Beyond Farm to Table in Carmel

The bounty we collected during the garden tour, including the salt I harvested for my scrub. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

A pregnant doe munched on lavender bushes as I rolled into Carmel Valley Ranch, a 500-acre property in the heart of California’s central coast. After checking into one of the modish earth-toned guest suites and walking through a pool area where families sat around a fire roasting marshmallows, I felt completely transported back to my days at summer camp.

“We want everyone to rediscover play here,” said Brian Gipson, director of sales at the ranch, as we toured the immense grounds. “And we strive to give our guests many outlets for doing so in their own signature way.” That explains the tree swings sprinkled throughout the property, the bocce court, and the many activities on offer that encourage exploration.

The Lodge Restaurant at the Carmel Valley Ranch. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The Lodge Restaurant at the Carmel Valley Ranch. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

“If you want to do it, we have it here,” Brian explained. “Honey harvesting, jamming, pickling, gingerbread and lavender-soap making, and even ‘ranch chef’ contests, where each team is given two secret ingredients and a friendly competition ensues.”

Many of the activities are seasonal, which means that guests might find themselves using a sickle to harvest lavender in the summer and picking posies in the spring.

One experience offered year-round is beekeeping with John Russo, the ranch’s resident apiarist. I’ve always wanted to do this and was as excited as the 8-year-old kids in the group the day I suited up.

I was impressed with John’s ability to command and sustain the kids’ attention by turning complex science into funny anecdotes. “The best way to tell the difference between the girl and boy bees is that the boys have hairy butts!” he said at one point as he drew a picture on his clipboard diagramming the differences.

John Russo shows us his bees at work. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

John Russo shows us his bees at work. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

“Some of the bees, called the scouts, dance to give directions to the best flowers to their buddies back at the hive, and they only do it in specific rooms in the hive. I like to call these the disco halls,” he said, triggering a bout of giggles from kids and adults alike.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. As John lifted a honeycomb frame out of one of the beehives so we could see the undulating bees at work up close, he shared information about their ecology and role in nature. “Bees are one of a handful of non-destructive creatures that, through pollination, leave their environment better off than it was before.”

At the end of the beekeeping experience, John gave everyone a lip and hand balm made with the bees’ wax, locally produced olive oil, and lavender oil he distills on-site. His honey and lavender oil appear all over the ranch, from house-made salad dressings to spa amenities.

After having the pleasure of meeting John and his bees, I was given a tour of the ranch’s organic garden and salt house by Gus Trejo, who works alongside head chef  Tim Wood at the Lodge Restaurant.

The on-site salt house. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

The on-site salt house. (Photograph by Shannon Switzer)

“We like to cook what we like to eat, which is the freshest, ripest produce with the most vitamins, minerals, and sugars,”  Gus explained as we strolled past rows of rhubarb, rainbow chard, and fava beans. “It provides a multitude of health benefits,” he continued. “Plus it just tastes better.”

As we walked, Gus stopped to harvest a piece of produce here and there and remarked that seeing fruits and vegetables still planted in the ground inspires creativity in his chefs. “They start to dream up ways to use parts of the plant they didn’t even know it had before they put their time in at the garden,” he said.

Next we visited the ranch’s very own salt house, where Bob “the salt guy” turns water from nearby Monterey Bay into gourmet quality sea salt. Compared with processed table salt, the microorganisms in sea salt provide natural iodine and high mineral content. Sea salt also packs more of a punch, so less is needed.

Gus plucked some flakes from the drying rack and sprinkled them on the purple asparagus he’d picked earlier, and we shared a tasty snack. Then I filled a mason jar with the fully formed crystals to bring to my practitioner at the Spa Aiyana for a full body scrub and massage.

Later Chef Gus treated me to a dinner made from the ingredients we’d seen in the soil that afternoon. I could still taste the sun in everything I put in my mouth–from the kale, fennel, and beets in the salad to the rhubarb-strawberry crisp.

In keeping with the spirit of the day, I washed it all down with a “lavender bliss” cocktail. As I slipped into food-and-drink heaven, I couldn’t help but think that these guys were on to something. How could playful, active participation in procuring delightful treats not keep a person young at heart, healthy, and most definitely well?


Beyond Farm to Table in Carmel

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