Motivated by a lifetime obsession with food, locally grown and creatively prepared, and two articles about food goings-on along the eastern edges of Vancouver Island, we decided to escape from our own little farm for a few days, before the demands of the planting season are in full swing. Well provisioned and full spirited, we headed out in our 20 foot camper van, which is equipped for a spare, but cozy existence. Settling into our campground last Saturday evening on Vancouver Island’s upper Saanich Peninsula, our taste buds were whetted by the promise of sampling the products of local wineries, cideries, and restaurants for the next few days. With a trip focus more on food production, we planned to eat most meals in, even with the challenge of a 2-burner stove, dorm-sized refrigerator, microscopic prep space and random access to power and water. Dinner of faro, Portobello mushroom and beef stew accompanied by our own house made merlot sent us dreamily to bed in the quiet of BC forest.
After our traditional camping morning of sipping French press coffee in bed listening to the news, we headed for the peninsula’s highly regarded breakfast central…”The Roost” as it is called by locals who helped us find our way. The Roost Farm Bakery (http://www NULL.roostfarmcentre NULL.com/) is actually a farmhouse nursery and restaurant with its own wood fired oven, wandering chickens and extra tables in a converted bus parked next to the bakery. The place was already buzzing with locals when we arrived to take the very last table.
We weren’t disappointed to tuck into omelets fresh, hot and tasty, with the telltale orange color of eggs donated by the backyard flock. One was stuffed with winter vegetables and brie, and the other with chorizo and onions. Herby, savory fried red potatoes combined with thick slices of toast said to be made from Roost-grown wheat, and endless coffee kept us from being tempted by the array of mouthwatering pastries and cookies in the case as we paid our bill.
Satiated, we headed out back to grab a picture of the wood fired oven (to see how it compares to our own recently completed project). We stepped into the converted bus dining space and encountered a table of friendly locals. A long conversation ensued as we probed each other’s views on Canadian vs. US health care, politics and the local food scene.
Next stop… the Marley Farm Winery (http://www NULL.marleyfarm NULL.ca/) where we were treated to a tantalizing array of fruit wines–a genre that does not normally make it to our radar screen. Luckily we had eaten well at the Roost as the sampling was extensive and Danielle was a kindred food lover and skilled at describing what foods pair well with each of her wines, which were not typical sweet fruit wines, but made in the style of wine made from traditional grapes. We loved the Rastaberry, Quince, Elderflower and Kiwi Solera, so needless to say, our decision to not add stock to the wine cellar was abandoned….and it was only 11 in the morning.
Like we needed more food or tasting room experience at this point, we pushed on to the Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse (http://www NULL.seacider NULL.ca/) perched on an orchard covered hillside overlooking the Gulf Islands to the East. They provide a unique tasting experience for the various uniquely styled ciders by offering short or long flights of the cider with the optional accompaniment of cheese or charcuterie platters. Given our plight, we chose to share a flight and a charcuterie platter!
Sitting in the quiet of the tasting room overlooking the water, we sampled 7 different and yummy ciders in small sips as we paired them with the island cheeses, bison sausage, cold-smoked salmon, toasted hazelnuts and a wonderful fig preserve. Ideas for recipes and food-wine combos prevailed and we left with bottles of Cyser, Pippins and some fig preserve. Did we mention that we weren’t hungry?
By late afternoon we arrived at the newly certified Cittaslow (http://www NULL.slowmovement NULL.com/slow_cities NULL.php) town of Cowichan Bay (http://www NULL.slowcowichan NULL.com/), a small fishing town on the eastern shore. We were glad we came in the afternoon, since we quickly learned the food related businesses are closed on Monday and Tuesday this early in the season. Instead of two days, we now had about 2 hours to sample and explore. Our plan had been to learn as much as we could about the process of becoming a slow town and to experience as many of the food related aspects that contributed to the designation.
Picking up our previously languid pace, we made a quick stop in Hilary’s Artisan Cheeses (http://www NULL.hilarycheese NULL.com/), adding two local blues-one sheep, and one cow-to the next appetizer course in the camper. Next door, True Grain Bread (http://truegrain NULL.ca/) supplied us with country sourdough and ciabatta made from locally grown wheat.
Then it was back to the van with hopes that the farms that contributed to the certification might be visible or better yet, open…alas, not. A quick loop in and out of the entrance area of the noted Cowichan Bay Farm (http://www NULL.cowichanbayfarm NULL.com/index NULL.htm) allowed us to see a large operation with a small herd of sheep grazing with many spring lambs cavorting, but no sign of the chickens they apparently supply to many of Vancouver Island’s restaurants. A quick stop at a roadside Farm Store bustling with farming artifacts and locals preceded our checking in to the park for the night.
Departing from local food choices, we dined as though south of two borders. The day before our trip, Nancy found homemade tamales at a tiny market run by a Venezuelan immigrant on Roosevelt and 55th in the University District. His tender tamales and wonderful green sauce were paired with a chipotle cabbage slaw and one of Marley Farms fruit wines, followed by chocolate from Theo’s.
Merridale Ciderworks (http://www NULL.merridalecider NULL.com/) south of Cowichan Bay beckoned the next morning and, true to form, we responded. After a brief, but informative self tour of the orchards, picnic area and production facility-including a peek at their gleaming alembic still- we ventured into the tasting room.
Merridale’s approach to cider making focuses on preserving flavor by eliminating pasteurization. In addition to the ciders, they combine fruit based cider with fruit based distillates and so we were treated to new and different flavors. With resistance long since abandoned, we brought home Cyser, Scrumpy (dry cider) and the especially tasty Winter Apple with its brown sugar and baked apple overtones.
As if ciders and brandies were not enough, Merridale has created a local-food centric bistro adjacent to the tasting area that pairs cider with various courses. A nearby wood fired oven produces pizza, bread and apple pie guaranteed to overcome any remaining resistance.
A chance encounter with one of the owners, Janet Docherty, provided us with the opportunity to learn more about how she and her husband Rick came to Merridale and what their lives were like. Friendly and open, she talked about the complexities and the pressures, but also of the pleasure of sharing with an appreciative community as well as the steady stream of visitors. These moments are, for us, as important as the sights and tastes that are the primary focus of food adventures.
One last try at connecting with the people responsible for the slow town designation of Cowichan Bay led us down a long, unpaved road to Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guest House (http://www NULL.fairburnfarm NULL.bc NULL.ca/), whose proprietress Mara Jernigan is the head of Slow Food Canada. She was kind enough to rush through her bath to spend a few minutes in the morning sun filling in some details about the process and her vision for the area. On departing, we both acknowledged the need for more people like Mara whose interests and willingness to volunteer and share a compelling vision brings positive change to any community.
With each pleasurable sip from the cellar stock, we look forward to another visit to our northern neighbors. While disappointed to have access limited by the seasonal slow time, we found the experience to be relaxed and pleasantly low density, which turned out to be just what we needed. We can unquestionably recommend boarding a BC Ferry for a peaceful entrée to our northern neighbors’ welcoming and taste filled paradise.