Fall Flavours

Taste & Travel - - Con­tents - by BY AN­DREA RA­TUSKI

AN­DREA RA­TUSKI dis­cov­ers the rus­tic ap­peal of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

PRINCE ED­WARD IS­LAND may be Canada’s small­est prov­ince, but it is as­ton­ish­ingly big on tastes. PEI hosts an an­nual fes­ti­val through the month of Septem­ber called Fall Flavours, cel­e­brat­ing the riches of land and sea. My hus­band and I ar­rive, set to de­vour the prov­ince, one potato and one lob­ster at a time.

THE FES­TI­VAL IS A CHANCE for lo­cals and vis­i­tors to ex­plore the boun­ti­ful pro­duce of PEI in a va­ri­ety of set­tings, both ca­sual and el­e­gant, in down­town Char­lot­te­town or far-flung coves and beaches. Sig­na­ture events, held reg­u­larly through the month, are hosted by celebrity chefs.

Chef Chuck Hughes en­ter­tains crowds at an oys­ter event on the pier at North­port, Al­ber­ton, with oys­ter shuck­ing demon­stra­tions, tast­ing sta­tions and live en­ter­tain­ment. Chef Mark McEwen hosts The Great Big BBQ at the PEI Brew­ing Com­pany in Char­lot­te­town, while Chef Lynn Craw­ford pre­sides over the Chefs Gala by the Sea at the con­clu­sion of the fes­ti­val.

We opt for an in­tro­duc­tory culi­nary walk­ing tour to get us in the mood, hosted by Ex­pe­ri­ence PEI.

Gord Harper is our fan­tas­tic and in­for­ma­tive guide. At McKin­non’s Lob­ster Pound down by the water­front he reaches into a tank and in­tro­duces us to a live fe­male lob­ster and ex­plains how to tell.

PEI is best known for its Malpèque oys­ters which are gath­ered in four cor­ners around the is­land, each lo­ca­tion in­flu­enc­ing the flavour: cit­rusy, briny, salty or sweet. We sam­ple a cit­rusy one from Colville Bay.

Our pic­turesque me­an­der through town takes us to a cou­ple of shops with prod­ucts of the is­land, like gouda cheeses and jams at In Good Taste, then to the his­toric Ga­han House, once a con­vent, then room­ing house, now a pub, to taste some beer that’s been brewed on site — hey, it’s al­most noon!

Then it’s just a few steps across the street to the Olde Dublin Pub where we are treated to PEI’s fa­mous blue mus­sels. About 80 per­cent of the mus­sels cul­ti­vated in Canada come from PEI,

…It doesn’t get more rus­tic than this…

Gord ex­plains. He sug­gests we use the pre­vi­ous shell as tweez­ers to pluck out the next, then in­structs us to pile the shells one in­side the other when we’re through, “so no­body knows how many you’ve eaten,” he says, smil­ing.

We make a plan to re­turn later in the day for $1 oys­ters at happy hour. We also make a note of the Mer­chant­man Pub where they serve a va­ri­ety of oys­ters. Our goal will be to sam­ple one of each to dis­cern the dif­fer­ences and choose a favourite.

Back down near the har­bour we check out Dave’s Lob­ster. Don’t let the ster­ile dé­cor de­ter you from try­ing his fa­mous lob­ster roll, which we savour out­doors at a pic­nic table, look­ing out to the har­bour.

At our last stop, just a few steps away, Gord in­tro­duces us to the dy­namic Caron Prins, the self-pro­claimed “Queen of the Fries.” Her Chip Shack is one of the most pop­u­lar in town, and no won­der — her fries are truly ex­cep­tional.

“I’m aim­ing for world dom­i­na­tion,” says this grand­daugh­ter of a potato farmer, laugh­ing. “And they’re made with love.” While Char­lot­te­town boasts a lively Satur­day farm­ers’ mar­ket a short drive north of the down­town, we are ex­cited about Farm Day in the City, the largest farm­ers’ mar­ket of the year. It seems every­one in town is here, stream­ing up and down Queen Street to sam­ple the wares.

The potato rules at this event. And if Prins is “Queen of the Fries,” then Alex Docherty is “King of the Potato.”

“I can’t even de­scribe how lucky we are to live here on PEI,” says this lo­cal farmer, proudly. The is­land pro­duces 37 va­ri­eties of com­mer­cial pota­toes, he ex­plains. It’s the cli­mate con­di­tions — cool nights and warm days, the sea air, plus that gor­geous red PEI soil — that make for the per­fect grow­ing con­di­tions for pota­toes, yield­ing 25 per­cent of Canada’s pro­duc­tion.

There’s a fris­son of ex­cite­ment as we catch sight of Chefs Anna and Michael Olsen perus­ing the stalls nearby. She’s headed up to Clin­ton Hills to host a mus­sel event on the hill.

