4.04.2011

SOOKE HARBOUR HOUSE


On my last day on Vancouver Island, my generous hostess, Valerie Murray, arranged for me to travel westward to visit a coastal inn run by "the father of Slow Food in Canada," as she described him. It didn't take more than ten seconds to convince me.


Sooke Harbour House on Whiffen Spit Beach is an enchanting place. You can see the refined touch of its owners, Sinclair and Frederique Philip, at every turn. On my arrival, the rain began to let up, so I took a long walk around the grounds with Byron Cook, the head gardener. "Everything in this garden is edible," he began. "We don't grow anything we cannot eat." The young leaves of the Petasites japonicus are used to wrap food for steaming and served in broth.

I looked around: tulips, camellias, tiny fuschias...."You know where tea comes from, don't you? Same plant. And we serve the tulip petals on our salads. They are delicious. We use only our plants in our cooking; let's see what's going on, so you'll see what will be in your salad tonight."

Everything was beginning to poke its way up out of the rich soil; like every gardener I met in Victoria, Byron noted that spring was late. But I love this stage of a garden; everything is gangly and awkward; you cannot believe that twisted stub is going to become the elegantly leggy Angelica.

Byron began nipping the flowers off some of the plants, urging me to pop them in my mouth.

I started with the blossom from an arugula; it was a revelation. All this time I've been tossing away the flowers when the arugula gets out of hand. What a waste. But I had no idea.

We went on from there--grazing our way through the red, pink, blue and yellow blossoms of sage, rosemary, geranium. Each blossom tasted like its plant, but with a sweet snap to it, because, of course, it had a drop of nectar at its base. I couldn't get enough of eating flowers. I began to understand the wisdom of the rabbits that grazed the tops off everything in my garden.






I love a garden where things are casually but artfully arranged; everything looks handsome because it is a pure and simply expression of someone's distinctive sensibility.


A metal lid becomes a basin for some stones and shells and a tiny moss garden.


A light for the path becomes a pendant dangling from the arm of a large piece of polished drift wood. Such good, easy ideas for anyone's garden.


I was somewhat soaked, and having skipped breakfast, I indulged in a grilled cheese sandwich and a salad for lunch. It was classy, unlike any I had ever made for myself before. Profound Comfort Food. I knew enough to eat every flower on my salad. There was a bathtub outside on my balcony; I eyed it warily, as it was quite chilly.

Sooke Harbour House is set on a gorgeous spit of land, so the views from the garden, and from the bedrooms, are breathtaking. I sat in a chair and watched sea otters play, and watched eagles patrol the beach. The inn is a simple, unpretentious place; what makes it so special is its idiosyncratic approach to everything from decor to dining.


The walls are covered with the art and craft of local artists, all for sale; I particularly admired a couple of paintings by Ken Kirkby (detail above).


The gift shop is a treasure trove of seeds packets, seaweed scrubs, hand-loomed scarves, hand-needled coats of many colors, and eccentric, colorful pieced wool quilts--the last by Anita van Dijk.


Things you've never seen anywhere else, in other words; that kind of foraging for goods is a lost art in hotel and museum gift shops, I've noticed. They are all beginning to look like they are using the same vendors, so when I stumble on what that is a true expression of its origin, I'm impressed.

The sun set around a brooding garden spirit, a soaked totem, who gazed out to sea. Dinner that night, which was not only perfectly prepared, but exquisitely presented, including much from the kitchen, and the sea. Halibut was prepared with a broth infused with the chef's favorite geranium leaves, Mabel Grey. Since there seems to be a flurry of fascination with pork belly among Slow Love Life readers, I'll tell you that their confit of pork belly was served with a Savoy cabbage and arugula saute. Eating greens right out of the ground--an incomparable experience, to say nothing of enormously respectful of earth's bounty--makes you realize that the stuff you are grazing on from the supermarket is a mere avatar of a lettuce leaf.

Sinclair gave me a ride back into town so I could meet Valerie Murray (and tour the family distillery). He talked about his mushroom obsession. He is a forager. He keeps a diary of his finds on the inn's website. There was a huge cooler in the back of his car; I got the distinct impression that he was the sort of person who would run right off the road if he saw a particularly promising patch of habitat. He told me stories about his foraging pals, including the redoubtable David Arora, who wrote the mushroom bible in the seventies. From Sinclair's tales I had the impression that this gang was the Incredible String Band of the mushroom world and I felt nostalgic for youthful days of looking for the meaning of life on forest floors. When I asked Sinclair where he found places to forage, he said, "where the mushrooms are". He's not giving away too many secrets.

Sooke Harbour House is no secret, either; it is repeatedly included in international travel magazines' top destinations lists. It is the kind of place people love so deeply that they weave visits into the very fabric of their memories; they return year after year. What a pleasure to be the beneficiary of true hospitality.


19 comments:

Ashling said...

