Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse
By Janelle Hoddevik
Mara Jernigan is a woman with a lot on her plate-but this European-trained chef, international Slow Food representative and ardent local farming advocate will gladly share it all with you. In fact, she'll help you select what ends up on that plate, choosing from the amazing seasonal abundance at local farmer's markets; pairing the food with exceptional local wines and distinctive artisanal breads and hand-made cheeses. And then the magic and excitement truly begins: a shared, hands-on cooking and culinary experience that nourishes the soul while preparing the palate for the ultimate dining reward-a meal that is organic and inimitable-fresh from the surrounding fields, forests and sea.
Mara is the resident chef and welcoming host of Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse. Nestled in the comfortable embrace of the Cowichan Valley at the heart of Vancouver Island, and just one hour away from both Victoria and Nanaimo, Fairburn Farm is a sanctuary for a simpler, kinder lifestyle. It's a lifestyle that Mara is ideally suited and prepared for; her occupancy of the Farm seems almost pre-destined.
The hallmark and philosophy of the international Slow Foods movement is allowing yourself leisurely time to cook, taste and savour the delights of real food. Mara has long been a proponent of the value of foods and the land needed to produce them to nourish our bodies and souls. She says she used to, "go out and speak to 200 people at a Rotary Club and get really preachy and talk about a lot of the political things… But here, at the Farm, I don't even have to say anything. Just let people experience. You nourish them and cook with them and extend hospitality and let them feel they're in the home of a chef."
Originally an 80 acre portion of a 1200 acre homestead, Fairburn Farm was named by its mistress, Mary Reid Jackson in the early 1900's. She and her husband farmed until his death, leaving the young widow, a single mother, to carry on with the hard work of raising and breeding Jersey cows. In 1911, Mary married a millionaire Brewery owner who increased the size of the farm to 1200 acres once more. They lived in grand style with all the accoutrements of the wealthy, such as racehorses and chauffeur-driven cars. For a time, the Farm even became a private Hunting Lodge, well-stocked with pheasant and Percheron horses. After her second husband's death, Mary returned to her first love-farming! She died in 1948, but is said to still visit her Manor House (when least expected), keeping watch over the next generations of land stewards.
The land was subsequently sold, except for 130 acres surrounding the house and farm buildings. In 1954, a young couple, Jack and Molly Archer, fell in love with the Farm and began the work of renewing the land in a natural and sustainable way. Beginning Canada's first organic co-operative right here on Vancouver Island, they spent time and money fixing the rundown buildings. With a lot of hard work, they were able to open the farm up as "Kelvin Creek Ranch" operating a series of ventures, including a children's camp, a family farm-stay, and a duderanch.
They passed their legacy (and all the chores) on to their son Darrel and his wife, Anthea, who continued on with a Bed and Breakfast for over 20 years, but returned the farm to its original name, Fairburn. True to their farming blood, this second generation of Archers wanted to raise animals on their land. They tried sheep and dairy cows, among other things, until finally discovering River Water buffalo. But after clearing all inspections and regulations, and importing a herd of 18 animals from Denmark in 2000, they ran headlong into the initial wave of the "Mad Cow Disease" scare: a cow from Denmark had been reported with BSE. The Archers were issued an order to kill their forage and grass-fed buffalo herd.
With no reported cases of BSE appearing in buffalo anywhere in the world, a court battle ensued. Despite enormous public and community support to save the buffalo, the Archers lost their case. Their herd of ready-to-produce dairy animals was destroyed, and they were left with just the young offspring born in Canada, many of which were non-milk-producing males. (With Canada's borders now closed to the buffalo, this is the only herd in Canada, and the only 100% pure River Water buffalo in North America.)
After five years of struggling to maintain the farm and raise their buffalo with an eye to dairy and cheese production, the Archers were ready to move out of their B&B business. Enter Mara Jernigan.Mara had been living at Engeler Farm in Cobble Hill, where she had established her cooking school.The Archers knew Mara, both from their Slow Foods involvement together and from a "Feast of Fields" event she organized and held at Fairburn Farm in 1999. (The Feast of Fields is a giant, culinary picnic and roving feast, held at the same time but in a different location each year, with top chefs from all over Vancouver Island, each using only fresh, local foods for their presentations).
