In July, I spent four days with Lora Lea and Rick Misterly at their Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts in Rice, Wash., near Kettle Falls. With 60 goats, some dogs and a few cats who were especially happy at milking time, I and several other food enthusiasts set out to find a food culture anchored to the place where the food is grown, gathered and processed. The Misterlys took participants into farm life along the Columbia River, 80 miles north of Spokane, inside a pastoral corridor of orchards, grain fields, farms and animals.
"It seems that everyone wants to go to Europe for a food experience," says Lora Lea, the farm's goat milker and cheese maker. "But the question came up, 'Why can't we have a food experience here?'"
The Misterlys have been on this farm for 25 years. They started with a shack and worked up to something dynamic and delightful: a straw-bale bunkhouse with a professional kitchen and a stone hearth oven; rustic but livable spaces for dining and gathering; and gardens bursting with herbs and vegetables where culinary students and resident chefs harvest ingredients for meals.
During the last five years, their vision has gelled into a series of retreats and farm tours. They designed workshops and retreats for chefs and chefs-in-training to understand the links between the needs of restaurants and the needs of farmers, beef raisers and poultry growers. They also created agriculture retreats for wannabe farmers and hobbyists.
The inaugural retreat for food enthusiasts, called "Developing a Food Culture and Sense of Place," brought a group of "foodies" together to try our hand at goat milking, cheese making, herb infusions and garden tending. Some of the other actors in the culinary drama included a homemaker from Spokane; a Seattle marketer and her 15-year-old daughter; a woman who works in the restaurant field and heads up a "slow food" convivium; a retired librarian and his son from Seattle; and a Canadian who runs a furniture business near Seattle. Their motives for shelling out $495 plus travel expenses for the seminar were varied, but most said they wanted to learn about cooking with organic food and how to connect to the land where the food is grown.
Self-described soccer mom Alice Moravec says she wants her five children to know the role food plays in their future and their own role shaping their environment. "This is the way it was for everyone to live just a few years ago," she says. "Everything is so fresh... pure."
Directing this cornucopia of sensory salutation are culinary artisans: Karen Jurgensen, the farm's head chef who has roots in Kettle Falls and an extensive restaurant background; Lynda Oosterhuis, an intern on the Misterlys' 37-acre enterprise who's entrenched in the art of bread making on Vashon Island; and Amy Pennington, a marketer for powerhouse Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas, owner of Etta's, Dahlia and Lola. Pennington says the Misterly farm is a place to "detox from city life."
Students spent hours with Lora Lea and Rick getting to know the goats, learning the history of cheese making, sifting curds from whey by hand, and working with thermometers and microbials to create the goat's milk cheeses that Quillisascut produces -- 5,000 pounds last year.
We took the fresh goat milk to barrels and cans, using the raw milk in several cheese concoctions. Lora Lea's knowledge of the four distinct types of cheese -- ricotta, mozzarella, soft and hard aged -- helped us through the main steps and the peculiarities of using apple cider vinegar, cultures, rennet and citric acid to stir and set up the cheeses we were directed to use in Jurgensen's kitchen.
While preparing and cooking hearth bread and goat cheese gnocci, we talked about how just half a century ago Americans could choose from a far wider range of varieties of foods than the narrow selection available in our markets now. We debated the issues that lie behind America's industrial agricultural complex.
As part of the Misterlys' eco-ag-culinary ethos, students and guests learn the intimacy of the slow food approach -- everything we cook with comes from the farm, and nothing comes prepared. Only the salt and olive oil are exotic.
Rick and Lora Lea head up a slow food group in the Kettle Falls/Colville area that's connected with a national organization called RAFT -- Renewing America's Food Traditions. RAFT is made up of some important advocates for keeping old lines of grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and livestock alive: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments, Chefs Collaborative, Cultural Conservancy, Native Seed/SEARCH, Seed Savers Exchange and Slow Food USA. Under the umbrella of RAFT, the Slow Food movement attempts to revitalize the connections between the farm/farmer and the restaurant/eater, and encourages the bond to vibrant foods -- heirloom tomatoes, pastured meats, artisan cheese and breads.
Part of RAFT's goal is to help people learn how food grows and under what constraints crops and livestock live according to climate, geology, soil conditions and water availability. The group also tries to grasp the techniques of past growers who continue to produce varieties of crops and livestock not found in grocery stores. Agronomists from Oaxaca to Nebraska insist that more varieties of corn or pinto beans should be cultivated, or else regions may succumb to crashes in monocultures.
After one meal, we passed around a bowl full of beans -- varieties that have been in use for 10,000 years but are no longer found in supermarkets. Groups around the globe are dedicated to seed saving and cultivating.
