Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017
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Canada’s Provence?

Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley causes a quiet stir with Slow Food by the sea

My interest in the Comox Valley began when a sentence in the newspaper caught my eye. “International judges have voted a Camembert cheese made in the Comox Valley as one of the best in

the world.” A Camembert from Vancouver Island outranking France? What was going on here?

As I delved further, I found that cheese wasn’t the only thing for which this valley was being lauded. There was wine, berries, apples, chocolate and Fanny Bay Oysters (Buckley Bay ferry landing; tel: 250-335-0125; www.fannybayoysters.com), which are shipped around the world. Comox was becoming the flavour of the day.

Since my husband and I were weary of city life, we had plotted a three-day trip into the Comox Valley to check into resettling there. We booked into the Port Augusta Motel and started poring over real estate flyers during dinner at their restaurant.

This was no average motel dining room. As course followed course, the food just kept getting better. The pièce de résistance was a flourless chocolate cake that my husband pronounced the best he had ever tasted. And that was our introduction to an area overflowing with great eateries.

The Comox Valley consists of three towns — Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland — all sitting cheek by jowl in an alluvial valley on Vancouver Island’s east coast, between Nanaimo and Campbell River.

Farming in the area began its Cinderella story in the 1990s, when food quality entered public consciousness. The organic and Slow Food movements took off and, more recently, the 100-mile diet (eating foods produced locally) has been championed. Farmers took a step back in time to rediscover what their forefathers did before pesticides and fertilizers.

The Cowichan Valley around Duncan was the first area on Vancouver Island to grab tourist attention as a gourmet destination — it seemed logical that Comox’s destiny also lay in food and wine. But this valley took a slightly different approach.


A Growing Economy

With so much land in the province being gobbled up by development, the Comox Valley (tel: 888-357-4471; www.discovercomoxvalley.com) decided to protect farming by encouraging agri-investment. In other BC farming areas such as the Fraser Valley, as much as 96 percent of arable land was already in heavy use; in the Comox Valley, where 17,800 hectares had been identified as potential farm land, only one-third was in agriculture.

John Watson, executive director of the Comox Valley Economical Development Society, has been the dynamo behind the two-prong program started in 2005 to support local farmers and bring in outside agribusiness. “We identified agriculture as the number one development asset in our community. The land costs are far less per acre, we have a good climate and higher number of sunlight hours.” And then there’s the soil.

Soil is classified on a scale of one to seven (with one being the best). “The majority of useable land in the Valley is between one and three and the geography between mountains and ocean sets up many microclimates,” explained regional agronomist Jill Hatfield. The catch-phrase “the new Provence” cropped up because the Valley launched the same kind of rapid growth seen in France — high-quality locally grown vegetables, cheeses, grass-fed meats and wines that boosted local restaurants and markets.


No Bull Here

After juddering down a muddy road full of pot holes we met Delton Henrich of Island Bison (Island Bison Ranch, Black Creek; tel: 250-923-2108; www.islandbison.com), a kind of poster boy for the Valley’s new think in food — he was born in Comox and was in dairy farming for 17 years before he switched to buffalo.

“People figured I was nuts,” he chuckled. “They said: these are prairie animals and raising them on a commercial scale had never been done on Vancouver Island.”

Henrich however did his homework and knew that grass-fed bison produced leaner meat (half the fat and calories of beef, lower in cholesterol) with three times the iron of chicken and twice the iron of beef. It was also richer in conjugated linoleic acid, an antioxidant and potential cancer fighter. Since they graze, the meat has no antibiotics, growth hormones or steroids.

Island Bison sell mainly from their shop and the local farmer’s market rather than in stores, so Del can pass on cooking tips. For example, bison meat should be cooked slowly at low temperatures to bring out the flavour and prevent toughness.


That Takes the Cheese

Edgar Smith and his two brothers were third-generation dairy farmers until their local cooperative was taken over by an out-of-province company. Like the old cliché about making lemonade when you’re dealt lemons, Smith and his family decided to find some other way of using their high-quality artisanal milk. Why not make cheese, they thought.

Their first job when they launched Natural Pastures (635 McPhee Avenue, Courtenay; tel: 250-334-4422; www.naturalpastures.com) was to find a cheesemaker. Enter Paul Sutter from Sonnetal, Switzerland, who came to Canada in 1995 armed with a Master Cheese Maker designation. After creating new products using sheep’s milk, starting his own company and working as a consultant, Sutter contacted the Smiths, just as they were about to contact him.

