Okay, okay, so nothing will stump you guys. I don't know why I try. :) I was, of course, on Prince Edward Island, best known for being the smallest Canadian province and the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who published the enduringly popular Anne of Green Gables in 1908. In fact, Anne is a huge draw here - on some parts of the island it's impossible to take two steps without bumping into some Anne-themed establishment or memorabilia, or a Japanese tour group looking for the same. Nevertheless, as fascinating as Anne is, for the last few years the island has been pushing hard to break out of its literary pigeonhole and establish a new identity - a culinary one.
A couple of weeks ago I may have chuckled a little at that notion - what kind of culinary identity can an island of English, Scottish and Irish (okay, and a few French...) immigrants cultivate? Well, the island had more than a few surprises in store for me. In fact, I was flabbergasted - PEI is a gastronomic powerhouse, a province of passionate food-lovers, chefs and growers who have been celebrating their local bounty for far longer than has been en vogue elsewhere. As my wonderful guide, Pam, explained, "we've always been a poor island with most people making a living from fishing and farming. As a result we never really lost our farm-to-table tradition - we just didn't know it was something unusual until the rest of the world started trying to re-establish theirs."
From high-end to cheap-and-cheerful, I didn't have a bad meal in seven days. Here are ten things I don't think anyone who visits this verdant, friendly and oh-so-delicious island should miss.
1. Eat a Traditional Lobster Supper
For a taste of island life, there's nothing more fun or more authentic than a traditional lobster supper. Three places on PEI offer them nightly throughout the summer months, and each has their own local following. We went to the one in New Glasgow, which takes place in a raucous and bustling 500-seat hall. The way it works is this: at the door, you decide on the size of lobster you want (1-lb, 2-lb, 3-lb or 4(!)-lb), pay the corresponding price, get a ticket and sit down. Then you're served with not only the lobster you ordered, but all-you-can-eat seafood chowder, freshly steamed mussels, coleslaw and potato salad, bread and rolls, ice cream and 5 varieties of pie for dessert. The food is not exactly high-brow, but does that matter when you're up to your elbows in lobster juice? You can see a picture of my lobster at the top - I ordered a 1.5 pounder, but the waitress remarked when she brought it that it seemed closer to 2 lbs. In any case, it was an odd sensation to look down at a half-eaten lobster and think, "gee, I don't know if I can fit in any more lobster." Luckily I managed to, though it meant I had to restrict myself to only one kind of pie for dessert. I know, sacrifices, sacrifices.
2. Go Lobster Fishing
One of the more interesting initiatives to take root on PEI recently is to offer visitors the chance to experience traditional island activities. There are a number of outfits offering everything from oyster 'tonging' to clam digging to moonshine-making (!). Then there's the lobster fishing experience, which is kind of in a class by itself because it's not only fun, it's really hard work. We went out with Perry Gotell, a 3rd generation lobster fisherman who has only recently started letting visitors come along for the ride. It's no free ride, though - you have to be ready to go at 4am and be prepared to spend a good ten hours on the water, hauling up traps and plucking out live lobsters as they retaliate by doing everything in their power to snap off your fingers (they are vicious little buggers!). If it sounds like an adventure, it is; then, of course, there's the achingly fresh lobster you get to eat, cooked in a pan of seawater on the deck of the boat, which goes an even longer way towards making up for all the nearly-pinched-off fingers.
Aren't these old clapboard lighthouses beautiful? They're everywhere, many of them still in use.
3. Explore Victoria-by-the-sea
Victoria is a lovely seaside village just west of Charlottetown, comprised of a sleepy harbor and a few blocks of cheerfully-painted clapboard homes. There's not a heck of a lot to do here - that is, except eat. I highly recommend lunch, for example, at the Landmark Cafe, a quirky, cozy little place with a globe-trotting menu (owner Eugene Sauve and his family spend the off-season traveling all around the world, presumably getting inspiration for the café's daily offerings). For dessert, step across the street to Island Chocolates, a 100-year old Victorian house turned into a teahouse and chocolate studio. Brother-and-sister Eric and Emma (he's 32, she's 28) have been running the place since their father died two years ago, and make everything the shop sells, from luscious cakes to delicate European-style filled chocolates. And while you're here, ask to see Eric's photo album from Ecuador, where he spends the off-seasons working with a cacao cooperative, helping to train indigenous communities to produce their own high-end chocolate.
