Each day of their recent honeymoon, Paul Riley and Katie Petrucione engaged in one of the more sensuous chores of everyday life: They cooked together, a cooperative ritual of quality time spent quietly conversing over tempting aromas.
Every afternoon the couple, toting an old-fashioned market basket, headed down to a garden bursting with late summer ripeness and harvested the makings of a meal. Whatever they happened to find inspired the menu.
There was fresh rosemary and chives for steak marinade. Salads of bitter greens like arugula tossed with sorrel and vibrantly colored radicchio. Mashed potatoes with sweet scallions. A bunch of sweet peas coiling up among the vegetables in the garden made a fragrant flower arrangement by their bed.
While other newlyweds indulge in room-service and Zagat-rated restaurant meals capped by three-figure bills, this San Francisco couple chose to ease into married life in a cozy cottage at Anchor Bay along the unhurried coast of southern Mendocino County. Aside from a few splurges, like an authentic Italian feast prepared by the physician-cook Luciano Zamboni at Victorian Garden Inn up in Manchester, they mostly cooked in.
"We love to cook and just hang out," said Riley, an artist whose city dwelling offers no room for vegetable gardening. "The process is as important as the product. And the environment here is so beautiful and laid-back."
It's a calculated simplicity that owners Tom and Renata Dorn have worked hard to cultivate at Mar Vista, a bed-and-breakfast inn where breakfast is do-it-yourself. A basket of still warm eggs, laid by the colorful Araucana and black Australorp hens that freely roam among the buttercream yellow cottages, is hung on a broom peg by each door in the morning. Riley used them to whip up hearty French toast.
"People experience it on various levels," said Renata Dorn, who managed a small San Francisco inn for The Four Seasons resorts and later the storied Manka's Inverness Lodge before she and Tom - a management analyst and auditor - bought and renovated the old Mar Vista resort four miles north of Gualala five years ago. "But the idea of simplicity and driving down the experience to very basic levels has actually turned the tables for some couples. It's become a very intense experience. People talk about how they the see their partner in a new way."
Many bed-and-breakfast inns boast pretty flower gardens, and some have vegetable patches from which the cook can feed a common table. But Mar Vista's community-style, pick-it-yourself and prepare-it-yourself garden is unusual.
Overnight guests at Fetzer Vineyards' historic Valley Oaks in Hopland have been allowed, informally, to take small quantities of fruits, vegetables or herbs for cooking from several acres of gardens on the grounds. Three rooms in the 19th-century carriage house have kitchens, as does the historic Haas House that can be rented by families or larger groups and overlooks Fetzer's big culinary garden. But lately, so many other people have inappropriately filched quantities of food from the open gardens that it's created a shortage for the winery's Valley Oaks Cafe, said head gardener Kate Frey. So she suggests overnight guests inclined to cook ask permission first.
At Mar Vista, however, guests are encouraged to take as much as they can eat. A cradle of baskets sits on the front porch of the office cabin and clippers are at the ready in the garden. Although more than half of guests do venture in, the garden still produces more than is consumed, so the Dorns are considering setting up a highway farm stand.
Before they arrive, guests receive a list of seasonal goodies that will be
ready to pick and prepare. Renata keeps a few cookbooks and recipes on hand but the timid are reminded that most veggies don't need to be dressed in culinary finery. It's amazing what a little garlic and olive oil will do.
The Dorns were gardening novices when they first purchased the property, which came with permits for up to 26 luxury hotel units. But the Dorns were looking to live easy on the land. And Tom, who had begun studying permaculture - a philosophy advocating sustainability, self-sufficiency and ecological awareness in all aspects of life - was fascinated by the prospect of putting ideas into action on his own land. And the idea of a communal garden became a way to distinguish their place from other coastal inns.
"I'm a city guy," Tom Dorn said. "I know nothing about all this stuff and I learn something old every day - because there's nothing new about anything we're doing here. It's just all new to me."
The garden is organic, enriched with home-grown compost. Each cottage has a little bin for guests to deposit scraps. Tom uses a method inspired by the French intensive or "double dug" gardening in raised beds, which aims to produce the greatest yield in the smallest space.
"One of the things they recommend is you create little garden mounds and double dig the soil, aerate it out and then plant," he explained. "You turn the soil over twice. It's bringing up the nutrients from down in the soil so you don't have to fertilize as much. And because the soil is loose and aerated you can plant things closer together."
The beds are built up with cinderblocks; in the holes Tom has planted
speciality things like strawberries. Irrigation water comes from a creek that crosses that property and spills over a waterfall into the ocean on the other side of the highway.
Dorn has found most crops except corn and tomatoes do well in the cooler coastal climate. He keeps the garden in production year-round. In autumn and early winter it will be full of things like fava beans, garlic, lettuces, onions, peas, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kale and leeks. Seeds are kept and re-cultivated.
Riley said the whole experience swept him back to childhood. "My father had a big vegetable garden," he recalled. "I had forgotten how
great it was to be able to just reach down in the earth and pick up a radish and eat it - with the dirt still clinging to it."