BY ELIZABETH “LIBBET” RICHTER
Are blackberries your favorite treat at the end of a long hot summer? If you’re visiting Lummi Island in the Puget Sound, you can have blackberries just about any way you like them, 24/7.
The best can be picked fresh from thorny vines found everywhere along island roads. Or maybe you’d like them in intense, fruity jam on a warm breakfast muffin? Or perhaps five perfect berries paired with fresh chamomile granita in a handmade pottery bowl, as part of a 22-course dinner at the acclaimed Willows Inn?
To find your blackberry bliss, you will travel two hours north of Seattle to Bellingham, Washington, drive another 40 miles through the Lummi Indian Reservation, and take a tiny 20-car ferry from Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island, just 6 minutes across Bellingham Bay in the San Juan Islands.
With a year-round population of just over 815, Lummi has one general store, a small library, a post office, an elementary school dating to 1919, and one church. Barely 30 miles from the Canadian border, Lummi doubles in size during the summer months as Americans and Canadians alike seek its hiking trails, artists’ studios, sport fishing, kayaking, seascapes, and delicious sea/farm-to-table cuisine at an iconic 115-year-old inn.
Lummi Island’s almost mythical reputation as culinary heaven is due to the dream of one man, Blaine Wetzel, chef and co-owner of The Willows Inn. Chef Wetzel grew up in Olympia, Washington, with hopes of one day working in a top-of-the-line traditional fine dining establishment. His career path took him to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he trained for three years under Chef Rene Redzepi at Noma.
Noma’s locally foraged Nordic cuisine earned international recognition: it was named four times as the world’s best restaurant. Returning to his home state, Wetzel answered an ad to work one season at The Willows Inn before a planned job hunt in Seattle. It was a transforming summer. He never left.
“Coming here, cooking here—it completely changed how I think about food, what I think food is.” —Blaine Wetzel, SAVEUR magazine, 2015.
The Willows Inn dates back to 1912, when Ruby and Frank Taft opened their resort with 28 cabins, offering visitors horseback riding, biking, and the beach. Visitors were entertained with vaudeville shows on Saturday nights and, for a nickel, could watch the chickens being slaughtered for dinner. Guests no longer interact quite so intimately with their meals, but the focus, as we would appreciate, remains on fresh, local ingredients, just as the region’s indigenous Lummi Indians had for thousands of years.
The Lummi people were independent and self-governing, expert salmon fishermen known as the “LLhaq’temish” or People of the Sea. They developed the unique “reef net” technique of guiding salmon returning to spawn in the Fraser River into nets strung between two canoes. A spotter perched on a ladder signals when the net is full, and the nets are quickly raised to capture the fish. The technique is still used today, and Legoe Bay sports a long line of reef nets during the salmon run, supplying, among others, The Willows Inn.
Lummi Indians once held feasts in long houses on the island, formerly called Skallaham, but never established permanent settlements here, as the island was perceived to be vulnerable to attacks from warring tribes. Today the Lummi Nation counts over 5,000 members and manages close to 13,000 acres of tideland on the mainland reservation, including the thriving Silver Reef Casino and hotel complex. Two handsomely maintained traffic roundabouts featuring Lummi-designed sculpture to welcome visitors.
Lummi Island itself is roughly 9 miles long and 2 miles wide, with densely forested heights up to 1,700 feet above sea level and low rolling hills dedicated to farming. European explorers from Spain and France had first entered these islands in the late 18th century, bringing white man’s diseases. Smallpox wiped an estimated one-third of the region’s native population.
The island’s first permanent resident, California gold miner and whaler Captain Christian Tuttle, farmed 320 acres with his wife Clara and seven children in the 1870s. By the end of the century, Lummi attracted entrepreneurs who saw “gold” in timber, from the majestic fir and pine forests, and in plentiful salmon and shellfish. Lumber operations, a fertilizer factory, and canneries employed Native American, Chinese, and Japanese laborers, who processed the island’s fish, dairy products, and fruit.
Today, these industries live on in island history but no longer occupy the year-round residents. A number of organizations, including the Lummi Island Heritage Trust, advocate for protecting the land and have limited development to preserve the environment for campers and nature lovers.
Chef Wetzel is not the only resident inspired by the natural beauty and bounty of the island. Woodworker, photographer, and graphic designer Thomas Lutz built his studio on Legoe Bay, where he crafts custom furniture. His handiwork is found throughout The Willows Inn, whose tables and chairs we would admire and enjoy during our visit.
Staying or dining at The Willows Inn is not a last-minute decision. Reservations must be made months in advance since the Inn serves just 30 diners a night. Overnight accommodations are also limited to seven rooms onsite and an additional nine guest suites and apartments leased from nearby property owners.
A meal at The Willows Inn had been a goal of mine for five years. We were fortunate to get a rare dinner and overnight reservation on the first Friday in September. Our lodging was a handsome studio apartment over the garage of a starkly contemporary home on the blackberry lined, gravel Skallaham Road, ¾-mile from the Inn.
