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Pastoral Orcas Island Offers Rich Farm-to-Table Options

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L to R: Strawberries on the honor system, Chef Geddes Martin and his garden.

Toni Hermansen popped open an tiny, briny oyster and handed it to me as I picked out a couple dozen bivalves at the Buck Bay Shellfish Farm on Orcas Island, a bucolic spot about three hours from Seattle. I slurped it straight out of the shell and thought: "Sold!"

Actually, I had been thinking about taking home some Buck Bay oysters ever since devouring a half a dozen at the New Leaf Cafe at the historic Outlook Inn in Eastsound, the Island's biggest little city. The entire population of the laid-back island is about 4,500. And driving on the winding roads, you'd swear half the residents were farmers.

You can hardly go five miles without spotting stands selling strawberries on the honor system. Leave $3 in the box for these juicy gems. These teeny operations are surprisingly diverse, offering meat, eggs, produce, sometimes even yarn. Most products are organic and a fair amount of it is consumed on the island making menus hyper-local without tooting any horns about it.

One of the sweetest places to experience the farm-to-table cuisine is at Inn at Ship Bay, where chef-owner Geddes Martin harvests many ingredients from his own spread. The bounty includes fruit from trees that are more than 100 years old, as well as a rainbow of basil, tender carrots, fava beans and exotic lettuce, all raised behind 10-foot high fences to keep out the island's pesky deer population.

Diners frequently sip aperitifs on the lawn outside while watching resident bald eagles hunt for their dinner. The view of the wild shoreline inspires amateur photographers to shoot image after image, but it's hard to capture beauty that can only be described as impossibly beautiful.

The Inn at Ship Bay's menu regularly features Buck Bay shellfish, as well as produce from Black Dog Farms, Morning Star Farms and Orcas Farm. What it doesn't include is a lot of flowery language touting those connections. Diners can taste it, though, in shaved veggie salad, the ingredients harvested hours before service.

I brought some island flavor home to Seattle, barbecuing those magnificent oysters, on foil placed directly on white hot charcoal, and finishing them in white wine-spiked butter. So simple and so wonderful.

About the author: Former Seattle P-I restaurant critic Leslie Kelly is working in restaurants around the city and writing about her journey from pan to pen for Serious Eats in "Critic-Turned-Cook." She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com.

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