Five minutes inside the Prince Edward Island Shellfish Museum and a kindly employee is already shucking me an oyster. Not just any oyster, either -- a genuine Malpeque Oyster, reared in nearby Malpeque Bay. "They say they're the best in the world," she declares as I slurp up the salty critter. Finally, a museum where they let you eat the exhibits.
Quirky institutions like the Shellfish Museum are a speciality of PEI. On this little slip of an island, there's also the Acadian Museum, the Shipbuilding Museum, the International Fox Museum, the innocently-named but oddly-curious Fisheries Museum.
And of course there are many museums devoted to the ubiquitous Anne. Not that I don't like Anne -- who doesn't? But my favourite days here involved escaping to the less-touristy, western side of the island, where I paid a visit to three museums that have nothing to do with her, and a lot to do with the livelihood of this Maritime province.
The picture-perfect Shellfish Museum is so idyllic, I wanted to move in. The baby-blue, two-storey house overlooks a scenic bay, where oysters are reared in the shallows. Inside you'll learn that oysters may change their sex more that once in a lifetime, and scallops are the only mollusks that can swim. An aquarium displays some unusual specimens, once the employee coaxes them out from under the rocks.
First there is the bright blue lobster, looking as though it was dipped in food colouring, but which is really a genetic oddity -- and decidedly rare on the menus of most PEI restaurants.
Then there is "two-tone," a lobster that looks as if it were half-cooked, straight down the middle. I asked if that one bolted from the pot and was spared by a good-hearted kitchen cook, but the museum employee declined to confirm my hypothesis.
Oysters were so plentiful in the 1800s, they were used to fertilize the soil, and an exhibit about these delicious little guys notes that way back then they were spread across fields and burnt. Predictably (at least in hindsight) the stock became severely depleted and the practice was banned by 1825, a relief to future oyster farmers and tourists alike.
For those who prefer starchy to squishy at mealtime, the inland town of O'Leary has sprouted the Potato Museum, a bit further west down the road. Turning around the bend, you see a giant potato sculpture that stretches over four metres high and two metres across. Then, just when you wonder if you've stepped into a horror flick, you see the sign for the potato museum.
The museum promises "oodles of potato information," according to a sign inside the front door. Among other things, the exhibit outlines the potato's roundabout route to PEI from its native Peru: Spanish conquerors introduced it to Spain in the late 1500s and from there it sprouted across Europe, reaching England by 1586 and Ireland by 1663. The Brits get credit for bringing it to PEI around 1771. The late-blight potato fungus came to PEI too, ironically revisiting the Irish soon after they fled here from Ireland's potato famine in 1845.
Like most of the province, O'Leary is a potato hotbed, but that's not the reason for the museum, as administrator Joan Smallman explains. "There was a fellow here that had a vision," she tells me, in all apparent seriousness. "He put his money where his mouth was and begged, borrowed and stole."
The man was Dr. George Dewar, who had already set up Centennial Community Museum here in 1967. Five years ago, the modern Potato Museum became the original museum's centrepiece. There is also a heritage chapel, a red barn full of antiquated potato-farming equipment and a little red schoolhouse, transplanted from the nearby community of Alaska, and eerily preserved from the moment it closed in 1972. Books rest on the uncomfortable-looking wooden desks, a pot-bellied stove sits quietly at the centre of the single room, and in the entrance hangs the ghostly photo of the last senior graduating class.
The disquieting aura inspires a quick escape, and what better place to run to than the museum's canteen, where they serve potato bread, potato dogs and even potato fudge. Unfortunately, it was already closed for the day.
But with the Irish Moss Interpretive Centre as my next stop, I soon found that I wouldn't be going hungry. It is home to the Seaweed Pie Café, specializing in -- you guessed it -- Seaweed Pie. I was expecting something akin to spinach, and was surprised by the pale green, creamy dish I was offered instead.
Irish Moss, a short, fan-shaped seaweed that ranges in colour from red-brown to yellow-green, is harvested from the sea for the extract of its natural gum, explains the museum's video. The moss is exported and used to produce carrageenan, a mysterious, non-caloric, starch-like substance used primarily in the dairy industry as a stabilizer and thickening agent. Think chocolate milk, ice cream, salad dressing. You're probably addicted to the stuff and don't even know it. In the seaweed pie, the carrageenan keeps that tasty green mousse from running.
The museum's interpretive centre was established by the local chapter of Women in Support of Fishing, with some government assistance. "It helped that the minister of tourism and industry at the time was from this area," jokes staff member Lou Ann Gallant. The main exhibit depicts the Irish Moss harvest, which takes place in shallow, coastal areas from late spring to early autumn, as a family affair. Even children help sort unwanted flotsam and jetsam from the wet seaweed.
Indeed, if you happen to be in the area after a nor'wester hits, head down to the beaches near Miminegash Harbour. You never know: You might catch a glimpse of the weathered fishermen valiantly riding their steeds into the frothing waves, pulling scoops behind them in a bid to collect moss washed over the reefs by the storm.
Or better yet, seek shelter from the elements in the Seaweed Pie Café. That's where I'd be.
IF YOU GO
The PEI Shellfish Museum. Open late June to early September and located in Bideford, a short drive on Highway 133 from Highway 2, the Island's main east-west route. Admission is $3. Call (902) 831-3136. Potato Museum. From Bideford, return to Highway 2 and head west to Highway 142 which leads to the town of O'Leary. The museum is open daily from June 1 to Oct. 15. Admission $5. Call (902) 859-2039. Irish Moss Interpretive Centre. From O'Leary, head west to the coast and follow the scenic Highway 14 north until you reach the village of Miminegash. The museum is open daily June 4 to Sept. 23 and charges $1. Call (902) 882-4313. Food Festivals. O'Leary holds its annual Potato Blossom Festival from July 24 to 30, with a parade, industry events, a midway, fireworks and evening entertainment. Seafood-themed festivals abound around the island, starting in May with the province-wide Love-That-Lobster festival and continuing throughout the summer. Check out Summerside's Lobster Carnival, July 17 to 23, Tyne Valley's Oyster Festival, Aug. 4 to 6, and the PEI Shellfish Festival, Sept. 15 to 17, to name just a few. Kimberley Fehr is based in Toronto.