I feel as though I got an all-too-brief retreat myself readingthrough this beautiful, evocative post. Your photos are so vivid, and your descriptions so thorough, I'm longing to make my own trip to Vancouver, and this inn!

Maery Rose said...

What a treat for all the senses! Wonderful photos and description. My mouth is still watering. I now have another area to add to my list of places I'd like to travel to.

Windlost said...

Great post. We have stayed there and adore it.

Terri

Barbara said...

Oh, Dominique! Your words and pictures tell of a magical place this bored East Coast dweller craves to explore for herself one day before she crosses over. Thank you for your wonderful posts. And your brief reference to the Incredible String Band stirs gypsymemories of younger years. "May the long time sun shine upon you. All love surround you. And the pure light within you. Guide you all the way on."

david terry said...

Oh, Ms. Browning,

I'd never heard of Ken Kirby before reading your posting, but I followed the link and read, with considerable delight, the following:

"When Ken Kirkby unveiled his painting, 'Isumataq', in Parliament on March 28, 1992, he had to make do with a 25-foot model and the first four panels of the painting itself. The original, at 152' long and 12' high would not fit into the building. But even the model brought tears to the eyes of the 301 members of Parliament and senators gathered there."

Precis: "152 FEET-WIDE BY 12 FEET-TALL PAINTING MAKES 301 COMPLETELY-GROWN PARLIAMENTARIANS & SENATORS CRY!"

My first thought was "I'd be weeping, too...wondering how I was going to explain to my consitutuents that I'd just contractually agreed to pay for the shipping of a painting that was the size two or three semi-trucks...."

My next (and relentlessly self-referential as ever) consideration was to wonder if it would fit on the side of my house without the end panels trailing off into the mulch-pile.

In any case, that is one bigass painting, as we say hereabouts.

My good guess is that Mr. Kirby would have done well if he'd lived during the days of Xerxes or Ab ar-Rhamans; they just don't build 'em as big as they used to, so where's a guy to put his paintings?

Bemusedly as ever,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

david terry said...

P.S. (a couple of hours later) a Vermont friend of mine from writer's-skool who, for various reasons, keeps up with anything signed with "www.davidterryart.com" (I'll admit to having a lot of time on my hands, so I post on a lot of places) just wrote an email, saying:

"I don't know what the customers thought when they got that thing,but I bet the guy who sells the paint is rich&happy.".

I'm sure Mr Kirby's painting is lovely and indicative of all sorts of ineffably wonderful/soulful/&unprecedented qualities.....but apparently I'm not the only person to to be sort of gobsmocked by the notion of a 1,824 square foot (and, yes, this English major just reached his calculator to "do the math")painting.

As Sincerely as ever,

David "Nice Work If You Can Get It" Terry
www.Canada'saBigcountrythatNeedsBIGPictures.org

Susan said...

Dominique, I am very glad to hear that you are enjoying all the best of this beautiful corner of the world, and that you've had at least a few days to look around.

Will you be coming to Vancouver? And if so, would you like to get together for a cup of tea?

Susan

Sarah said...

I am so enchanted! Thank you for taking us there, Dominique! I relished every petal, every morsel, every vista and crumb. xoxo

Warren said...

Ah yes, you went very, very local. The micro climates in the PNW are quite amazing. You are north of us here in Seattle, but already have arugula.

We have snow in the pass, temperatures 10-15 degrees below normal, and a lot of whining.

At times like this we have to work hard to find beauty in the gray upon gray that washes over us. Looks like you found some too.

lostpastremembered said...

I had never thought of flowers either, but years ago, Alice Waters recommended using them in a pasta dough that has become one of my favorites... delicate and lovely with just a little butter. She's a brilliant woman, Ms Waters!

Borage is a great favorite... those cucumber flavored flowers are addictive.

I have been working with flower essences in food of late and the results are spectacular... linden is the latest... now I know why Proust loved the tea with his madeleines! Flowers and food have been around forever, we just lost the fashion for a while.

Your trip sounds amazing and thanks for the intro to this wonderful garden.. who would have thought to eat tulip petals!!

VL said...

What a wonderful example of the power of smallness as well as slowness. I keep thinking that one of our problems is that we think we have to do everything on a large scale -- but scale changes things. (Just ask David Terry!)

david terry said...

Hey "VL"....

I hope my remarks didn't include anything "negative" about the artist, his work, his themes, etc....I did my best to make sure they didn't (although I should emphasize that I've been doing "my best" at being pleasant since sometime in the Johnson adminstration... and I still seem to regularly fetch up snarky, nasty, ill-mannered, and generally rude comments).

In any case,I don't "do" big. the largest things I've ever done are about the size of a small card-table, and most of my work is the size of a legal-paper tablet.

I'd worry about the issue, but I always recall how many times folks have (upon seeing an actual da Vinci or Vermeer) immediately said "I had no idea it was that LITTLE.....".