The ubiquitous lobster roll offers a slightly less-messy way of getting your daily lobster fix.
4. Drink some Moonshine
Lobster, oysters and moonshine are the PEI trinity, I was told. Apparently everyone used to have someone in the family that made illegal spirits (thanks to the fact that PEI had prohibition longer than anywhere else in Canada), and many probably still do. Nevertheless, just because it's moonshine doesn't mean it has to be illegal, as the two guys who founded the Myriad View Distillery realized one day; as long as the taxes are paid and basic safeguards are instituted (so no one goes blind, you know), moonshine should be just as legal as any other kind of distillate. Not only were they right, they hit upon a brilliant business model: people are fascinated by the subject of moonshine, and tourists and islanders alike flock here to taste (and buy) Myriad View's take on the local firewater. On the tamer end is their standard 'Strait Shine', which at 50% alcohol is enough to give your cheeks a ruddy glow; the hard-core, however, go for the 'Strait Lightning', which at 75% alcohol pretty much numbs everything from your lips to your stomach on contact. It was this stuff, according to owner Ken Mill, that one day prompted a happy customer to pay him the ultimate compliment by email: "Awesome product!! After being given a bottle of your PEI moonshine by a business associate of mine, I have to say it is good enough to be sold in a mason jar out of the trunk of a car in Eastern Tennessee. Keep up the good work!"
5. Go Swimming
In my neck of the woods, swimming in the sea is considered an extreme sport. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it's true that the waters around Puget Sound never really warm up, and only the hardiest of folk brave them for recreational purposes. Not so on PEI; the waters here are well-protected from the cold North Atlantic currents, and in many bays around the island they warm up to bathtub temperature by early August. Color me jealous! And naturally, many people basically spend their entire summers at the beach, and with so many beaches around, you can probably have one all to yourself. In other words, don't forget your swimsuit.
6. Eat Mussels at Flex Mussels
Everyone who visits Charlottetown must have one meal at Flex Mussels. It's an unwritten rule, apparently. Of course they serve things besides mussels, like for instance a pretty mean lobster roll, but let's face it, the reason to come here is for the 23 flavors of mussels. If you're feeling unadventurous you can go with the classic (white wine and garlic), but why would you when you can get Bombay (curry, cinnamon, star anise and cream), Spartan (kalamata olive, tomato, oregano and lemon), Maine (white chowder, bacon and lobster), South Pacific (kaffir lime, ginger, lemongrass and wine) or Mexican (chipotle, cilantro and lime)?
The 14-km-long Confederation Bridge links PEI with New Brunswick, on the mainland. Before it was built in 1997, the island could only be accessed by ferry.
Fried clams and chips, yum yum!
7. Browse Charlottetown Farmer's Market
If you want to get a feel for the tightly-knit island community, and see how seriously they take their local produce, come spend a Saturday morning at the the capital city's farmer's market. Locals start trickling in at about 8:30, stopping to have breakfast and catch up with neighbors in the attached café (the market is housed in a large purpose-built building, which gives it a very European covered-market feel), before perusing the stands overflowing with just-picked island vegetables and fruits. Of course there are also local cheeses, bread, jams, honey, and crafts to be found, as well as food stands cooking up everything from samosas to doughnuts to island-roasted espresso. A word of advice, though: get here early unless you like battling very large crowds!
8. Slurp an Ice Cream at Cows Creamery
Cow's Ice Cream is a PEI institution, and their multiple locations are thronging all summer long. Not only is their ice cream top-notch (and full of crunchy, crispy, nutty, gooey bits and pieces), their hilariously-named flavors will leave you chuckling with every bite: wowie cowie, gooey mooey, calfe latte, and Moo York cheesecake were some of my favorites.
