Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022

© Tourism PEI/John Sylvester

Experience PEI brings tourists right into the daily lives of the locals.

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PEI encounters

Discover the number one reason people come back to Prince Edward Island — the people

If Brian Lewis has an alter ego, it’s the mythical Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Ask him about his job and out pops that Cheshire Cat grin. “I have the very best job in the world,” he says. And there’s no question that he really means it.

What is his job? Brian has tonged for oysters in Salutation Cove off the coast of Prince Edward Island ever since he was a kid. He has no clock to punch, he is his own boss and he doesn’t have to stare at a computer all day. He is outdoors working in what he feels is one of the most beautiful places on God’s green Earth.

Needless to say, after spending part of a day with Brian in his dory as he good-humouredly expounds on the bivalves he has known and loved, you’re pretty much convinced he’s right.

My day with Brian Lewis was one of a number of outings in the storybook setting of PEI. I had booked activities through a relatively new program called “Experience PEI,” that lets visitors discover the ticking heart of the Island — its people.

It all started a couple of years ago when Bill Kendrick and his wife, Mary, found that visitors staying at their bed-and-breakfast, the Briarcliffe Inn, kept asking the same question over and over: What do people do here?

“We had been sending them to all the usual places on the island,” says Bill. “When they came back, we’d ask how their day was and they’d say ‘So what is there to do besides visit Green Gables?’”

Raw deal

Since it began, Experience PEI’s list of adventures has grown and ranges from making moonshine and chocolates to cutting an antique feather quill or being a driver for a day at the harness race track. You can sculpt sandcastles with an artist or dig for clams. Visitors have become part of the Piping Plover Patrol to save endangered birds, gone on GPS adventure quests, learned the mysteries of seaweed, pressed cider and learned how to tie fly-fishing flies with an expert. And that’s just for starters.

During my day with Brian, I learned that oysters are still harvested using a method that’s been around for hundreds of years: fishermen set out in small boats every day with their crates and tongs just as their forefathers did. Our outing began at the Future Seafoods packing plant where Brian is co-owner. We were taught how oysters are graded and packed for shipping, how to select oysters when buying them and what to order in a seafood restaurant.

It turns out oysters are magical little molluscs with a long culinary genealogy that goes back to the time of the cavemen. Can you imagine the first person who actually ate one? Examined clinically, the slimy grey oyster is not exactly a thing of visual beauty.

We learned that whether you gather them yourself or buy them at a seafood store, in order to be eaten safely, oysters must be alive before you cook or dress them. There are two sure ways to tell if an oyster is alive: either, the shell is tightly closed or, when you tap on an open shell with your fingers, it snaps shut.

Someone in the group asked about the maxim that says that oysters should only be eaten in months with the letter “R” in them. We learned that this dates back to a time when poor refrigeration made keeping oysters alive in the warmer months a risky proposition.

In fact, oysters can be eaten 12 months of the year. Though, you may notice that the flavour in the summer is different since the meat of the oyster tends to become thinner when water temperatures heat up.

Sex on the half shell

We also peeked into the extraordinarily fecund reproductive cycle of oysters. If you haven’t spent a lot of time pondering the sex life of bivalves, this is a highly educational component. They’re actually neither male nor female, but have gonads that generate eggs as well as sperm.

But the day’s most illuminating moment came during a demonstration about how easy it is to shuck oysters when you have the right tool. A proper shucking knife looks like a short stiletto and it is inserted in the hinge of the oyster until you hear a faint “pop.” After this, move the knife forward to cut the muscle and — voilà! the oyster is opened. Holding the oyster firmly in a towel and wearing gloves is a good idea to prevent cuts.

After shucking and downing them with gusto, we helped Lewis push his dory off the rocks and headed out into Salutation Cover (near Bedeque) for a little traditional tonging.

Tongs, by the way, are what you use to pull the oysters up from their beds on the bottom of the bay. They look like industrial-size wooden scissors with rakes where the blades should be.