We are drawn to the stall of Chef Ross Munro’s Red Door Oys­ter Co. (he also com­mands a counter at the Satur­day mar­ket) to sam­ple what we reckon to be our favourite lob­ster

roll, ooz­ing with fresh lob­ster meat, may­on­naise, diced red bell pep­per, le­mon zest and a hit of sam­bal oelek, all laced with gar­lic but­ter. I like that he varies the bread to in­clude a seeded eggy chal­lah bun.

With a han­ker­ing to get a feel for the fish­er­man’s life, we ven­ture up to Cardi­gan Bay, tak­ing the scenic route up the east coast for this event, also spon­sored by Ex­pe­ri­ence PEI. Af­ter wend­ing our way down some lumpy back­roads we meet up with six other par­tic­i­pants and Jim Cono­han who has been fish­ing for tuna, scal­lops, mack­erel and her­ring for 35 years.

He hands us each a neon pail, then leads us down a set of rick­ety steps to the wa­ter to do some beach­comb­ing. We step gin­gerly around slip­pery rocks and sea­weed, gath­er­ing oys­ters, large qua­hogs (a kind of clam) and mus­sels. Then Jim sum­mons us back up for our mus­sel les­son. He shows us the sock used in com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion, to which the tiny mus­sels at­tach, and where they con­tinue to grow for two years. Then our big job is to scrub our pile of mus­sels for din­ner.

Mean­while, Jim and his fam­ily boil up some lob­sters over por­ta­ble propane burn­ers. We all gather in a tent and mer­rily slurp, pry, poke and dip as the sun goes down.

Nearby, The Inn at Bay Fortune is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent af­fair, where Chef Michael Smith pre­sides over his re­cently ac­quired and newly ren­o­vated din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence called The Feast. While we have not ar­rived on the evening of his Fall Flavours blowout, ev­ery night at his Fire­Works Restau­rant is an event.

Af­ter a re­lax­ing af­ter­noon stroll through the vast herb gar­den, and a lit­tle tête-â-tête with the pigs, who them­selves have been feasting on buck­ets of cit­rus, we are ready for our multi-course ex­trav­a­ganza.

Duck breast tacos with pick­led pur­ple car­rot slaw are grilled and served in a makeshift kitchen on the lawn, which we en­joy while ad­mir­ing the vista be­fore us. Around the cor­ner, by the herb gar­den, lamb mer­guez sausages are roasted in an iron pan on an im­pro­vised fire pit, with a choice of three gar­den herb gar­nishes laid out on planks poised atop old lob­ster traps. It doesn’t get more rus­tic than this.

In­side we head to the kitchen where two young servers, in­clud­ing Michael Smith’s son, are shuck­ing oys­ters as fast as

guests can toss them back, gar­nish­ing them with a re­fresh­ing gaz­pa­cho granita.

At the ap­pointed time all guests gather in­side at two enor­mous ta­bles, ours set in front of the gi­gan­tic 25-foot wood-burn­ing fire­place where much of our feast will be cooked. The communal as­pect of the din­ner makes for a con­vivial af­fair, as we ooh and aah to­gether at the suc­ces­sion of plates and get to know each other as the evening pro­gresses.

A salad ap­pears on a long wooden boat that looks like a for­est scene, with leaves and petals plucked freshly from the woods and flower gar­den out­side. A ten­der slab of pork roast and crispy pork belly are perched atop melt­ingly ten­der roasted veg­eta­bles.

The whole ex­pe­ri­ence en­cap­su­lates the spirit of the is­land that we have so de­lighted in, a true cel­e­bra­tion of seafood pulled from the ocean, lo­cally raised meats, and veg­eta­bles sprout­ing glo­ri­ously from that gor­geous red soil.

PHO­TOS FAC­ING PAGE FROM TOP:

A moun­tain of squash at Farm Day in the City in down­town Char­lot­te­town; Red hues on the north coast, Green­wich Na­tional Park.

PHO­TOS THIS SPREAD FROM CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Some of the bounty at Farm Day in the City; St. Peter’s Bay United Church; Chef Ross Munro, build­ing his sig­na­ture sand­wiches at the Char­lot­te­town Farm­ers’ Mar­ket; A love af­fair with the potato at Farm Day in the City; Beach­comb­ing for clams at Cardi­gan Bay; Malpèque oys­ters, Olde Dublin Pub; One of the many out­door ap­pe­tizer of­fer­ings as part of The Feast, Inn at Bay Fortune; Carol Prinz, known as “Queen of the Fries.”

AN­DREA RA­TUSKI is a Cana­dian ra­dio pre­sen­ter and pro­ducer, par­tic­u­larly known as host of the na­tional pro­gramme North­ern Lights on CBC Ra­dio.

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