We were told that if we didn’t want to drive alone back to our rooms after dinner, one of the chefs would drive us in our car, followed by a fellow chef to take him back to the Inn. This turned out to be typical of the extraordinary customer service we experienced.
One checks in on the lower level of the Inn in a handsome reception area decorated with a careful arrangement of dried flowers and dominated by a huge driftwood bar (hauled from the beach by some of the chefs) set against the wall. Topped with a historic sign recalling earlier owners, the bar is continually stocked with fresh juices, teas, French–press coffee, and a long line of jars filled with snacks ranging from whole wheat sesame sticks to pistachio nuts to coconut date bars—island hospitality writ large.
Cocktails are served on the front porch from 4:00–6:00 p.m., when and where the dinner service begins. There are no menus. Chef Wetzel and his colleagues plan each meal that day, based on what is fresh, foraged, or cultivated at the neighboring Loganita Farm. A wood-fueled smoke house adds distinctive flavor to many of the ingredients.
Simplicity reigns. Sitting on the front porch, we had a stunning view of the storied Inside Passage, a series of inland waterways stretching from Puget Sound to Alaska. In the distance we could see misty islands and watch powerful tugboats silently tow barges twice the length of a football field to and from the northern oil fields.
Smiling servers brought sparkling hard cider to accompany our initial series of courses. First, slender sections of four different types of fresh cucumbers, followed by slices of four different melons, then six thinly cut varieties of jewel-toned plums. Each selection of vegetables or fruit was artistically arranged on crushed ice in white pottery bowls handcrafted for the Inn by a Japanese potter outside Seattle. We had just one bite of each variety, fortunately—for while delicious, we still had what turned out to be 18 courses to go.
The next course transitioned from garden to sea by incorporating both. Bright green nasturtium leaves held tiny spot prawn and rhubarb ceviche, each a single peppery bite giving up the very essence of fresh sea air.
Guests were served at comfortable yet different paces; we were never rushed. We were soon invited into the dining room, which reflected the American craftsman design of the original inn. A single pebble anchored each napkin. Handmade pottery vases held dahlias and other garden blooms on the Thomas Lutz tables.
Chef Wetzel had so far demonstrated his appreciation for the extraordinary flavor of unadorned local vegetables and fruits. Now, new levels of sophistication began to flow from the kitchen: toasted kale leaves with local sturgeon roe; reef-net caught, house-smoked sockeye salmon; grilled geoduck clams. The presentation was unexpected, elegant, even profound—designed to enhance visually each taste experience.
What was later described as an herb tostada consisted of a crisply fried base of mustard greens topped with a subtle mayonnaise, on which was arranged a stunning mosaic of herbs and blossoms. How could one eat such a miniature work of art?! Yet, eat one must.
My husband, skeptical of the out-of-the-ordinary menu, had threatened to bring a jar of peanut butter in case there was nothing he’d eat. I watched as he opened a small dark wooden box. In the rising steam, I saw a single plump, roasted mussel, succulent in its open blue shell, resting on a bed of cool black pebbles. He gingerly placed it in his mouth. The peanut butter jar never appeared.
More courses, featuring aged venison, roasted zucchini with nasturtium petals, lightly-cured rock fish in bone broth, king salmon with grilled cabbage, and crab with heirloom rye bread, kept the peanut butter at bay.
Did I fail to mention the wine pairings? Choosing to share a single wine pairing (juice pairings were also available), we sampled a total of five Washington and Oregon wines over the course of the meal, four white and one red.
Equally memorable was the toasted birch branch tea. Although the servings had been small, we reached a point where it was hard to imagine being able to consume any more courses. Just at this crucial juncture, the server brought a small pitcher carved from birch wood. He poured the chilled “digestive” into tiny pottery cups. The cold, bitter potion worked its magic.
Poured a sweet Oregon Riesling, we were asked if we’d like to adjourn to the candlelit living room for dessert by the roaring fire. It was impossible to resist. Anise hyssop ice cream with lavender foam, and a peach slice with sweet peach leaf dipping sauce, pounded flax seed, and black walnut “candy” completed the fireside experience. And I almost forgot: 5 perfect blackberries with wild chamomile granita. This was undoubtedly a meal to remember and savor.
Having split a single wine pairing, we were in fact able to drive back to our Skallaham Road studio without out the previously offered driver. The next morning, I walked back to the Inn to check out. We were unable to stay for a full breakfast, but I picked my fill of blackberries on the way. Reluctantly heading back to the ferry later in the morning, we carried not only memories of an extraordinary visit but also a small canvas bag containing the Inn’s charming parting gift: the menu and wine list from the previous evening’s meal, as well as a small loaf of homemade whole wheat bread wrapped in brown paper and a tiny pot of intensely flavored berry jam.
Back in Chicago, I know it will be impossible to replicate the atmosphere of Lummi Island and The Willows Inn. No blackberries grow in my pots on the back porch. I could not, however, resist ordering Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest, Blaine Wetzel’s cookbook. I might be able to slice some plums from the Green City Market.