Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Pacific Pioneers

Vancouver Island's farmers reach new culinary heights by getting back to basics

There was a time when going west meant breaking new ground. On Vancouver Island -- about as far west as you can go in this country -- I discovered an eclectic group of pioneers who are doing just that. Fed up with the rat race, these farmers, foragers and vintners chose to settle here and reconnect with the land. I spent a deliciously invigorating few days cycling, hiking and kayaking, visiting these foodie entrepreneurs and sampling their wares.

Home base was the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and Marine Resort (1175 Beach Drive, Victoria, BC; tel: 800-668-7758; fun@oakbaybeachhotel.com), a half-timbered Tudor gem overlooking Haro Strait and Mount Baker. Oak Bay is the kind of small hotel where the desk staff quickly learns your name, where they serve hot chocolate by the fire in the evening, where they'll lend you a helmet and a bicycle so you can pedal into Oak Bay Village (known by the locals as the Tweed Curtain) for a bit of antiquing or a spot of tea.

Once referred to as a preferred destination for the "nearly dead or newly wed," Victoria has come a long way. Back in the '80s the sidewalks folded up on Saturday night. Elderly Brits in cardigans and tweeds would make afternoon tea and crumpets at the Empress Hotel their holiday highlight. Today, the streets are alive with trendy clubs, brew pubs and cafés and visitors are more inclined to paddle a kayak, pedal a bike or take a hike. Riding this active wave, the Oak Bay management specializes in offering its guests a variety of gastronomic and light adventure packages.

Protected by the rain shadow of Washington's Olympic Mountains, Victoria boasts 2100 hours of sunshine per year (as much as Toronto), plus exceptionally clear nighttime skies -- just what we needed for an evening of kayaking and stargazing under a crescent moon. Sitting down to dinner, our group met Sandra Barta of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and her colleague David Lee, our cosmic guides for the evening.

A clear night sky away from city lights offers the best opportunity to view the galaxy. And, while a full moon is romantic, its luminosity obscures the smaller planets and stars. For optimum viewing a crescent moon is ideal.

Under a pink-tinged sky we headed to the hotel's dock and took a launch through the waters of Haro Strait. From there, we paddled convoy-style with our expert guides through calm waters to a small island. Joel Bridle, the hotel's activity manager, had started a blazing fire on the beach and was dropping freshly caught Dungeness crab into a huge pot. We pulled our kayaks onto shore and huddled around the fire, feasting on the crab and some local wine while the astronomers set up large telescopes. It didn't look promising. Sirius was the only bright light in a sky that had suddenly clouded over. But, by the time the cookies were served, the cloud cover had vanished and the moonless sky was in full twinkle.

We took turns peering through the powerful telescopes as Barta focussed on Jupiter, pointing out its three moons, the Orion nebula, the constellations of Leo and Taurus, and the star (planet, actually) of the show: ringed Saturn.

The invitation for a hot toddy at the Snug pub enticed us back into our kayaks for a starlit paddle to the hotel.

Deadly or delectable
The next day began with a boat ride to the Discovery Islands for a morning of mushroom foraging with biologists Adolf and Oluna Ceska. Following their lead, we trekked through the old-growth Douglas fir forest spotting more along the way than any of us would have noticed without their trained eyes: onion grass, rattlesnake plantain, tiny orchids, Scotch broom and chocolate lilies. When someone in our group spied a Poison Pie mushroom, Oluna was delighted. Finding a Blewit in a stunning shade of mauve had her practically turning cartwheels. Mushroom foraging, as Oluna points out, is not for the uninformed: your harvest should be eaten only after expert identification. Of the 70,000 species of fungi, only 250 are considered edible; another 250 can be deadly. And you wouldn't want to miss dinner back at Oak Bay, where chef Allan Daly obviously has his own mycology connections.

We began our fungus feast that night with platters of earthy appetizers: Asian spring rolls of cèpes, chanterelles and duck, bundles of oyster mushrooms and snow crab and mixed mushroom bruschetta. Next came a salad of spring greens with a warm mushroom vinaigrette, then fresh asparagus soup crowned with cheddar cheese and sautéed chanterelles. The grand finale was a choice of lamb with mushroom ragout or halibut with morel and fennel cream sauce. All washed down with some excellent regional wines, paired to each course by a local vintner.

