Wild to the core
Vancouver Island, off Canada’s west coast, is a locavore’s paradise
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.
Victoria’s fourth annual Taste festival of food and wine will take place in July
Organic wheat is milled on site at True Grain Bread
Hilary’s Cheese shop is also known for its soups and pickles