A soft-spoken Sutter dressed in his cheese-making “whites” whisked me through the various stages of cheese creation in rooms that were heady with the aroma of fermenting milk and maturing cheese. Natural Pastures, in addition to making cheese from “pure, pasture-perfect milk supplies” (no antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides or growth hormones) produces cheeses with highly creative and original flavours.

Sutter pointed out their unique Wasabi Verdelait, a semi-firm cheese flavoured with ginger, garlic and locally grown organic wasabi. The Verdelait is a blend of cheddar, Dutch Gouda and Swiss raclette that Natural Pastures combines with cracked pepper, cumin, garlic and chives.

I asked Sutter if the story about having the world’s best camembert was true and he smiled. “Well, it’s one of the best. But our Cumin Verdelait just stopped a judge in his tracks. The judge kept tasting it again and again, pronouncing the cheese absolutely outstanding.” During its short history, the company has won many prizes at Canadian and international competitions, including this year’s world championship in Wisconsin for their mozzarella di bufala — a fresh mozzarella made from locally produced water-buffalo milk.


Vine Land

There are now three wineries in the Valley (plus a meadery and distillery) but the newest and the first to be licensed in this region is the brain-child of Jeff and Susan Vandermolen who returned home to the Comox Valley toting a dream.

Standing in their vineyard, you can understand why they came back. Their 3.25-hectare spread tumbles down a south-facing slope with the snow-covered Beaufort Range as a backdrop. It is planted with vines that were chosen especially for the area’s cooler climate, grapes like Marechal Foch that ripen early in this climate.

Susan, the winemaker, is a chemical engineer; Jeff has a business and marketing degree and has specialized in starting companies from scratch. After picking grapes in France and making their own wine for more than 20 years, it wasn’t hard to talk themselves into a winery.

Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery (5854 Pickering Road, Courtenay; tel: 250-338-1357; www.beaufortwines.ca) opened to the public May 30 this year with regularly scheduled tours, a tasting room, retail shop and a picnic area. Their first 10,000 litres were made from grapes bought from another grower, but they’ll try a sampling of their estate-grown grapes this season.


Forbidden Fruit

For the last 20 years, Vlasta Ulovec and Rob McNabb’s Apple Land Orchards (Denman Island; tel: 250-335-0296) on Denman Island have been producing organic heritage apples on semi-dwarf trees that are free of all the nasty pesticides that coat shiny supermarket apples. Ever heard of a Cox Orange Pippin? A Mutsu? A Belle de Boskoop?

Ulovec and McNabb found their orchard through an advertisement in Harrowsmith Country Life magazine. The orchard was planted in selected varieties that would grow well in the soil. Ulovec described how they initially took their “scabby apples” to an organic stand on Granville Island in Vancouver where, to their surprise, people snapped them up.

Over the years, they’ve refined their methods and learned how to control canker, scab and coddling moth using organic means. Most important they’ve learned to run the orchard profitably so they can keep their apples affordable by using such programs as WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). They also have “work parties” that come to rake the orchard. Their latest additions are dried apples, apple chips and a delicious juice blended from a combination of heritage apples — it sells like hotcakes.


Dark as Sin

Daniel Terry’s Denman Island Chocolate (1840 Northwest Road, Denman Island; www.denmanislandchocolate.com) is the largest organic chocolate producer in Canada with the simplest inventory — he mainly makes chocolate bars and seasonal items like Easter bunnies.

The fragrance of chocolate wafts through his simple country factory with nine employees. All the work is done by hand from mixing and shaping to wrapping the hazelnut, espresso and dried raspberry bars.

“My late wife Ruth loved chocolate,” Terry explained, “and we just fell into it.” They moved to Denman Island 14 years ago and taught themselves chocolate making in their home kitchen. Ruth had been making food for parties when someone asked her to try truffles for a Christmas event. Her truffles were such a hit, said Terry, that “people were swooning in the aisles.”

From there, they searched for a supplier of dark organic Belgian chocolate and then started experimenting by upping the cocoa percentage and adding unusual flavours like rosemary.

The common thread that runs through these and the other “agribusinesses” I encountered is a commitment to quality of life — good food produced in a beautiful valley far removed from big-city life.

For three seasons of the year, people get to buy organic fruits, veggies, meats and baking twice a week at the downtown farmers’ market (three locations; tel: 250-218-0321; www.comoxvalleyfarmersmarket.com). And at 5pm they go down to the docks and buy fish right off the boats.

New businesses pop up like mushrooms — there’s a new meadery on Hornby Island, a spanking new single-malt whisky distillery that uses locally grown barley, new berry farms and lots of people moving with exciting ideas in tow.

Like us. We did find our dream home and we’re moving there this summer. If you’re in the area, stop by for some muffins with home-grown blueberries.

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

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