May/June 2014 The Skagit Valley

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Savoring the Skagit

the edible wonders of Bow and Edison

BY MEGAN HILL

The sprawl of Burlington and Mount Vernon are behind me after just a couple of traffic circles, the neat rows of potatoes and almost-neon green pasture reaching towards the gentle blue-gray swell of the Chuckanut Mountains. A bald eagle floats overhead and the sun glints off an upper slope of Mount Baker. The scent of hay and fresh earth waft in the open window and the city feels much further than the one-hour drive behind us.

Chuckanut Drive connects Burlington to Bellingham via the scenic route, passing farms and dairies before climbing into the coastal mountains separating Skagit County from Whatcom. The enchanting scenery is one reason to come all this way from Seattle for a weekend, but I’m here to eat.

The nexus of unincorporated Bow and Edison, a town of just 144 people, is the epicenter of all things delicious in this neck of the woods. Roadside farm stands sell the day’s harvest, u-pick berry farms abound, and restaurants and shops feature locally produced goods. That’s not all: there are two shellfish farms, a distillery, and two creameries. In tiny Edison, which occupies about three blocks a mile off Chuckanut Drive, it seems every building is either a food-related business or an art gallery.

As Suzanne Wechsler tells me, “You really ought to bring an ice chest.” Suzanne and her husband Roger have run Samish Bay Cheese since 1999, and their organic farmstead cheese, made with milk from a mixed herd of grass-fed cows, has become a farmers’ market favorite around Western Washington. Their signature fresh Ladysmith is moist and delicate and slightly crumbly, and their other varieties—gouda, cheddars, queso fresco, and more—all seem richer and more buttery than anyone else’s.

The Wechslers have owned Samish Bay Cheese since 1999; their cows and pigs are grass-fed and pasture-raised, and their cheese and meat is all organic. They run a tiny retail shop, which they’ll soon be expanding. From the shop, you can peer into a climate-controlled room crammed with shelves, floor to ceiling, which hold an absolutely staggering number of cheese wheels.

I’ve rented out an apartment attached to the creamery’s old farmhouse, a charming turn-of-the-century relic the Wechslers have opened to visitors. Both the apartment and the individual rooms in the main farmhouse are available for rent, with a two-night minimum stay. Out of nearly every window in the apartment I can see the Wechsler’s pastures, where more of that bright green grass extends towards Blanchard Mountain in the Chuckanuts.

The farmhouse is just steps from the cheese making operation and the astounding room of cheese; I’m tempted to walk over and buy an unreasonable quantity. Though there’s much to see and do, I linger over the apartment’s kitchen counter, slicing off slivers of sharp Gouda and watching the cows nibble the grass in a patch of sunshine. My relaxing weekend in the country had arrived.

It’s getting on in the day, so I head into Edison, just a mile away, to shop for the next day’s meals. My first stop is Slough Food, a little grocery with wine, cheese, and cured meats—much of it local. And I can’t resist the Breadfarm next door, a wonderland of fresh bread and glistening pastries owned by husband-and-wife team Scott Mangold and Renée Bourgault.

Scott, who is from Skagit Valley, was head baker at Seattle’s Grand Central Bakery before deciding to move closer to home to start his own business. Scott and Renee opened their shop in 2003, before Edison landed on the foodie map, so the couple has seen the town’s transformation. “My husband was like, ‘It was really tumbleweeds,’” Renee says. “It’s hard to remember that now.”

The Farm to Market Bakery came first, she says, followed by Slough Food, and then the Lucky Dumpster, which sells house wares made from salvaged material, and then the Smith and Vallee Gallery, which promotes Northwest artists. “And from that point it took off,” she says. “People saw quirky old buildings and a little town and in a really good way we had kind of created a weird little mecca of goodness.”

The Breadfarm is the town’s foodie epicenter, where tourists and locals stop in and nearby restaurants source their hamburger buns and sandwich bread. The shop embodies the locavore attitude, sourcing ingredients from the neighborhood whenever possible and using wild, natural yeasts. They’re currently working with Washington State University’s Mount Vernon extension to source wheat grown in Western Washington, too.

“How sweet to get to use something that’s grown right here and not coming from Kansas. We couldn’t have gotten any luckier with that one,” Renee says.

The next day I venture to Taylor Shellfish’s Samish Bay farm, which sits on the water overlooking the San Juan Islands. Taylor’s Samish Farm Store is at the end of a steep, narrow road off Chuckanut Drive, where the pastures meet old growth forest, three and a half miles from Samish Bay Cheese. Oyster shells litter the ground and the air smells of salt and creosote. Taylor Shellfish sells live, shucked, and smoked oysters, which you can slurp right on the water. Though the weather isn’t right the day I visit, the shellfish (plus what I’ve picked up in Edison) have the makings of an epic picnic. Another day.

Midway through the day, I’m loaded up with so much food I start to worry it might all go bad before I can eat it. In between collecting bread and cheese and yogurt, I’ve been eating my way through Bow/Edison restaurants.

At the 1900s era Edison Inn, a classic Western-style bar and grill, I’ve feasted on the Bow Burger, made with locally grown grass-fed beef, and topped with Golden Glen Creamery cheese on a Breadfarm bun. I also snacked on the famous lime polenta cake from the nearby Farm to Market Bakery, so I’m nearly too full for my dinner of local filet mignon at the Rhododendron Café. And that’s without trying any of the ever-present local oysters, presented fried, battered, and raw at multiple locations, or dining at Tweets, the charming café that serves enormous quiches and strata and pastries they make fresh every morning. There just aren’t enough calories in the day. My travel buddy Sam puts it best: “It’s like we’re flitting from food to food.”

I’m curious as to why Edison turned out this way—why this profusion of artists and local-food loving business owners? Is it something in the water?

Susan Soltes, whose family owns Bow Hill Blueberries, may be the expert. She’s created the Bow/Edison Food Trail Map, a pamphlet available around town. Her farm is transitioning to organic and has become a community gathering place, with u-pick, social events, and a kid’s camp. I stop in the roadside shop the next day to pick up some dried blueberries for my Samish Bay yogurt and a jar of tangy pickled blueberries to top Ladysmith cheese.

“I think it draws artists, real creative, independent spirits,” Soltes says. “People have moved here for those reasons, but you also have a large number of people who have been here forever—generations and generations deep.”

That community spirit extends beyond Bow Hill. Everywhere I go during my stay, I meet a business owner who is referring me to another business, asking me if I’ve hit up the farm stand down the road, or visited the bakery yet. “We all enjoy each other’s company,” Soltes says. “It’s so much fun to let people know what all is here.”

With so much to love about this part of Skagit Valley, I wonder if it will be loved to death. Large swaths of the valley have already succumbed to development and sprawl. But advocates have successfully taken steps to preserve farmland in Skagit County, lest it be gobbled up. And in Edison proper, businesses share a community septic system that has no room for new food-related businesses, says Renee Bourgault at the Breadfarm.

Maybe that’s why people love it here, too. “The fact is that it can’t really get any bigger,” Renee says. “It’s nice to know that where we are will stay this way.”

Megan Hill spends her free time plotting her permanent escape to Edison, where she will live off of fresh bread and oysters.

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