Making the decision that the all the ingredients at your restaurant should be local and organic is easy. Sourcing all those ingredients is hard, and that’s where the artisanal nature of the head gardener at Sooke Harbour House comes in. For the past twenty years Byron Cooke has fed a steady stream of over 300 edible plants to the chefs in the restaurant and I introduced him to listeners of All Points West today on Island Artisans.
The restaurant operates year-round and it has a huge appetite for everything Byron Cooke can supply it with. Of course the meats and seafood and some other ingredients come from other farms down the road or elsewhere in BC, but the majority of salad greens, herbs and edible flowers come from the gardens surrounding Sooke Harbour House and a new plot at a farm the Inn operates close by. My wife and I took a winter gardening course from Byron a couple of weeks ago and he took us through the process he goes through at this time every year when it comes to planting for the cooler months ahead. He has to figure out what will grow in the Sooke micro-climate, what he has the space to grow, and which plants the deer that abound on the property will eat!
I have two acres of land at my place but only a small portion of that is fenced so that it’s protected from the deer. And Byron also mentioned thinking about what chefs will cook with. That’s like me. I could plant all kinds of squash to that will keep over the winter, but I don’t really like squash so it would be silly to devote all that space to it.
Walking around the gardens of Sooke Harbour House is like being in an ongoing whirlwind of growth and harvesting. Byron described just a few of the plants that will still serve as ingredients for the winter, and one that will go straight through to the spring, such as the walking stick cabbage, which produces small leaves great for salads, larger leaves perfect for wrapping other foods, and will flower in the springtime with some of the sweetest and tastiest cruciferous vegetable blossoms that are perfect for salads and garnishes. Some of the cabbage leaves were sacrificed to the deer because the wily devils stuck their noses through the fence and nibbled whatever they could reach!
South Vancouver Island has a pretty moderate climate year-round, so what about winter gardening for places elsewhere in the province where you can expect lower temperatures? Byron says don’t be discouraged. Plant appropriately in the mid-summer so you can actually leave vegetables such as leeks and carrots in the ground, they store well there, as long as you can make your way through the snow to pull them up, and some things, like kale, actually taste better after a freeze-up. He says 150 years ago settlers couldn't go to a grocery story in the winter, so they made sure they preserved what they grew in better weather and planted crops that they could continue to harvest in the winter. He thinks that's just a better way to live and we should all be doing more of it.
Byron gave us lots of seeds to plant at the gardening course. And now is the time to get some hearty herbs and bitter greens in the ground that you can harvest into the winter, and I’ve already planted some kale and chard to keep me going as well.
In the weeks ahead on Island Artisans, I’ll take you past Sooke to the Tugwell Creek Meadery, where beekeeper Bob Liptrot will talk honey and mead, and also about the new regulations about the transportation of bees to Vancouver Island that has many beekeepers here concerned. And Bob will be speaking at a rally concerning the fate of the honeybee at the Legislature next Wednesday. It's called Swarm The Legislature!