Harvesting the Hood Canal
Celebrating the Region’s Undiscovered Treasures
STORY BY MEGAN HILL PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES
Heavy rain thrums our umbrellas as Chef Josh Delgado and I stand on the pier at Alderbrook Resort & Spa on the Hood Canal. The rain smudges the view up the canal where, yesterday, snow-capped mountains pierced a rainbow streaming down from the clouds.
Epic late-fall rains have dropped so much precipitation that low tide has been swallowed up, so we’re unable to see the oysters that Josh harvests for his dining room just a few steps from the pier. The Pacific oysters thrive on the resort’s beach, along with Manila and littleneck clams. A salmon-spawning creek tumbles into the canal alongside the beach.
“The resort owns all of the land going up into the hills, so it’s not developed, and it’s very clean,” Josh says as he points to the steep, forested bluffs behind the hotel. “When we want oysters, we just come out here, grab a bag of them, knock off all the little crabs and whatnot, and bring them right into the kitchen.”
April is designated as Oyster Month at Alderbrook, and the place is just lousy with bivalves. They’re offered on the half shell in the lobby and at a dockside bar, and the restaurant serves them prepared several ways. Alderbrook also offers beach tours and shucking demonstrations. “It’s the best time of year for oysters, when they’re really concentrating on themselves and getting fat,” says Delgado. “They’re simple Pacifics, but they’re seriously some of the best oysters I’ve ever had.”
Josh, who grew up in southern Arizona and spent time cooking at the Barking Frog and the Camano Island Inn, seems giddy about the abundance of local food around Hood Canal. But it’s an unheralded locavore scene. “I had no idea when I first came here,” he says. “To be honest, I wasn’t 100 percent sure where Hood Canal was.”
The passionate locavore soon discovered he had it made, harvesting sea beans from right outside the dining room and utilizing the aforementioned shellfish, along with local produce, meat, and cheese. Vegetables come from a farm just 15 minutes away, where the owners are also raising ducks for the restaurant. Spot prawns are pulled from the canal by a man whose mother manages his orders. “I don’t even know the mother’s name. She’s just in my phone as Mrs. Spot Prawn.”
Josh also sources local salmon and Dungeness crab. He’s even found someone growing wasabi nearby. And those hills behind the lodge? “We have truckloads of mushrooms up there,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing here. The Hood Canal is a little world that not a lot of people know about.”
Chances are Josh isn’t alone; Hood Canal is a place where “local” isn’t exactly emblazoned on every pertinent establishment. It’s a curious state, given the abundance of seafood, fertile Skokomish Valley farmland, and steady stream of summertime vacationers. But while the area is on the radar when it comes to hiking, fishing, and relaxing, it doesn’t draw agritourists the way Skagit Valley and the Chimacum area just north do.
To help me uncover all the region has to offer, I enlist area natives Kerry Myers and husband Jeff Nunnemaker, owners of Hood Canal Events, an event-planning and recreation company that includes a catering component — with ardent local sourcing. Along with guided hiking, canoeing, and customized group trips, the duo also lead food tours around the area in a tricked-out bus stocked with chilled beers and hot chocolate. I climb aboard the bus in a heavy downpour, and we’re joined by one of the company’s personal chefs, Casey Carr, who totes a fresh pot of steaming seafood chowder.
Along the way, I ask Myers whether local food has made it onto the radar here, or whether there’s much in the way of agritourism. She’s quick to say no. “But it’s coming,” she adds. “It won’t stay undiscovered forever.”
Hood Canal forms a fish hook off Puget Sound between the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, extending 50 miles south from its opening before making a sharp turn northeast at the town of Union, near Alderbrook. The beaches of the canal — and its offshoot, Dabob Bay — are rich with oysters and clams. While much of the tidelands here are privately owned, visitors can collect on several public beaches.
If the timing of the tides conspires against you, Hama Hama in Lilliwaup operates an outdoor “saloon,” where they serve oysters both barbecued and raw in view of their shellfish farming operation and oyster flats. The fifth-generation-owned company is likely to start offering tours later this year. Visitors can also partake in monthly oyster classes and harvest on the beach during May’s Hama Hama Oyster Rama event.
Nearby, the Lilliwaup Hatchery, operated by the nonprofit Long Live the Kings, works to restore summer chum, steelhead, and Chinook salmon runs on Lilliwaup Creek and the Hamma Hamma River. Huge tanks, the size of above-ground swimming pools, hold fish destined to return to open water when it’s time to spawn. The hatchery offers tours and volunteer opportunities.
Though local sourcing doesn’t seem to be the focus at most restaurants in the area, a few are walking the walk. The Union Country Store looks like your average small-town convenience store, but it’s more than just a place to grab a six-pack of Budweiser. Owner Kirk Chasey stocks homemade Dungeness crab cakes and his beloved dips — with flavors like crab-artichoke and garlic-clam — plus Olympic Mountain Ice Cream and a variety of take-away food.
Nearby, the Union City Market, owned by Alderbrook Resort, features sweets made by the resort’s pastry chef, local oysters, and plenty of gift items — edible and otherwise. And look out for the proprietor’s chickens when you pull into Kelsey’s All Natural Burgers, a modest roadside diversion along Highway 101 just north of Union. Outstanding burgers — worthy of attention from big-city diners — are built with made-from-scratch mayonnaise using the chickens’ eggs. The menu also includes homemade ice cream and soda.
Though not a wine-growing region, Hood Canal does have several wineries, all of which offer tastings. There’s the down-home Hoodsport Winery, which has been making mostly fruit wines since 1978. Using Eastern Washington grapes, there’s Stottle Winery in Hoodsport and Mosquito Fleet Winery in Belfair. Canal-side in Union, the Cameo Boutique & Wine Shop features Pacific Northwest wines and hosts tastings on Saturdays.
For beer and local oysters, the 101 Brewery at Twana Roadhouse in Quilcene is popular with the locals. And there’s The Hardware Distillery, housed in a historic former hardware store in Hoodsport. Tasting-room visitors can sip aquavit, gin, vodka, and whiskey made on-site.
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors. She also acts as Edible Seattle’s social media manager.