Jurgensen sees "knowledge and power" in the bowl of legumes. Another retreat participant, Julie Wuesthoff, saw a connection among the generations: "The bowl represents wealth and richness, which equal taste, beauty, pleasure and people. We need to really help our elders and youth to eat well. That is our mission."
Amid all of this heady talk, the intense kitchen work, and the farm tours, it is the meals that hold us together. One sample evening menu demonstrates simplicity as well as sophistication:
Herb-encrusted pastured chicken with bacon-apricot sauce
Goat tzatziki dip
Farro tabbouleh salad
Five varieties of hearth oven-baked bread
Farm and orchard life the organic way is simple and pure on many levels, but it also involves dedication, sacrifice and sweat. For example, Lora Lea and Rick can't take vacations together because the milking -- a twice-a-day affair -- involves a constant human presence.
"I think it's important to introduce people to farmers and indigenous crops," Lora Lea says on our visit to Cliffside Orchard, just up the road in basalt cliff-demarcated and Ponderosa pine-infused loamy valleys west of Colville. Owners Jeff and Jeanette Herman have a keen sense of their land, its microclimates, and the soil's profundity for nurturing their organic cherries, apples and peaches, she says. They epitomize that connection between the food that ends up on the table and those who raise it.
"Following Jeff and Jeannette around for just a few hours, we can begin to see how they pay attention to soil ... and new insects that come to their orchard with different types of manure used," Lora Lea says.
After Cliffside, we visited Riverview Orchard, run by John and Janet Crandall. Their 10.5 acres of 900 organic fruit trees produce apricots, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines and apples. Running a public roadside orchard might have its aromatic and visual benefits, but in the end it takes tending and cultivating. While it takes John eight or nine days to water the orchard, and Janet spends countless hours packaging the produce, they have a simple universal observation -- "Most people don't know what a real nectarine tastes like."
Midsummer is an intense time of harvest when those Red Haven, Cresthaven and Elberta peaches ripen and need picking; the Arkansas Black, Greenstein or Cameo apples need that last month of moisture and thinning.
"There's something about farming -- you either like it or not ... We're not in it for a killing," Janet says while serving up fresh Cresthaven peaches and the Crandalls' own roasted organic coffee. "People love fruit, so they come here because they want to, not because they have to come."
After 14 years in the orchard business, Jerry says they're finally seeing a payoff, thanks to an organic trend pushed by people's tastes and parlayed in Safeways and Super Ones all over the Inland Northwest carrying more organic foods each month.
While orchardists now put up with wild turkeys eating berries and white-tailed deer devouring newly planted trees, this entire valley was once a large producer of apples. In 1910, a million pounds of fruit came from this section of Stevens County along the Columbia. When Grand Coulee Dam was finished in 1940, many of the original orchards were inundated by the slack water now called Lake Roosevelt. When the lake is lowered in the summer, the drawdown exposes those heirloom trees in the form of sawed-off stumps -- tombstones for a forgotten agricultural heyday.
Rick has built many of Quillisascut Farm's barns and buildings himself. He poured the concrete for the bread room, laid the bricks for the wood-fired oven, and he's learned the rhythm of seasonal cycles and the wisdom of native species healing. Yet he's also a world traveler who's spent time in Turkey and India and across much of the United States. Rick says he is part of this land's rhythms. "This is the life most of civilization lived a hundred years ago. There is nothing more human than cooking together and eating together ... and sharing ideas."
The repository of food wisdom -- the growing and preparation -- is waning as each year passes and as more and more people expect packaged, frozen, instant and highly processed food to be available in a nearby supermarket year-round. But the Misterlys relish the history of ancient food, including honey. Steve Schott, their friend and neighbor, shows us his devotion to beekeeping. "I'm still amazed by it," he says, "that bees can do all of this."
Schott opened up one hive to show us the queen bee among the workers and small fry. An average worker bee makes just one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, he told us -- meaning that it takes a staggering number of bees to produce one pound of honey.
Organic, sustainable small farming and this sense of benediction toward one's land and place are values not only for the mystic or the counterculture guru. Rick and Lora Lea are committed to building their own community through these programs that have brought students from Seattle Central College, writers for Bon Appetit and faculty and kindergarteners from the Kettle Falls schools.
Retreat participant Tony Wilson, who recently retired as a librarian for Highline Community College, says the Misterly way is empowering. "In my daily life, I breathe the air at night and consciously think how vital it is to breathe. It reestablishes me to the physical. Actually touching the stuff I eat makes it artistic and respectable."