Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Artisanal pleasures

Take a weekend to explore the mini Provence sprouting up in Victoria's backyard

“And this is our Rumrunner cider,” Kristen Jordan says, setting a frosty glass before me, “aged in Newfoundland Screech barrels.” Really? One sip and luscious apple flavours surge around my mouth carrying — sure enough — hints of rummy toffee and brown sugar. As Kristen recites the pedigree of each local British Columbia charcuterie and artisanal cheese on my tasting plate, my eyes keep slipping back to the view from the Sea Cider ciderhouse, a stunning landscape of apple orchards sloping towards the ocean with the distant snowy volcanic pyramid of Mount Baker on the horizon. How come I’ve never been in this part of the world before?

Well, actually I have been on the Saanich Peninsula before. So has anyone who’s flown into Victoria’s international airport or grabbed a BC Ferries ride to the Swartz Bay terminal. They’ve whizzed through the peninsula on their way into the provincial capital 20 minutes away with no idea of what they were missing. I know I have been. For decades.

In early spring, I finally took the exit off Highway 17 to explore Victoria’s backyard, a rich swath of farmland so balmy from the surrounding waters of Georgia Strait that one fellow has taken to growing lemons and olives.

The peninsula is a patch of comfy, old, small-town BC countryside where the first signs of world-class rural foodie ingenuity and sensible development are just beginning to sprout. There are family-run wineries, ciderhouses, eateries offering gourmet cuisine made with local products and charming little communities.

From farm to charm

Over the past few decades the Saanich Peninsula has largely been bypassed by all things speedy and urbane, I discovered as I puttered through the rural backwater stopping in at roadside stands selling freshly plucked veggies, fruit, flowers and eggs still warm from beneath the feathers. I stocked up because I had a kitchen I intended to test-drive at the new Sidney Pier Hotel where I was staying. Besides, it was fun and nostalgic to toss my loonies and toonies into that rarely-seen bastion of trust, the honour box.

There were informal farmer’s markets and simple cafés like the Roost Farm Bakery (9100 East Saanich Road, North Saanich; tel: 250-655-0075; roostfarmcentre.com) whose owners grow and grind their own wheat and bake it into Russian rye, cheese-and-onion bread and the most amazing bumbleberry pie. In these parts, folks don’t need to get back to basics; they never left it.

Sidney-by-the-Sea, the Saanich Peninsula’s main community, is exactly what it sounds like, a quaint waterfront outpost with British overtones right down to its own town crier. Life is leisurely along Beacon Avenue, the main street, and there’s plenty of socializing at Dog’s Breath Antiques and the old world Roger’s Chocolates (2423 Beacon Avenue, Sidney; tel: 250-655-0305; rogerschocolates.com, a mecca of pink paper-wrapped Victoria creams.

There’s a no-frills bakery with luscious sticky cinnamon buns and a steady lunchtime crowd at Salty’s Fish and Chips (2359 Beacon Avenue, Sidney; tel: 250-655-0400). Best of all, Sidney boasts 11 independent bookstores each with its own theme, from kid’s books to nautical tomes, where I lost myself for hours.

Pier pressure

Beacon Avenue runs to the beach where the smell of fish and chips wafts from the Pier Bistro (2550 Beacon Avenue, Sidney; tel: 250-655-4995) at the end of the town pier; I picked up fresh halibut from the pier’s Fish Market.

A waterfront path is well used by cyclists and strollers, and kids beachcomb the pebbly shore. It’s like a trip back to my childhood when we vacationed at seaside spots like this in the 1960s and '70s except for the gleaming glass luxury waterfront complex, the Sidney Pier Hotel (9805 Seaport Place, Sidney; tel: 866-659-9445; sidneypier.com). Before this eco-friendly lodgings opened in 2007, locals were apprehensive about the development. The owners knew that and included in their plan an inviting and sunny Georgia Café & Deli alongside the lobby facing Beacon Avenue to welcome folks who might normally be put off by such a high-fallutin’ place. The café became so popular that tables overflowed into the adjoining lobby where a black Labrador, a lovable vegetarian failed seeing-eye dog named Dave rules the house and eagerly awaits petting and walks with guests.