Wheeling and Wining
The following day, we headed for the Cowichan Valley with Joel Bridle. Cycling from farmhouse to vintner we picked up a moveable feast. Cowichan is an aboriginal word meaning land warmed by the sun, and this valley, about an hour north of Victoria, enjoys the warmest yearly average in Canada. The climate, coupled with rich clay soils, makes the region one of the finest wine producers on the Pacific Northwest. It's also a natural magnet for those with a yearning to get back to the land.

Our first stop was Cheese Pointe Farm (1282 Cherry Point Road, Cobble Hill, BC; tel: 250-715-0563; email: abbottschoice@cowichan.com). Like many other farmers in the Cowichan Valley, Hilary Abbott made a radical career switch (from fund-raising consultant) to pursue his fascination with artisanal cheese. Working out of a spotless basement he experiments with such specialties as Camembert aged in white wine, fresh curds, goat cheddar and soft goat cheese. You won't find his fromages in major supermarkets. He sells from his garage, to small grocers and to restaurants specializing in serving local produce, such as nearby Sooke Harbour House (1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, BC; tel: 250-642-3421; www.sookeharbourhouse.com).

Our next stop was Celi Farm, where Amanda Guette had just pulled sourdough baguettes from her outdoor oven. These she sells from one side of her garage along with freshly laid eggs and greens from her garden.

We puffed up and down hills, past shingled churches and fields of sheep and horses, over wooden bridges, along salmon streams, down a long winding lane to our lunch destination, the Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards (4911 Marshall Road, Duncan, BC; tel: 250-715-0504; www.gbvineyards.com), one of several in the region. Before they became wine-makers David Godfrey taught creative writing at Trinity College; his wife Ellen writes mystery novels. "Our philosophy is to let the wine decide how it will express itself. We also try not to torment the land with pesticides or insecticides," said Godfrey. Sitting on the sunny patio, bread still warm, Godfrey popped the corks on his Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and oak-aged Chardonnay. Then it was time to roll up our sleeves as we followed the Godfreys into the vineyards for a lesson in debudding the vines. Depending on the season, guests might prune or even stomp the grapes.

Five-star Farms
From the road it seems as if little is happening in this bucolic valley. You pass the odd roadside stand selling vegetables or flowers on the honour system -- take the produce and leave your money in a box - but get beyond the farm gates and there's an amazingly innovative culture of epicurean farmers.

Mara Jernigan is just the gal to take you behind the scenes. A professional chef who worked in Switzerland, Toronto and Vancouver, she and husband Alfons, have settled on Engeler Farm (4255 Trans Canada Highway, R.R.#1, Cobble Hill, BC; tel: 250-743-4267; www.engelerfarm.com) where they grow grapes, herbs and vegetables, raise pigs, chickens and ducks and offer farm tours and cooking classes. As Mara says, "you don't have to go to Europe to enjoy a culinary holiday." Her one-day farm cooking retreat starts with visits to local farms, markets and wineries, then it's back to Engeler to forage for seasonal greens and herbs. A typical lunch class might have you slurping spring tonic soup with wild nettles, whipping up an asparagus and goat cheese soufflé and finishing off with rhubarb buttermilk cake.

At Venturi-Schulze Vineyards (4235 Trans Canada Highway, R.R. #1 Cobble Hill, BC; tel: 250-743-5630; www.venturischulze.com), Giordano and Marilyn Venturi are purists who use no pesticides or herbicides in their wine making. They also produce fantastic balsamic vinegar in the traditional way, aging it in small barrels of acacia, ash, cherry, oak and chestnut, custom made in Modena, Italy.

Lyle and Fiona Young's Cowichan Bay Farm
(www.cowichanbayfarm.com) looks like an old-fashioned movie set. Amid the heirloom fruit trees and such rare breeds of livestock as Navajo-Churro sheep and Dexter cattle, the farm's original buildings still stand. An old barn is now an art and craft gallery, and the creamery with its antique bottles and crocks is used for cleaning eggs. Another niche market is pasture-raised poultry: chickens graze in pens that are wheeled to fresh grass pastures each day. The farm was established in 1910 by Lyle's great grandfather, Thomas Kingscote, an electrical engineer from England who, after introducing electricity to Buckingham Palace, decided to go west. On the wall of the old butchery is a sepia photograph of Mr. Kingscote toting a rifle with a cougar slung over his shoulder. Nice to know that after three generations the pioneering spirit is still alive and well on Canada's west coast.

 

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