9. Dine at Lot 30
If I had to put my finger on the best food of the entire trip, I'd say without hesitation it was dinner at Lot 30, a new restaurant in Charlottetown owned by a (handsome, tattooed, and did I say handsome?) young chef named Gordon Bailey (above left). This surprises me, actually, since the food here falls into a category I'm generally not that crazy about, namely high-end cuisine. So many times flavor seems to almost be an afterthought at this level, playing second fiddle to innovation and presentation; not so with Gordon Bailey's food - he belongs to a rare breed of chef that can skillfully balance all three. Looking back over my notes, I'm reminded again of how utterly delicious everything was (all the "yum!!!"s scribbled in the margins certainly help): the seared foie gras paired with a perfectly caramelized scallop and nugget of deeply savory braised beef (which our waiter recommended by telling us that it was the dish that prompted him to beg for a job at the restaurant), the butter-poached lobster tail with the two most perfectly roasted fingerling potatoes I've ever eaten, the meltingly tender apple-glazed pork belly, the molten oka (a Quebecois cheese) paired with curry-scented hazelnut crumble... When he came out to chat after the meal it was all I could do to not jump out of my seat and plant a kiss on his cheek in thanks (see above re:handsome), though it was probably a good thing I didn't since his wife (who manages the dining room) was standing nearby. Then again, with food like that coming out of the kitchen every night, I probably wouldn't have been the first...
10. Have a Piece of Seaweed Pie
In all honesty, this is more a gimmick than something you really must try. We heard a rumor about this delicious seaweed pie being served at a cafe in the tiny town of Miminegash (what a name, huh?), on the far western side of the island, a two-hour drive from Charlottetown. Imagining it would be some sort of savory quiche or spanakopita-type thing, we set off to have lunch there one afternoon, arriving famished at the very homely Seaweed Pie Café (which is, it seems, just about the only business in this tiny hamlet). To our shock, the seaweed pie was listed under desserts. Seaweed and sugar? Hmmm... Well, after eating some perfectly passable chowder for lunch, we gamely ordered a slice of the famous pie - only to have something resembling a chiffon cake covered in whipped cream and berry sauce brought out! It turns out that the seaweed collected locally is rich in carrageenan, a clear, tasteless substance which is extracted by boiling, and which is used as a thickening agent in all kinds of food and cosmetic products. The cafe uses it to thicken the whipped cream in their "seaweed pie", which really doesn't contain either seaweed or pie, but is still pretty tasty, if you like light, billowy desserts. It's a very clever marketing trick, however; as we were leaving an entire tour bus pulled up and several dozen people spilled out intent on eating the café's namesake pie. I imagine they wouldn't have been so eager to make the trip out to middle-of-nowhere Miminegash if the local specialty was called "chiffon torte topped with carrageenan-thickened cream".
And a bonus 11th: if you can, make a trip here for their biggest food festival of the year, Fall Flavors. For ten days in early autumn, the entire island is turned into a food extravaganza, with workshops, classes, demonstrations, dinners, contests and 'experiences' all centering around food. Just about all the island's chefs and producers get involved, and visitors can pick and choose 'a la carte' what kinds of activities they'd like to participate in. I can't imagine anything more fun - you can be sure that next time I head to PEI, it'll be for this. For all the info, see www.fallflavours.ca.
Anyone recognize this guy? Canadians? He's a charming fellow named Michael Smith, cookbook author, television personality and champion of PEI gastronomy. We shared a lovely dinner with him and his wife Rachel at the Inn at Bay Fortune, where he headed the kitchen for many years (and was launched to fame and, ahem, fortune). He's now deeply involved in all kinds of food initiatives around the island, including many (no doubt wildly entertaining) events at the Fall Flavors festival. p.s. That's the talented photographer Martin Thompson (who I was traveling with) taking his picture.