Haro’s, the hotel restaurant, is the foodie’s creative antidote to fish and chips. Local is the theme, from Gulf Island mussels to Moonstruck cheeses from Saltspring Island and organic chicken from the Cowichan Valley.

A sea of flowers

With the waterfront right outside the door, there is sheltered kayaking, sailing, whale-watching and world-class scuba diving nearby. If you’re not into being on or under the water, you can do it virtually in an educational aquarium alongside the hotel. Step inside the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre (Sidney Pier Building, 9811 Seaport Place, Sidney; tel: 250-665-7511; oceandiscovery.ca) and “descend” to the ocean floor where you can reach out to touch critters — “hands on/hands wet learning” — that live in the real ocean outside.

Trained “Oceaneers,” aged 11 to 80, will help you learn as you tour the state-of-the-art complex that was sustainably designed with help from California’s Monterey Aquarium. It features 17 massive tanks holding psychedelic-coloured sea life from anemones to sea stars and jellyfish. Overhead, giant Pacific octopus and fierce-looking wolf eels lurk in caverns — the tropics have nothing on our lush, underwater gardens.

Just down the road from Sidney is one of the country’s most famous terrestrial gardens where, over a century ago, Jennie Butchart greened her husband’s limestone quarry into a magnificent 22-hectare floral display. Now a National Historic Site still run by Jennie’s descendents, Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Avenue, Victoria; tel: 250-652-4422; butchartgardens.com) also has a great collection for gardeners in their Seed Shop.

But it was their culinary treats that were the real surprise; their afternoon teas include blends made with their own garden flowers and the restaurant’s lunch and seasonal dinners — there are edible flowers in the salads — were accompanied by one of the most expansive Vancouver Island wine lists I’ve seen.

Ciderhouse rules

As I continued my circuit around the peninsula, I dropped into a couple of those wineries (there are six altogether). I lingered over nibbles on the dining patio alongside the vineyard at Muse Wines (11195 Chalet Road, Deep Cove; tel: 250-656-2552; musewinery.ca), entertained and informed by the dynamic duo of owners Peter (the winemaker with 30 years in California under his belt) and Jane (the muse) Ellmann. Muses’ organic wines run the gamut from Gewürztraminer to Maréchal Foch and my favourite was their Viognier.

Flat and scenic, the peninsula is perfect to tour on a bike. You can cycle straight off the ferry and hit the road on the Lochside Regional Trail, a former railway line that won’t stress your quads as you pedal past beaches, wetlands and down country lanes.

The Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse (2487 Mount St. Michael Road, Saanichton; tel: 250-544-4824; seacider.ca) opened in July 2007, and it’s a chic and cheerful place to stop for lunch on the deck overlooking the four-hectare organic farm where the Jordans grow over 50 varieties of heritage apples. Tour the ciderhouse where they’re morphed into luscious Belgian-, Québec-, British- and Normandy-style ciders, then sample the lot in a “full-flight” tasting.

Boutique Gin

Not far away, Victoria Gin (6170 Old West Saanich Road, Victoria; tel: 250-544-8217; victoriaspirits.com) is being produced by Bryan Murray and Peter Hunt of Barking Dog Vineyard ,and it is the first artisanal gin distillery in BC. It debuted at the colonial Bengal Lounge in the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, and then the squat bottle with the painting of a young Queen Victoria on the label was unveiled in Toronto on Victoria Day (of course) in 2009. It has won many awards, including gold at the Northwest Wine Summit among more than 1000 wines and spirits.

“We blend 10 locally grown organic botanicals including cinnamon, anise, angelica, orange peel and coriander,” says Bryan Murray on a tour of the distillery and its gleaming, handmade, wood-fired, copper-pot still. “The 11th ingredient is a secret.” A secret that has created something of a high-profile guessing game among connoisseurs. Whatever it is, it is part of a heady, aromatic melange whose rose petal aroma dominates the usual juniper flavour that rules most gins. It’s a drink “as full-bodied and complex as a fine single-malt whisky”. The vineyard also creates grappa and eau de vie — special fruit brandies and a famous Italian aperitif.

With a backseat full veggies, wines, fruit, warm bread and fixings for aperitifs — I headed back to my kitchen overlooking the sea to create a farm-to-table dinner from the bounty of this mini Provence in the making.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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