Wild to the core

Van­cou­ver Is­land, off Canada’s west coast, is a lo­ca­vore’s par­adise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - CHRIS­TINE MCCABE

AT the Sooke Har­bour House bou­tique ho­tel on Canada’s Van­cou­ver Is­land, head chef Robin Jack­son spends his free hours fish­ing and for­ag­ing for wild for­est herbs and berries, sea rocket and sea as­para­gus.

He is a com­mit­ted lo­ca­vore, us­ing only is­land pro­duce for his daily chang­ing menu, so cit­rus is out and oil from the grand fir tree is in, as are wild chickweed, huck­le­ber­ries and trug-loads of mush­rooms: morels, chanterelles, enor­mous porci­nis and other cu­ri­ous fungi with quaint names like hedge­hog, lob­ster, ad­mi­ral and lit­tle foot. They grow so pro­lif­i­cally in the is­land’s damp forests, Jack­son can harvest nearly 14kg of pine mush­rooms in an hour.

From the water he plucks oys­ters and dun­geness crabs and sock­eye and chi­nook salmon. The rich belly meat of the lat­ter might then be rolled with wild rice in lo­cal sea­weed and fried tem­pura style, served with a maple re­duc­tion.

Lo­cated just off Canada’s west coast, 20 min­utes by air from Van­cou­ver, this vast is­land, span­ning more than 32,000sq km, is one mind-bog­gling, ap­petite­whet­ting food bas­ket. And de­spite the cosy English trap­pings of its cap­i­tal, Vic­to­ria, Van­cou­ver Is­land re­mains a wild place.

The day be­fore I ar­rive, 90 killer whales con­gre­gate in Sooke Har­bour and as we drive across the is­land, bears wan­der on to the road as non­cha­lantly as house cats.

In the sunny and tem­per­ate Cowichan Val­ley, which claims the long­est grow­ing sea­son in Canada, there’s wild- picked black­berry wine from the First Na­tion-owned Cherry Point cel­lar door and free- range eggs, home­made sausages and plump ducks dis­pensed from an old tim­ber-clad fridge in the self-serve shed shop at Cowichan Bay Farm, a place so charm­ing it might be a set from the movie Babe.

On the high street of the pretty Cowichan Bay vil­lage, North Amer­ica’s first Cit­taslow (slow city), The Ud­der Guys makes old­fash­ioned ice cream in 21st- cen­tury flavours: chai, zesty gin­ger, roasted co­conut and maple with wal­nut (and there’s a large stash of taffy — peanut and gluten-free, of course).

Nearby, at the rus­tic and thor­oughly hand-knit­ted True Grain Bread, the or­ganic Red Fife wheat is milled on site and the shelves are crammed with whole­some good­ies: car­rot spelt or or­ganic cran­berry and pecan spice cook­ies, old-fash­ioned ec­cles and ro­bust breads. The cof­fee is ex­cel­lent and you must try a de­li­cious Copen­hagen Swirl, made us­ing ground hazel­nuts and al­mond paste.

Pop into Hi­lary’s Cheese shop for a bowl of hearty soup (per­haps lentil with mush­rooms and Ital­ian sausage) while sit­ting by the log fire, be­fore stock­ing up on hand-crafted cheeses and home­made pick­les.

Back in gen­teel Vic­to­ria, broad­caster, bon vi­vant and founder of the town’s an­nual food and wine fes­ti­val Kathryn Mcaree leads food walks around the small city cen­tre, but you can just as eas­ily ex­plore on your own.

High­lights in­clude a beer tast­ing (matched with food or choco­lates) at Spin­nakers Gas­tro Brew­pub over­look­ing the in­ner har­bour and across to the jaunty fish­er­man’s wharf. Try the Sum­mer Ale with lo­cal oys­ters and pick­led as­para­gus or Cortez Is­land mus­sels with North­west Ale. The brew­ery sources salt, honey, even hops on the is­land.

Cock­tails at Clive’s, mean­while, is a mood­ily lit lounge lo­cated in the lobby of the Chateau Vic­to­ria ho­tel. Oak-aged gin and hemp vodka are made on the is­land and in the past three years Vic­to­ria’s cock­tail cul­ture has ex­ploded. Clive’s has one of the bet­ter lists I’ve seen any­where. All juices are freshly squeezed, gar­nishes house-made (no ra­dioac­tive cher­ries here, prom­ises the menu) and syrups and bit­ters made on-site. Try the Faux Pomme (Ply­mouth gin, Noilly Prat ver­mouth, Gif­fard Pear liqueur with a dash of Fee Broth­ers Peach Bit­ters and a splash of sparkling).

