Wine and food and Whatcom County go oh-so-well together. Unexpected treasures keep showing up here in the green fields outside Bellingham, in northwestern Washington. A few: lush tomato plants in long tunnels, cherry trees growing at an angle under a roof, hazelnut wine, 200 varieties of heirloom apples. Hardy pomegranate and olive trees are on their way. Amazing. In a big Rainier cherry grove, at Cloud Mountain Farm, trees are planted at an angle, rather than upright, so the pinkish-red fruits will hang lower and can be picked more easily. They’re under cover as protection from hungry birds and skin-splitting rain, which even now spatters on the clear roof. The cherries are huge and sweet (I know this because I snitched one. Delicious.) There’s only one other grove like it in the U.S., I’m told. Further up the path on Cloud Mountain’s 20-acre farm, another translucent shelter houses tunnels of tomato plants. In this green spicy-scented jungle, 20 varieties of tomatoes ripen, most to be sold through farmers’ markets and restaurants.
The nursery, 20 miles from Bellingham, sells fruit and nut trees, berry plants, ornamental shrubs, dwarf conifers, Japanese maples, grapevines, tools, books and supplies. Working with Western Washington University and Seattle College, they perform all kinds of botanical tests and trials. Edgy experimenting, I call it, when you plan to grow olive trees in damp, cool Washington. If anyone can do it, Cloud Mountain can, and I have no doubt they will. Visitors are welcome, especially at various free workshops, cooking classes, and the annual fruit festival in early October.
Samson Estates Winery is also about 20 miles from Bellingham, but it’s a whole different experience. On the 500-acre spread in Nooksack Valley, Rob and Dhar Dhaliwal have created a unique farm and winery. Their large, juicy raspberries are headed mostly for Ocean Spray and Smuckers jam jars, but some, combined with Chardonnay grapes, produce a fine wine. It’s perfect with, for example, a between-courses cantaloupe sorbet. Our little group gathers around a table to taste a few Samson’s wines and feast on a lunch prepared by Fool’s Onion Catering. Here’s the menu, or part of it: First, pancetta-wrapped scallops with vanilla beurre blanc, served with a delicate, citrusy Chardonnay. Then grilled salmon with wild mushroom risotto, a delectable dish that goes well with the earthy, full-bodied Cabernet franc. Herbed gnocchi gets a Merlot ’04, followed by the refresher of framboise (raspberry) wine with sorbet. Are we done yet? No, here’s a cocoa-chile rubbed duck breast with blackberry coulis, accompanied by a fruity, not-too-sweet blackberry wine. We all insist we can’t eat another bite, but dessert arrives and suddenly it’s no problem. The chocolate torte with roasted hazelnut crust is outstanding with a taste of Oro, a hazelnut wine that is almost a liqueur. Lance Bailey and Kristine Kager, creators of Fool’s Onion, make a superb culinary team. Any time I’m in the area and need someone to cater a party or dinner, I’m calling them. Did I mention the truffles? If you’ll stop drooling on your keyboard, I’ll tell you about Samson’s chocolate truffles. Made locally using Belgian chocolate and Samson Estate wines, they melt in the mouth: chocolate as smooth and rich as it was meant to be.