We were fishing for Rocky Bay Oysters, which show up in some of North America’s best eateries. Just under a billion kilograms of oysters are eaten every year. It’s hard to believe that this multi-million dollar industry was almost wiped out: the world-famous Malpeque oysters (who take their name from the town in PEI) were almost completely destroyed by a disease that struck in 1915.

Brian plunged the tongs into shallow water, wiggled them around a bit and when he extracted the tongs they were spilling over with oysters. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, but we improved with each attempt and soon had a good supply of freshly plucked oysters that we shucked and downed with a little lemon. They were unquestionably the most delicate oysters I’d ever eaten.

Cocoa and claws

When you think of chocolate, Prince Edward Island may not be the first name that springs to your lips, but Eric and Emma Gilbert of Island Chocolates are as passionate about the way they make their living as Brian Lewis is about his.

Island Chocolates’ simple green-and-white shop front in Victoria-by-the-Sea gives no clue as to the paradise that awaits inside — a heady factory where all the usual chocolate favourites are made by a team of chocolatiers.

The aroma of warm chocolate beckoned us into a large room where we were given aprons, hats and gloves before going on tour to various stations where we would be creating our own menagerie of chocolate animals, dipped goodies and nougat wrapped in chocolate.

One of the staff gave us a demo on how to scoop what we needed out of the huge warm vats of dark and milk chocolate and how to fill the moulds of our choice (mine was a teddy bear).

Before you could say “Willy Wonka,” we had chocolate all over our aprons, all over our noses and my teddy bear had bubbles on its belly. Instead of crafting perfectly seductive little morsels as Juliette Binoche did in Chocolat, we were Ethel and Lucy consuming our mistakes on the conveyor belt.

Until the last part of my adventure, I thought all I needed to know about lobsters was how to prepare a perfect Newburg sauce. But since our trip took place over Canada Day and PEI is where Canada was born, we decided to add a little patriotism to our next “meet the Islanders” experience.

This was a voyage aboard the Top Notch, a 45-foot fishing boat. Our mission was to learn how to haul up the traps, band the lobsters and then throw them into a pot.

Between taking turns hauling up the traps, posing with the lobsters and putting on our bibs for dinner, we discovered how modern fishers find their traps in the harbour (GPS) and how they can check out the bottom of the harbour (sonar).

We heard about the olden days when lobster was once considered a trash species; not so today, when strict conservation practices are used to protect this important fishery.

The evening ended as we tucked into the freshest lobster dinner imaginable, while Canada Day fireworks exploded high above our boat.

Storybook scenery

Bill Kendrick tells the story about a young couple from Holland, Eliane and Sjoerd, who had come to Prince Edward Island looking for great scenery — and a place for Sjoerd to “pop the question.” Like everyone else, they wanted some suggestions on what there was to do.

“What about going to places from Anne of Green Gables,” suggested Bill looking for something they would be familiar with. But what the couple had in mind was different — they wanted to meet “real” locals and find out why everyone raved about PEI.

Experience PEI seemed to be just the ticket — they could spend a day or so living “just like Islanders.” The couple were delighted with two of the adventures Bill suggested — oyster tonging and hauling lobster traps and it was during the latter Eliane got her ring. She would always remember PEI.

PEI’s paradox is that Islanders like Brian Lewis (whose roots are real, broad and deep) seem like real people animating a storybook place, where fiction and reality become blurred. The landscape is daubed in dream-like colour: a sky and sea the colour of Paul Newman’s eyes, the startling red potato fields and beaches, and those vast meadows of pastel lupines. Irish green countryside is punctuated by brightly coloured frame cottages and white churches while old barns and fishing piers sit as if waiting for the next watercolourist to come by.

People gather for folksy women’s social suppers and ceilidhs where foot-stompin’ fiddlers cheer as auslanders get inducted as “Honorary Spud Islanders.” If it weren’t all so gosh darn real you might suspect some Disney Imagineer designed it all as a vast hobby farm amusement park.

As a British Columbian, I always brag that we cornered the Canadian “beauty market.” So, like most visitors, I was not prepared for the way this “perfect island” tugs on your heartstrings. There are no majestic mountains or vast forests in PEI — instead there’s a kind of yearning for a past regretfully long gone. As L. P. Hartley said in The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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