Here we are. The dead of winter. Nimbus clouds gracing us Pacific Northwest residents with their unrelenting droplets of cold precipitation. Wellies have never been used this much and our 190 thread count lifetime-guarantee fabric umbrellas can barely withstand the daily onslaught on rain – unable to dry fully before having to be used once again.
Indeed, nine months of the year the Pacific Northwest can be a wet dreary place to be. But one cannot deny the cornucopia of natural bounty that results from it: fresh air, year-round greenery, snow-capped mountains and a lush habitat for varying species. Along with the Pacific Ocean, it is a stunning visual. In the summer, when the clouds part and the sun beams us with a dose of serotonin, the fruits of our rain-soaked struggles manifest itself. Growing in abundance in almost every nook and cranny, with mushrooms such as chanterelles and morels found on hikes in nearby mountains. Or in densely populated urban areas where juicy berries grow wild on the bushes next to the sidewalks. It is undoubtedly the zenith of the spoils of the region.
There is something to be said however about the fall and winter which nurture all that there is to enjoy in the warmer months. Every action during this period of relative dormancy is in preparation for the growth, reproduction and abundance we are so blessed with in April to September. Root vegetables with their high energy storage capabilities are more prominent, and wild meat and poultry are plumper from a period of stalking up from the summer’s bounty and work in preparing for a winter in warmth and hibernation. That is why to us, winter at the Willows Inn is an exciting place to be.
Many may not express these same sentiments however. After all, if an outsider ventured to this neck of the woods, he may want to enjoy what he has heard or read so much about. Blaine and team may not agree either as they close during the heart of winter. But what we’ve seen during the late December nights we’ve visited is a showcase of the less documented treasures of the region, while still staying true to the ostensible simplicity, restraint and control they have always shown to their ingredients (click here for a refresher on a few of our meals at the Willows three years ago).
A variety of grilled nuts (including ginkgo from a nearby tree), a jam made of rose hip and Matsutake mushrooms sandwhiched between slices of potatoes were but of a few of the bite-sized snacks that stormed our table shortly after we sat down this past December. A mash of flowering quince, a thin layer of pork fat glacially melting from the heat of a grilled geoduck, red sea urchin enveloping some rutabaga, dungeness crab cooked in seawater and drenched in a purée of pine nuts and cinderella pumpkin with ice cream made from its husks comforted our stomachs shortly thereafter.
While a previous dinner in December 2014 filled our stomachs with root vegetables such as parsnips swimming in a rich broth of razor clams, game meat such as a tartare of venison and a palate cleanser composed predominantly of persimmons. It is a gustatory manifestation of the heavier and heartier surroundings that bestows itself on us during this time of the year. In a previous lifetime, it was the food that more or less kept us alive throughout the winter.
And yet after eating at the Willows a handful of times, we still found ourselves surprised a few winters ago when the progression of the meal culminated in the most unexpected of proteins – pork. A first for the restaurant at that time. The pig’s old age and cut yielded a more fibrous chop of meat. But with a slather of juniper sauce and a turnip to accompany it, in so many ways, it felt so apt for both the restaurant and the season. And although the veteran minty pig of yore was replaced by a young roasted pig this year, its serving with a sauce made from its liver and mustard was one the richest dishes we had ever had at this restaurant.
Only second to the heirloom wheat bread that serves as the vessel for the buttery goodness of their pan chicken drippings1. An item that seems to be permanently stapled to their menu (and for good reason). Which is a statement that can no longer be said for the infamous smoked salmon which was all but guaranteed to land on our fingers and stomachs with each visit. That is to say…until this winter. When the two-bite-sized crusted smoked salmon was supplanted by a single side of smoked then grilled albacore tuna for us to share. The tuna’s smaller fat content compared to the salmon lead to a meatier, less juicy consistency, but we must have enjoyed it as we forgot all about the salmon until the drive home.
When we left the comforts of safety to catch the 11 p.m. Whatcom Chief back to the mainland, the winds of winter2 ingratiated itself with the waves of the sea. The wet and tumultuous eight minute journey through the abyss of Hale’s Passage was a fitting end to yet another another fantastic winter meal at the Willows which has grown significantly since we started visiting three years ago. What once delved a little more heavily into the traditions of the past, now charters new waters for the cuisine of our region while still remaining rooted in its foundation. Similar to how George R.R. Martin describes the Ironborn’s love of the sea in The World of Ice and Fire, The Willows Inn is one of those places that is always moving, always changing and yet remains, eternal, boundless, never the same and always the same.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny
1Special thank you to the team for always giving us a bottle of the pan chicken drippings and a loaf of bread to take home after our meal. It is much appreciated even though the last time could have caused serious issues at the border when we forgot to declare the “gifts”.
2The title of this post was taken from George RR Martin’s upcoming novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series.