As often happens, the Fates stepped in and took over-Engeler Farm was sold, and Mara needed a place to live; the Archers wanted to devote themselves to quiet farming and they were ready to vacate the large Manor House. It made complete sense to all involved for Mara to take over the daily business operation of the house, and in 2005, 'Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse' was born. As an Agri-Tourism venture to help sustain the land organically and promote food and farming awareness, it couldn't be more perfect.
The Manor House, built in 1896, awaits its visitors at the end of a long and winding gravel roadway that gives up tantalizing glimpses of its peaceful setting. Remodelled and updated by Mara, (as has the separate Guesthouse) but retaining all of its original warmth and character as the centrepiece of the Farm, the Manor House offers four comfortable guestrooms upstairs. Each bedroom welcomes with its own blend of original heritage and modern pamperings. There are even jetted bathtubs in two of the rooms. Windows feature watery glazing and wide wooden moldings that have never been painted, while the doorways offer a glimpse into a long-ago era: solid wood doors boasting original Victorian hardware, artistically detailed in Scotland.
Downstairs, on the main floor of the house, the rooms ramble through inviting parlours with expansive views. Originally heavily Victorian in its décor, ornate wallpaper still adorns some of the sitting rooms in an impressive display of opulence. Warm, rich colour leads you on a tour across the newly-refinished old-growth flooring, inviting you to stop and stay awhile by the radiance of the central fireplace. From the hearth, the scents and sounds of a living kitchen waft their way around you. Gently, inexorably, the tendrils draw you in, pulling you through the dining room; leading you with justified anticipation.
In the kitchen, Mara brings her culinary passions to life with her guests. Since taking possession of the house, she has revamped and modernized the facilities. The room has been designed as her teaching kitchen, with space enough for eight people, where Mara hosts a series of well-attended cooking classes year round, including both basic and advanced techniques as well as classes exploring Italian cuisine. Storage and pantry cupboards are at a minimum. The old, heavy cabinetry has been replaced with an original mesh-fronted cupboard she found onsite, as everything she creates has been just-picked, just-caught or just-made nearby. The fully equipped space is now the perfect setting to cook the always fresh and sumptuous meals for inhouse and overnight guests, as well as her famous Six-Course Sunday lunch extravaganzas, and for numerous special events, both large and small, planned throughout the year.
Fairburn is also a home-away-from-home, to foreign students from many countries who come and volunteer on the farm. They're part of a recognized program called 'Willing Workers on Organic Farms'. "The place is really like a United Nations of food," Mara explains, "there's always interesting people here."
Outside the house, from its indulgently wide verandah, guests are treated to the plump, juicy offerings of a mature and very reachable fig tree, while taking in the incredibly peaceful scenery. There are slowly grazing animals, including the ever-curious and glossy black buffalo, and sheep with tinkly bells around their necks. A creek meanders its way alongside perfect walking paths, inviting you into the orchard. And far off in the distance, the fields stand their ground at the edge of a thickly forested ridge where wild things grow.
Every Sunday beginning in May, a three-hour lunch is served outdoors on the covered porch. A full six courses of inspired and original food is offered, including one course of tender hand-made pasta, and all created from the Farm's own lush and lovingly tended vegetable gardens, with eggs from the fat brown chickens freely roaming about their yard, and fruits hand-picked from the heritage apple and pear orchard, as well as the best the local community has to offer.
And there is plenty to choose from: the Cowichan Valley is reknowned for its rich bounty, including award-winning wines and ciders, microbreweries and artisanal bakeries, breads and cheeses, as well as seafood and wild foods such as forest-floor mushrooms and distinctive honeys.
Mara's menus always offer an abundance of exquisite tastes, textures and temptations. You may be treated to meats from her rare-breed animals, (she currently has sheep and goats) raised right there on the grasses of the fields, or freshly baked bread from the wood-burning oven at the side of the house. Or perhaps it's fresh cheeses-the Farm's first buffalo mozzarella, with a taste, Mara promises, that has no comparison, will soon be made by Hilary Abbott of Hilary's Cheese Company. And guests can thank the buffalo personally.
"It's like being at Grandma's house," Mara says, "except the food might be better-and there's all the right wines. People walk away, and they've ingested the message. You don't have to say a whole lot, you just have to let the place and the experience speak for itself. More and more, as I get older that's what I've realized".
Sometimes the greatest discoveries are quite simply beneath our own noses-like finding Fairburn Farm. And other joys, like discovering that the simplest of ingredients can combine to fill our plates with a veritable feast-it's one for the senses. At Fairburn Farm, it's alright to ask Mara for an extra plate.