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.
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.