A monk birdbath sits under a grape-covered arbor in the Carter House garden, Eureka, California.
Tucked in the Victorian seaport of Eureka, California, the Carter House has grown into an enclave of intimate accommodations, including a hotel along with several houses and cottages. The hotel’s full-service Restaurant 301, opened in 1987, has brought a gourmet feast to California’s redwood kingdom. And, while a passion for using only the highest quality organic food and fresh herbs is one secret behind the success of this award-winning restaurant, the sizeable garden — which continues to serve as a valuable resource for Carter cuisine — is another. “Back then we were harvesting things like lemon verbena, arugula, edible flowers and other exotic finds that you just couldn’t get anywhere else,” Mark says.
Today, that patch of herbs has evolved into an extensive kitchen garden of more than 300 varieties of herbs, greens, vegetables, fruits and edible flowers. And, thanks to the mild Northern California climate, the flourishing garden supplies the restaurant’s talented chefs with an impressive variety of fresh herbs and produce nearly year-round. Tender herbs like lemon verbena, scented geraniums and specialty sages grow as perennial favorites. Lavender, rosemary, thyme and fennel also thrive in abundance along with an assortment of edible flowers and culinary newcomers like borage and tuberous geraniums. “So few herbs really dry and taste well,” says head chef Matthew Szymanski, who uses fresh herbs whenever possible.
Though the region’s bounty of seasonal foods — from organic produce to fresh seafood, chanterelle mushrooms picked from the nearby ancient redwood forest and local artisan cheeses — are also featured on the menu, the Carter House garden has become a defining element in much of the restaurant’s skillfully rendered cuisine. Assistant chefs go out to the garden each afternoon with scissors and basket in hand, carefully selecting the finest herbs, greens and vegetables for a distinctive freshness and flavor that receives plenty of appreciative notice from dinner guests.
Even with an established foundation of perennial herbs and fruits, the garden is in a continual state of change as annual vegetables and herbs are planted and harvested, according to season. The menu reflects this garden-to-table approach from lamb ravioli with lavender and rosemary butter or honey-cured salmon with garden-fresh fennel cucumber salad to a simply sumptuous nasturtium-garnished squash soup or a lemon-scented geranium sorbet.
As an added treasure, the 10,000- square-foot English-style showcase garden is as appealing to the eye, and nose, as it is to the palate. Given a warm summer’s day or a gentle breeze, the faint bouquet of herbs often greets you before you even enter the garden. Once inside, your gaze is captured by fragrant wisteria and honeysuckle clambering over a kiwi-engulfed arbor.
Brick pathways flanked by herbs such as rosemary, lavender, santolina and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) reveal the abundant wealth of a true kitchen garden. Fruit abounds: cherry, plum, fig and apple trees, as well as blueberry bushes and alpine strawberries, also known as fraises des bois.
Raised beds house a variety of vegetables, including fava and runner beans, yellow beets, artichokes and signature gourmet greens. Culinary flowers interplay in the company of herbs and vegetables as well, such as colorful calendulas, peppery nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and borage along with bee balm (Monarda didyma), violas and dianthus. Naturally there’s a cornucopia of essential culinary herbs — standards like parsley, sage, rosemary, basil and thyme, for instance — as well as the more distinctive French tarragon, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and cucumber-flavored salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor).
Francine Slaughter, the master gardener who oversees the garden and tends the densely planted beds, utilizes the garden’s greenhouse for growing annual herb and vegetable starts from seed. Through a combination of careful planning, trellising and variety selection, the garden packs a wealth of produce into a small space. Slaughter also relies on slow-released organic fertilizers and compost to revitalize the soil and meet the demands of a garden that’s continually producing.
Demands aside, the Carter House kitchen garden has grown into more than just a source of fresh ingredients and unexpected flavors. From garden to table, this aromatic oasis has become a source of inspiration and enjoyment for visitors and guests alike.
The Carter House garden is available for viewing at any time, and individual and group tours can also be arranged, with prime viewing from April through October. The Carter House and Restaurant 301 are located at the corner of Third and L streets in Eureka, California. For more information about Restaurant 301 or Carter House reservations, call (800) 404-1390 or visit their website at www.carterhouse.com.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her husband, photographer Rick Wetherbee.