pot, cover, and turn up the heat to high. Steam the mussels for about four minutes. Uncover the pot and stir. Simmer just until the shells open, another few minutes. Do not overcook. Remove mussels with slotted spoon.
And just who, might you ask, is Matt? Weâ€™re told heâ€™s one of Maggieâ€™s co-workers, and boy, can he cook!
We uncorked the Pennsylvania Riesling from Mazza Vineyards we brought Maggie as a gift, but a world-class Oregon Pinot Gris, with its long and vivid finish, would be the most fitting choice. Try the 2005 vintage from Willamette Valley Vineyards, a winner in the 2006 Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, or keep an eye out for this yearâ€™s entries. The 2007 contest, sponsored by Taylor Shellfish Farms, opened February 26 and continues through March 30; winners will be announced April 27.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Experts say mussels and oysters are at their best in winter when their meat is firm and flavorful, but Taylorâ€™s harvests these gems all year long, and in summer there are more activities to round out your stay, from berry picking to bird watching.
Best run for your money: Samish Bay Bivalve Bash and Low-Tide Mud Run, July 14, 2007. Build oyster shell sculptures, play oyster shuffleboard, meet champion shuckers and sample the local fare at this popular annual event that benefits clean water awareness. $5 entry fee for race participants.
Best Shellfish Cookbook: The Joy of Oysters by Lori McKean and â€œOyster Billâ€ Whitbeck, (Speed Graphics, 2000),
Best Oyster Shucking Gloves: Atlas Gloves, hands down
Best place to go berry picking: East Bank Trail in the North Cascades
Best ecotours:Skagit River Interpretive Center
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
Lisa Gensheimer, Travel Correspondent:
The Culinary Tourist appears every other Thursday and by chance in Gather Essentials: Travel. Explore all 50 states with award-winning documentary producer Lisa Gensheimer as she discovers the fun, food and people she meets along the way. Whether you're visiting the home of a faraway friend, stopping for directions at a roadside market, or on holiday in an exotic location, richly layered experiences await.
A published author, Lisa has several new projects in the works, including a cultural cookbook and companion travel DVD. Read more about her work at MainStreetMedia.tv and at Forest Press.