We live in a place I affectionally call Wacko Island. (It’s Vashon, actually.) This place in the middle of Puget Sound, only a 15-minute ferry ride away from Seattle, feels so far away to most mainlanders. There are plenty of people who grow up in the Pacific Northwest and live here all their lives who have still not visited. I understand. We can only get off the island — that’s what everyone here calls it; the island — by ferry. Lately, the ferries have been erratic and packed with cars. It’s best if you don’t have to leave.
Vashon is the kind of place that you visit and wonder what to do when you arrive. There are only about 3 streets in town. Everything pretty much closes by 9 pm. There’s no tourism board. In fact, most people who live here are baffled as to why anyone wants to visit.
But you don’t want to leave when you live here.
And we think you’d love it here.
So over this summer, we’re going to introduce you to some people and places that make a visit to Vashon more than worth it. One of the reasons I love this place is because it attracts artists and weirdos, people who want to live a ferry ride away from cities and everything else. People move here consciously. And if they survive 2 or 3 winters, they tend to be lifers. They decide to make clean cookstoves for the world or learn how to make distilled spirits from local ingredients. They open bakeries and local creameries. They decide to roast coffee in the 1970s, in the days when most Americans are opening big cans of Yuban, and are still going strong with beans directly from our sister city in Guatemala. They leave the city to open a small dairy farm on the island, then make cheese, and write books, and make great ice cream. They start performance art troupes that make music out of enormous handmade musical instruments and do aerial work too. Many of them start small farms, some of them run by women, and stock their farm stands and leave a mason jar for money out front. It’s all on the honor system. They know you’re good for it.
It’s a magic place. And we know there are plenty of rural places a bit like Vashon, places filled with interesting people and artists who are changing the world in their small, intentional ways. I would like to visit all those places. But this place? It’s our home. And we’d like to share it with you here.
We’re going to start with the good folks at Nashi Orchards.
Like so many people who live on Vashon, Jim Gerlach and Cheryl Lubbert ended up on the island almost by accident, led by a feeling. They had both lived in the Pacific Northwest before, then moved to California for Cheryl’s job. Looking to come back, they visited Vashon to see a home they loved but somehow seemed not quite right for them — so many acres — and kept looking. Years later, Vashon returned to their minds. That Japanese-style home with the orchards was still on the market. They came over for a visit and made the leap.
Now, what to do with 27 acres of Asian pear tress? Most of the trees were not in great shape but Jim had been a landscape architect, so he set to work. He educated himself about rootstocks and heirloom varieties and everything necessary to make these orchards come alive. Cheryl told us that for awhile they made an Asian pear preserves, simmered so slowly that it reduced and sweetened without any additional sugars. They thought about it bottling it and putting it on the market. But the rules for preserves made without sugars are pretty complicated.
Why not make cider instead?
Now they make some of the finest ciders I have ever tried: full of character and layers of taste, crisp, and not too sweet. One of the ciders is made with Asian pears and donated windfall heirloom apples from the island. Every islander who donates apples votes to decide the Vashon nonprofit that will receive part of the proceeds. Their Chojuro variety has warm taste, reminiscent of butterscotch. The barrel-fermented Asian pear cider is far more crisp and only vaguely sweet. (It also recently won a gold medal at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, where cider makers from around the world enter their ciders. It’s a big deal in that world.) The cider is all fermented and bottled at Nashi Orchards.
Jim and Cheryl also consider themselves stewards of their land. The orchards are certified salmon safe. They use no pesticides — Jim brews enormous batches of nettle tea in the spring and sprays it on the trees to keep away pests. When pear season is done, they allow a flock of sheep into the orchards to eat any remaining fallen fruit. They have solar panels for their electricity. Any fruit solids left after the the cider has been pressed are given to island farmers to feed their livestock. They love this place.
And they are one of the very few places in the world that makes an exclusively Asian pear cider.
