This weekend, intrepid food lovers from all over the Pacific Northwest are descending on Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley, just north of Victoria, for a three-day celebration of local cuisine.
These are the salad days of the Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival. Comparisons made by foodies flow like the famed Venturi-Schulze balsamic vinegar that is distilled here: Cowichan is the "new Napa," "Canada's Provence." But when I travelled there this summer, it was still virgin territory - or should that be terroir - to me. For four days, I grazed among the cheese- and cider-makers, growers and bakers who are transforming this region into one of North America's top culinary travel destinations.
I started off in Victoria, where I spent an afternoon with Paul Hadfield, publican of Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub and one of Cowichan's biggest boosters. Spinnakers features a gourmet shop that sells its own chocolate truffles and artisan breads, along with island cheeses, wines and preserves. It brews malt vinegar from its own Jameson's Scottish Ale, and bottles mineral water drawn from an aquifer on the property. And while the beers are as interesting as ever - with seasonal brews like Pumpkin Porter on tap - it's the menu that captured my attention. Spinnakers takes the "from-field-to-table" philosophy literally, seeking out as much local, natural and sustainably grown food as possible. Ingredients for dishes such as Cortes Island honey mussels, Saltspring Island saganaki and artisanal cheese plates are all from regional producers. In similar fashion, the West Coast paella combines wild Pacific salmon, Tofino scallops, Galloping Goose chorizo sausage and local clams with vegetables grown on the Saanich Peninsula.
Many of his prized ingredients come from Cowichan, where there's still plenty of room for growth. "The burnt-out Toronto sous-chef can still afford to move here, buy five acres of Cowichan scrub and start producing," he says, as if issuing a challenge. "And if they create something interesting, we'll figure out what to do with it."
Ready to make my own discoveries, I set out on my second day with fellow foodie Kathy McAree, while my husband and kids trailed along in a rental car. McAree founded her tour company, Travel With Taste, after having an epiphany while on a cooking holiday in Italy. "There I was, enjoying incredible field-to-table cooking in Europe, when I had the same rich and diverse food experience right in my own backyard," she explains. Now, she's an ambassador for the region, taking food enthusiasts on gastro-tours down Cowichan's back roads.
Dubbed the "Napa of the north" by its legions of fans, its real name is far more evocative. Cowichan means "the warm land" in the Coast Salish language. With Canada's highest average temperatures, an ideal amount of rain and rich glacial soil, almost anything can, and does, grow here. Highland cattle, herbs, hazelnuts, grapes, balsamic vinegar, blueberries, Welsh sheep, emus, alpaca and asparagus are just a tiny sampling of what make this a haven for chefs and food lovers.
The husband-and-wife team behind Hilary's Cheese is an ideal example of what can happen when city folk go back to the land. Hilary and Patti Abbott gave up careers in banking and private education to produce camembert, brie, brush-rind tommes (a French Alpine cheese), and cheddar curd.
Visitors can tour their small farm-based operation and get a peek at how the cheese is made, and then visit the picturesque village of Cowichan Bay, where the Abbotts have set up a retail cheese outlet in Jonathan Knight's shop, True Grain Breads. The bakery turns out organic loaves made from rare heritage Red Fife wheat, along with specialty breads featuring ancient grains, local hazelnuts and apples.
Just up the road, the vineyards of Cherry Point Winery spread across hills that rise gently from the sea. The gravelly soil of a glacial moraine produces more than a dozen varietals, including the island favourite, ortega, which winemaker Simon Spencer calls his "safety grape," because of its reliability. Next up was Cowichan Bay Farms, where Lyle Young revitalized his grandparents' farm with pasture-raised ducks and chickens that have become a staple on island menus. Along with the ducks and chickens, Young raises rare breeds of animals: Irish Dexter cattle, San Clemente goats and Navajo Churro sheep, whose rams can have up to five horns.
When we move on to Merridale Estate Cidery, Melonie Corrigan greets us in the orchardwith a bite of a cider apple, right off the tree. As our faces tighten into puckers, she says with a grin, "There's a reason they call them 'spitters.' "
After touring the cider house, we follow Corrigan into La Pommeraie, the cidery's bistro. She recommends we try a flight of six ciders paired with a plate of charcuterie that could be called Cowichan-on-a-platter. We sampled duck-liver terrine, venison salami, Lyle Young's sausages, local cheeses and pickles, and felt the entire day being drawn together neatly in the array of tastes and textures in front of us.
As dusk fell, we arrived at Fairburn Farm, an organic farm, cooking school and guest house run by chef and slow-food activist Mara Jernigan. She got her start in Toronto, working with the likes of Michael Stadtlander and Greg Couillard. Eventually she felt the pull of island life, and moved her young family to B.C.
Two years ago, when Darrel and Anthea Archer approached her to run the B & B at their historic Cowichan property, she jumped at the chance. While Jernigan tends to the guests, the Archers are busy raising North America's first herd of river buffalo. Soon they hope to be producing authentic mozzarella di bufala cheese, with help from cheese-maker Hilary Abbott.
In her 10 years on Vancouver Island, Jernigan has covered a lot of culinary ground - founding the annual celebration of local food called Feast of Fields, consulting on new farming projects and representing Canada in the slow-food movement. Her latest passion is finding examples of indigenous Canadian foods to submit to slow food's Ark of Taste project. The project's lofty ambition is to rediscover, catalogue and protect all the forgotten foods of the world. During our stay at the farm, Jernigan worked her magic on seasonal ingredients plucked right outside her kitchen window. One night, we had zucchini fritters stuffed with Hilary's goat cheese and set in a pool of vincotto - a grape-juice reduction. Then came a trio of local seafood: halibut covered in a mixture of sesame seeds, borage leaves and sea salt, salmon candy and hot-smoked salmon. After that, Cowichan Bay Farm duck served on rhubarb compote with a warm beet-and-potato salad served as a nod to a year spent living in Austria. Dessert was an elderflower zabaglione with fresh strawberries picked that afternoon.
Our two children were transformed by the experience, watching as Jernigan pulled radishes and onions from her potager and daring to sample dishes they would shy away from back home. On our last morning, they walked down to the henhouse with her and returned clutching still-warm eggs in their fists. Moments later, Jernigan whipped them into a frittata that, to our astonishment, they ate.
We didn't get a chance to go foraging for the island's 60-odd varieties of wild mushrooms, but we'll be back soon. Along with the rubber-booted sous-chefs scouting land, we, too, are contemplating a slower, tastier lifestyle in the valley.
Special to The Globe and Mail