Getting fresh: Micro-local foods add to Valley's winery, culinary, tourism triad

From nearby farms or the closest shore, Walla Walla's restaurant and grocer fare is going 'locavore.'

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The 100-foot rows sprouting with chard, collard greens and kale tucked in a pastoral corner of the acreage surrounding Three Rivers Winery is a reminder of one of the many lessons of the locavore movement: To everything there is a season.

As an addendum, Antonio Campolio, executive chef at The Marc, would like to add that once the season has gone, more focus should be given to what's coming next.

Take tomatoes, for instance. Not a wintertime food. At least not in the Walla Walla Valley with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground.

"I know people eat them. I did growing up, spliced with a flounder gene and tasting like cardboard," Campolio quipped.

Which makes Campolio that much more excited about the Three Rivers Culinary Garden planted just weeks ago on land donated by the winery. The 30-foot-by-100-foot garden is part of the movement that encourages people to eat locally grown food. If they do it themselves it allows them greater control over what they put into their bodies. If they buy from a farmer, it supports the local economy.

In the case of The Marc, Campolio's excitement is centered on what's fresh and what's now.

Largely farmed by Three Rivers winemaker Andy Slusarenko, a horticulturist who started gardening at the winery as a diversion several years ago, the new partnership adds depth to the wine and culinary scene by folding in farming.

"We all want to sell quality food, make quality wine and create buzz in tourism about Walla Walla," Campolio said during a recent break from the kitchen.

Slusarenko said he hopes the partnership will "open people's eyes as to what we can grow locally and not outsource."

Perhaps not new in concept -- after all people have been growing and eating their own food since the dawn of time -- the locavore movement has shed light on the health and economic impact of doing so.

The owners of Dayton's Patit Creek restaurant, known for its French cuisine, have long been growing their own produce or plucking it from the nearby garden of Bill "Wild Bill" Litchfield.

Other examples: Woodward Canyon Winery owners Rick Small and Darcey Fugman-Small have sold produce from their Lazy S Arrow Garden to area restaurants for the last several years. This season they've added a new Lazy S Arrow Market at their Lowden winery property to be stocked with estate grown produce and foods from other growers for wine country picnics and other needs.

When downtown restaurant Bacon & Eggs opened its doors in a converted gas station last December, it was billed as a destination for "locavore breakfast and lunch." The latter was introduced just recently at the Main Street restaurant where the logo is simply a pig and a chicken.

For proof of community support behind local agriculture, look no further than the Made in Walla Walla Box, a community supported agriculture program offered through the Daily Market Cooperative. Members pay one price for weekly boxes of locally grown or produced items over a period of several months.

This seasons' boxes feature seven options: milk, eggs, bread, grain, fruit, veggies and salad greens. Participants choose three or six options. The fruits and veggies change each week depending on what's in season. For the past several years, the boxes have been hot commodities.

The idea behind the concept at The Marc is simple: When you can and where you can, use ingredients that were raised or grown locally. The one condition is that it has to make sense, both for the menu and the quality.

Walla Walla, for instance, is obviously not geographically situated for local seafood. Hence it comes from somewhere else. But it still comes from somewhere in the state, if Campolio can help it.

The restaurant's foie gras is a case in point. After an encounter during a Chef's Table dinner some time ago, Campolio became acquainted with a Puyallup main who raises ducks. Now The Marc gets Washington-raised foie gras and duck.

"I'm digging as deep as I can into Washington state, and if I can get it, it's here," Campolio said.

This season he plans to introduce a tableside mozzarella service, where the cheese will be made from scratch on the spot. It's an extension of the restaurant's tableside ice cream service -- a demonstration in culinary chemistry that uses liquid nitrogen for dinner's cool last course.

Combined with those touches, as well as scallops flown in three times a week, a homegrown garden seemed like a perfect accompaniment.

"Our produce should be equally amazing" as the other elements on the dish, he said.

The Marc has long been a partner with local farmers. The restaurant has grown its own micro-greens for about four years. Sources of its produce and other foods have included Upper Dry Creek Ranch, Spring Creek Ranch, Edwards Farms, Welcome Table Farms and many more. Those relationships will continue, Campolio said.

But as he and friend Slusarenko spitballed over cocktails one evening, the idea came: What if the hotel had its own garden so that it could bring vegetables from farm to fork in a matter of hours?

"I'll be washing the dirt off at 3 in the afternoon and getting ready to put it on your plate at 5:30," Campolio said.

The garden in the past had served not only as a hobby for Slusarenko, but as a source of food for Three Rivers employees and for its winemaker dinners. Slusarenko tripled the size to accommodate demand from The Marc. He is the principal farmer managing onsite composting, mechanical weed control, and using mineral oils and soaps for insect control during his off-duty hours at the winery.

Among the crops are artichokes, which Slusarenko was told would never be able to be grown here; three types of corn; two types of spinach; carrots, radishes; beets; three types of onions, including Walla Walla's most famous sweets; parsnips; asparagus; eight kinds of potatoes; three types of cucumbers; more than 60 tomato plants from hybrids to heirlooms; beans; peas; rhubarb; herbs; tomatillos; peppers; squash; pumpkins and more.

"With some hope, we'll be wholly sustainable for the restaurant through the season," Campolio figures.

With about a quarter of the customers at The Marc asking more questions about how their food is raised, Campolio said the new endeavor will feed the growing interest in the farm-to-table, shore-to-door dining movement.

"The purpose of all of this really isn't to increase business as much as raise awareness," he said. "There's just a lot of good things going on in the food industry right now."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com

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