We visited Jim and Cheryl a couple of weeks ago, sitting here, looking out at the orchards, on one of the first warm days of spring. We talked about the exhausting extraordinary journey of starting and running a small business. We shared our stories and talked about the life of pear trees, the mysteries of social media, and the best way to make pickled asparagus. (Jim and Cheryl are absolutely food lovers. Their kitchen makes me want to stay and cook all day.) It was a lovely afternoon.
Sometimes — and let’s be honest, at least a few moments of every work day — Danny and I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to quit it all and get regular jobs on Vashon. Except, this is what we do. We revel in it, even when we’re overwhelmed. Spending the afternoon with another couple who speak our language of food, overcoming fear, and making it up as we go along? All at this table? It makes the other days worth it.
We first met Cheryl and Jim a few weeks before that, at an event held at Nashi Orchards in honor of the Vashon Sheepdog Classic.
Can we talk about this? Every summer on Vashon, there is a 4-day sheepdog trails. Trainers gently whistle to their attentive dogs, who guide a herd of sheep through a difficult course of hills and fields at Misty Isle Farm. That’s it. It’s peaceful and meditative and not much action. And hundreds and hundreds of people turn out to sit in the field and watch. It’s a really big social event around here.
I love this place.
Oh, and also, there is a Vashon Fiber Arts Village, where you can learn to work the big loom and participate in a public rug hooking project. Kids can take needle art classes all day. It’s run by the Vashon Fibershed. Those ladies are cool too.
And there will be plenty of food: lamb and tamales, shepherds pie and baked goods. (Sam at Vashon Island Baking uses our flour to make great gluten-free baked goods, so there might be some there too.)
It all starts tomorrow and runs through the weekend. You should come over to watch the sheep.
When we were at the sheepdog event at Nashi, we were given a tour of the orchards and tasted the perry. And then Danny sat down to this incredible dinner at this table of white in the garden. Our friend Lauren, who runs an Asian pop-up restaurant called Meat and Noodle, made that gorgeous Vashon ramen for everyone. (She made a pho for me, which Danny brought home, where I was with the kids.) It’s the kind of food that could only have been made in that moment, on Vashon.
That’s what is of most interest to me these days: right here, right now. Vashon ramen. Cherries poached in Asian pear cider. And memorable afternoons on our island.
Come on over to visit.
Asian pear cider-poached cherries
The Nash Orchards barrel fermented Asian pear cider is crisp and clean, with only a faint sweetness. We like all their ciders but this is our favorite one for cooking. It’s a little puckery, full of character. And it goes well with cherries.
This time of year, it may feel silly to poach fresh cherries, when we’ve been waiting all year to eat them. Our kids are eating fistfuls of cherries every afternoon. However, no matter how fast we eat them, some of them can go fast in warm weather. Poach them in some cider and they will keep in the refrigerator for longer.
If you don’t have access to the Nashi Orchards pear cider, you can use your favorite dry apple cider in its place.
One technique to note. Before you poach the cherries, cut out a circle of parchment paper just smaller than your pot. Cut a circle in the middle, which will allow the steam from the simmering liquid to escape. Putting the circle of parchment paper over the top of the cherries will keep them from bobbing up to the surface. This helps them to poach evenly.
Of course, as soon as it’s Asian pear season around here, we’re going back to Nashi for more. I think Asian pear poached Asian pears sounds like a lovely fall treat.
Dissolve the sugar. Set a small pot on medium-high heat. Pour in the cider and sugar. Bring the liquid to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat down to low.
Poach the cherries. Slide the pitted cherries into the simmering liquid. Put a round of parchment paper with a hole cut in the center on top of the liquid. Poach the cherries until they are starting to be squishy but not falling apart, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Add the dried cherries and basil leaves to the hot liquid. Let the cherries and basil steep for 1/2 hour. Remove the basil. Serve the cherries hot over pound cake or ice cream. Or, let them cool to room temperature and put them in the refrigerator to use whenever you wish.
Feel like playing? You can keep the poaching liquid watery like this, or you could strain the cherries and pour the poaching liquid back into the pot and turn the heat on low. Simmer until the liquid reduces by 1/2 its volume and turns syrupy. Now that is great for ice cream or yogurt.