The Hi­lary’s Cheese city out- post (on Fort Street) is a charm­ing shop stock­ing hand­made cheeses us­ing goat and cow’s milk from its Cowichan Bay dairies. Try the Red Dawn washed rind us­ing black­berry port and the St Michel goat’s milk camem­bert.

The store also stocks home­made pick­led as­para­gus (a pop­u­lar condi­ment in these parts). Leave room for what are quite pos­si­bly the world’s best but­ter tarts ( an east­ern Cana­dian spe­cial­ity, says Mcaree) topped with can­died pe­cans and al­monds.

Choux Choux Char­cu­terie is a jewel box of a store, stuffed to the gun­nels with de­li­cious meats, house-made sausages, pates and ar­ti­san cheeses. Own­ers Luke Young and Paige Sy­monds source their free-range, her­itage-breed pork from Slop­ing Hill Farm and once a week a pig is brought from Qualicum Beach and butchered at the rear of their Fort Street shop.

‘‘We favour Berk­shire and the rare Oss­abaw, a very fat lit­tle pig de­scended from a breed re­leased by the Span­ish cen­turies ago on Oss­abaw Is­land off the US state of Ge­or­gia,’’ says Young.

The shop’s fridges and shelves are crammed with house-made small­go­ods in­clud­ing ba­con, duck con­fit, chicken and kale sausages, porcini mush­room pate and beef and fen­nel salami.

But it’s hard to beat the beer and brown sugar ham with house­made oat cakes. Choux Choux serves snacks and plat­ters, and makes pic­nic bas­kets to or­der (an ex­cel­lent lunch op­tion).

Vic­to­ria is home to an in­or­di­nate num­ber of tea shops. The stand­out is lovely Silk Road, lo­cated in the city’s pic­turesque Chi­na­town dis­trict.

A favourite down­town haunt for two decades, this heav­enly shop houses a tea bar stock­ing more than 100 or­ganic loose-leaf va­ri­eties blended by owner Daniela Cubelic, a tea mas­ter, and an in­dul­gent day spa. Tea work- shops are held at 2pm ev­ery Satur­day and Sun­day, but you can book a pri­vate tast­ing on­line.

We try Casablanca, a green tea with spearmint, based on a Moroc­can blend and poured from a great height to oxy­genate the brew, and Ori­en­tal Beauty Gold, the cham­pagne of teas, a whitetipped oo­long from Hs­inchu in Tai­wan, the flavour en­hanced by the saliva of crick­ets or leaf­hop­pers, which nib­ble on the leaves. We pair the Sum­mer Shangri La, a black tea with over­tones of peach, vanilla, cal­en­dula and laven­der, with a truf­fle in­fused with lap­sang sou­chong.

Af­ter a tea tast­ing you might like to book a man­darin man­i­cure or, on a hot day, grab a take-out Black Cey­lon tea slushie. And if you’re still peck­ish, lo­cals swear by the taco truck on the corner of Yates and Store streets.

Those with a sweet tooth will en­joy the old-fash­ioned Dutch Bak­ery on Fort Street, run by the Schad­delee fam­ily for four gen­er­a­tions. Pop in for straw­berry short­cake, pump­kin pie or the pop­u­lar dol­lar rolls, a se­ri­ously sweet con­fec­tion of sponge cake, vanilla but­ter cream and marzi­pan.

Is­land dwellers are of­ten lo­ca­vores by ne­ces­sity but on Van­cou­ver, res­i­dents rarely need to look be­yond their own for­est and wild-beach-cuffed shores.

Vic­to­ria boasts more restau­rants per capita than any city in North Amer­ica ex­cept San Fran­cisco, says Mcaree. And the range of or­ganic and wild har­vested pro­duce is with­out peer. Chris­tine Mccabe was a guest of the Cana­dian Tourism Com­mis­sion and V Australia.

CARO­LINE WEST/TOURISM VIC­TO­RIA

Vic­to­ria’s fourth an­nual Taste fes­ti­val of food and wine will take place in July

AN­DREA JOHN­SON/TOURISM BRI­TISH COLUMBIA

Or­ganic wheat is milled on site at True Grain Bread

TOM RYAN/TOURISM BRI­TISH COLUMBIA

Hi­lary’s Cheese shop is also known for its soups and pick­les

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