I probably should shut my obviously partisan mouth, since I know that, if he were involved in this conversation just now, my partner would stress that I also happen to be a remarkably small & unexpectedly expensive commodity. So, my reactions to 1,824 square foot paintings are probably not entirely objective.

Level Best as ever,

David Terry

pamingram said...

there's nothing finer than being a voyeur on this blog when David Terry opines....and then one gets the bonus of a comment from VL....all on top of the wondrous observations of dominique. pamela

VL said...

Dear David Terry -- not at all! (And I can't imagine anyone taking you for less than pleasant; I say this as a fellow North Carolinian and Dukie, by the way.) I meant that since you are a painter-draftsman yourself (and do such _gorgeous_ work on a small scale), you would appreciate that one might approach such a huge painting differently than something on a very small canvas. I do think scale matters, whether it's in a painting, or designing a room, or a garden, composing a piece of music, or even writing -- in part because the compression forces every stroke, every word to be meaningful.

Pamela, you are completely justified in your comments about David and Dominique, and far too kind with me. And I think I lost your comment on my blog when I changed one post into two.... so sorry. (I really need to get a better handle on this technology.) I hope you'll grace it with your comments again.

best,
very miscellaneously musing
http://wwwmiscellaneousmusings.blogspot.com/

dana said...

The Sooke Harbour House is so wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed your comments and pictures. I had the good fortune to visit almost twenty years ago to celebrate the fortieth birthday of a dear friend. It is one of the most memorable weekends of my life. Thanks for reminding me.

Cristina said...

absolutely gorgeous even without the sun shining through. it sounds like one - of the few still existing - place of true peace on earth.
I liked the fact of being able to look at otters from... ...a chair on a balcony!
great reportage, thank you.

Dominique said...

Re the Kirkby painting: I linked to the large one, because it was such a strange stunt--but I think it was also an honest response on the part of the painter to the enormity of his subject, and to think it was such an unknown stonehengian sort of thing for such a long time.....but the Kirkbys I saw were much smaller--more like two feet by three, and smaller....just to make that clear. I'm somewhat agnostic about size of work unless, of course, I want to have it in my home. Funny how modernist mansions with huge blank walls changed the course of art history. all those patrons, all that empty space, all those willing artists who might not have had that much to say, but could certainly say it loud and big....just being provocative here. but i do think one o the hallmarks of the late 20th century is that our sense of human scale ran away from us....(there's a better way to put that, but.... you see what I mean?)

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,et al....

1. I should say upfront that I've been regularly told that Vancouver is one of the places "you have to SEE". I travel a great deal and am surprised at how regularly I'm, told that it's a "don't miss" spot.

Someday, I'll go....although that'll involve my travelling west of the Mississippi river (I've never done that, although the trips eastward just keep stretching onwards and onwards...including a naively proposed, as of last year, trip to Egypt...on which my tail has obviously & for good reason not gone this particular spring.)

2. I just read your comment "Funny how modernist mansions with huge blank walls changed the course of art history. all those patrons, all that empty space, all those willing artists who might not have had that much to say, but could certainly say it loud and big".

My favorite anecdote concerning My Brilliant Career occurred fairly recently, when the all-too-obviously-indulged Indian wife of a very prominent Indian surgeon (they live hereabouts, I gather) called to say that she LOVED my work and wanted it in the hallway connecting her "main house" to "the pavillion" (both of which are, apparently, quite recently built....in Cary, NC which you can google). She wanted to "FILL" the hallway with my "work" (!). I gathered from her description that this hallway was the approximately the size of a handball-court, although a bit longer. I was excited.

She told me that she had spent lots&lots o' money already and most indeed unfortunately found herself having "only" nine thousand left to spend. That got my attention, to say the least.

Long story short?...we had this ridiculous/absurd/jaggedy conversation over the telephone during which I kept wondering if she was stoned (this isn't my first time at the "Land This Commission" Rodeo). She probably thought the same of me.

turns out she wanted some other "david terry", who does decorative wall-painting...faux-marbre, etc.
Everything went very-downhill from that point on, and then she hung up on me, asking why I been to be wasting her time and no she did not in the very least want to be buying these paintings she knows nothing of, etcetera....

I had to remind her that she called ME, which didn't lighten her mood one bit.

In any case....I love your phrase "an unknown stonehengeian sort of thing". For better or worse?...I immediately thought of a very large, "intense" musician I dated for a while in my twenties. I haven't gathered that he was ever "discovered".

I might not have mentioned that my favorite phrase(among your many quite felicitous & hit-the-nail-on-the-head phrasings over the years) regards your having been "impressed by the inadvertant weight of a spontaneous truth".

I read that and thought "Oh....THAT's the phrase I've been looking for....to describe those times when, say, someone simply notices some supposedly minor something that's a bit-'off'...and someone suddenly just KNOWS that his/her spouse is having an affair". You don't even need to ask questions...you just know.

I could fetch up other, less dramatic examples, but....it's a great phrase. so, thank you as ever,

David Terry

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