One March night in London I poked my head into the kitchen of Elisabeth Luard, curious about what would accompany our Sunday-supper leg of lamb, whose garlic-and-rosemary marinade invitingly scented the house. Luard, a vibrant cook and naturalist, and the author of The Old World Kitchen, proudly pointed to an earthenware dish of turnips baked with butter and sage. "These were dug yesterday from a farm up north," she said. "So were the potatoes in the oven with the joint. A friend brought them down last evening." She beamed in anticipation of the treat we were about to enjoy.
I hope I managed to hide my disappointment. This would be my one meal of the trip in someone's home, and I had been looking forward to trying some of the lovely things I'd seen in the produce stalls at street markets—mandarin oranges, for instance, and varieties and colors of peppers and radicchio that never reached my Boston markets so early in the year. Were the greengrocers all closed on Sunday? I inquired, helpfully mentioning my love of baby artichokes.
Luard gave me a quizzical look. "Oh, of course you can buy all that," she said. "But I like serving what I know just came out of the ground."
It took me a number of years to appreciate her stance. Specifically, it took dinners at two Pacific Northwest restaurants—Sooke Harbour House, on Vancouver Island, and The Herbfarm, near Seattle—that adopt a fundamentalist approach to using local, seasonal ingredients, an approach most chefs just talk about. If something doesn't grow in exactly that climate at exactly that moment, these restaurants won't feature it.
Sooke Harbour House is the object of pilgrimages by food lovers who expect enthralling dishes made exclusively with ingredients from the restaurant's own gardens and the surrounding forest and sea. When I ate there, I was visiting a friend, a teacher at the University of Victoria, who had never thought to dine at Sooke, although it was only a forty-minute drive from the university—its exalted reputation made it seem both fancy and forbidding. I, too, had been put off by a seemingly pointless purism, but I wanted to see for myself.
I was surprised when the contours of what looked like a very large and rambling Cape Cod cottage emerged from a dense March fog. Its dramatic position overlooking a sheltered harbor became clear only when we entered the dining room. The whole place, which is also an inn, was surprisingly casual—decorated with distinguished art made by First Peoples, as Indian tribes are called in Canada, and furnished with rag rugs and mismatched tables and spindle-back wooden chairs. The dining room looked like an enclosed porch, with windows onto the gardens and the sea. Sinclair Philip, who owns Sooke with his wife, Fredérique, began his career teaching political economics, and read voraciously about native plants once the couple had decided to open the inn and restaurant. He asked us with a professorial air if we had any dietary preferences. "Lemon juice!" I wanted to cry out, in my dread of an all-root-vegetable meal. "Anything green and fresh!"
My doubts abated when a citrusy-tasting broth appeared, flavored with lemon verbena and based on fish and vegetables. Neither my friend nor I felt any trace of deprivation as we were served a succession of small plates covered with fish we had never before tasted, or never tasted so fresh: silky black cod; chewy limpets, each one like a long and meaty clam neck; fat, sweet sea scallops that Philip had dived for himself, he told us matter-of-factly, adding that they were the local purple-hinged rock scallops. There were vegetables, too, mostly cleansingly astringent greens I wasn't familiar with. The balancing acidity of a clear, amber-colored sauce against the richness of the cod came from vinegar made in the kitchen, using leftovers from bottles of the island's excellent wines. Aside from the vinegar and a frozen huckleberry puree in sorbet, everything at the meal had been picked or caught within the previous forty-eight hours.
Philip led us on a chilly moonlit tour of the gardens, which are romantically laid out on a hillside that slopes straight to the sea. Even in the island's temperate climate Sooke is privileged, Philip explained: hard frosts are rare, and the calm waters make diving for seafood easy year-round. The beds were indeed unexpectedly fecund: underground were potatoes and colorful small beets and exotic root vegetables such as salsify and Chinese artichoke; above ground were kale and chicory and cabbages of many kinds. We sucked fir needles at Philip's urging and found them to be marvelously bright and refreshing—less balsamic than gently pungent, like baby gingerroot.
I came away sold: the fresher and more local the better. Herbs and vinegar, judiciously used, can take the place of the lemon juice I used to think indispensable. But could such an exercise be carried out in the far less forgiving climate of the Northeast, where hard frosts can prevent the digging of root vegetables for much of the winter? A friend passed along the cautionary advice he had once been given when contemplating a similar venture: "You're looking at a lot of turnips."
In adversity there is strength, I decided. Yes, the hardest time to try this purist approach at home is March and April—the cruelest months even on Vancouver Island. In the Northeast, winter stores of apples, pears, and squash have dwindled and shriveled, and the brussels sprouts have bolted. Cooks and diners, impatient after what seems like six months of winter, are desperate for spring vegetables such as asparagus and fiddlehead ferns weeks before they actually come up. "I always expect spring to start earlier," Jody Adams, the chef of the Cambridge restaurant Rialto, told me with a sigh as she was planning her April menus.