Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Going Coastal

It was in Vancouver, British Columbia, that the 100-Mile Diet concept originated, and if you look at all the great food available in that area--from their fisheries, bakeries, fromageries, wineries, cideries, charcuteries, etc.--you might come to think that 100-Mile regime refers to the girth you'll achieve if you partake too freely of the area's abundance.

But of course the title actually refers to a table graced solely with local products, those found within 100 miles of wherever your gastronomic epicenter may lie. (And as a matter of accuracy, shouldn't that be the 160-Kilometer Diet, 'cause they're like in Canada, eh?)

However you measure your dining circle's radius, if you center it in B.C. you're going to capture some very good eating, year 'round. We always head straight for the sea, land-locked as we are for most of the year. We can find live Dungeness crabs in Minnesota fish markets, and they're always a treat, but there's nothing like getting them straight from the waters where they live.

That's what you're able to do in Tofino, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where we spent three nights during our recent visit. You buy the crabs from the folks who fished them, bring a big pot of water to the boil, and plunge the crabs in. Fifteen minutes later you dig in to an exquisitely messy repast. Melted butter is de rigeur. A salad and a piece of bread lend a sham civility to the barbarous proceedings, as does a glass or two of excellent B.C. wine. We like the local whites--pinot blanc, pinot gris, and gewurtztraminer all do well here.

Back on the mainland, from our base in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, we always make a pilgrimage into the city to visit the marvelous Granville Island Public Market. Now, here in the Twin Cities we have come a long way in the last twenty years or so in terms of our culinary savvy and sophistication, and we have many, many wonderful local products of which we can be justly proud. But when a Minnesota traveler encounters a place like Granville Island, he is forced to conclude: "Man, we are still in the bush leagues...".

I'm not sure where to begin. Maybe with the seafood, since we're talking about going coastal: fabulously fresh local halibut, salmon, tuna, sablefish and rockfish, wonderful spot prawns (as good as langoustines, much cheaper), unbelievably sweet and nutty Qualicum Bay scallops, a dozen or more varieties of local oysters, along with mussels, clams, and crabs.

The prawns, scallops, clams and oysters in this pretty picture all came from local waters:
The market also offers great cheese and charcuterie, bakery goods and fresh meats, chocolates, olives, wild mushrooms, fruits and vegetables, wine, prepared foods to eat in or take out. It's more than a little overwhelming for the gastro-tourist with eyes too big for his stomach and too few meals to shop for before he must leave this Lotus-Land.

And it's not just the big markets like Granville Island that make this area such an eater's Mecca. Vancouver has wonderful farmers' markets in season, and the province's interior, from the beautiful, fertile Fraser River valley on eastward into the semi-arid Okanagan wine region around Penticton, sets an intrepid foodie on an extremely rewarding scavenger hunt from winery to cheese maker to nut orchard to berry farm. The province has realized the worth of gastro- and agri-tourism, and a wealth of brochures and helpful signage make the treasures easy to find.

We just had a partial day to explore a bit of the Fraser Valley east and north of Abbotsford on our last day there. A Circle Farm Tour brochure for the Agassiz and Harrison Mills area led us to The Farm House Natural Cheeses and Limbert Mountain Farm Simply Fine Foods. At The Farm House we were able to sample around a dozen of their farmstead goat- and cow-milk cheeses, which was really unfair, as that made it fiendishly difficult to choose. The young and aged goat cheeses both were superb, as was an alpine-style cow-milk cheese. The Welsh-inspired Caerphilly was delicious in both goat and cow versions. We wound up with a young crottin of chevre, a slice of the cow Caerphilly, and a wedge of a lovely, creamy cow-milk blue, the Castle Blue.

Though it was a bit of a damp and drizzly day we were planning on a picnic, and the young woman who helped us at The Farm House said they had picnic tables at Limbert Mountain Farm. It turned out they hadn't put the picnic area together for the season yet, but we enjoyed a lively conversation at Limbert Mountain Farm with Trudie Bouchard. You know how it is when people with a mutual, fervid interest in local foods get talking....

At Limbert Farm they grow herbs, garlic, salad greens, tomatoes, and more, and they gather the nuts from several magnificent old chestnut trees on the property. They infuse chocolate with herbs they grow, and use their garlic to produce a sauce they call "Barn Burner Garlic Nectar." They recently started bottling their own sauerkraut, and Trudie described with great glee the joy of bashing the living daylights out of shredded cabbage in a big old crock, to get the juices flowing and start the fermentation.

When you bond over fermented cabbage, you know you've met a fellow traveler. Slow Food tours stop at Limbert Mountain, and they offer a class on wild herbs and vegetables. Another course description, on reclaiming the backyard for edible plants, reads:

"We have been growing herbs, fruit, veggies and nuts organically for 30 years and we recognize a renewed interest in people wanting to connect with food that is seasonally available, fresher & more delicious and nutritious."

They're fortunate in B.C. to have a climate that allows them to eat from the garden year-'round. From what Trudie called their "hoop house," they are able to harvest fresh vegetables in every season.
And in pretty spectacular surroundings, as you can see. When you can pull fresh produce from the ground in mid-winter in a setting like this, it surely takes the bitter edge off of eating locally and seasonally....

It was a marvelous trip, and I haven't even mentioned the cider apple orchard we visited, the brick-oven baker we tried to track down in Tofino, the great fish tacos at Go Fish in Vancouver, the spectacular dinner of exquisitely prepared local foods at the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, the delightful Middle Beach Lodge where we cooked and ate those crabs while looking out our cabin window at the almighty Pacific Ocean.

And of course, it wasn't all about the food (though, to be honest, we did spend quite a lot of time considering that topic!). I always want to consider the food in context--of where and whom it comes from, of how it's produced and of what that means in the myriad ways that food affects our lives in terms of health, our environment, our economy, and the just plain joy it brings to our lives.

Which is a lot to consider, so I wouldn't try to do it all at once.... I'll end here by considering, very fondly indeed, the fellow travelers I shared this trip with. These three guys sitting on a log on the beach:
Edward Roy Gomm, Grace Ellen Laidlaw, Mary Janine Eckmeier

May you all travel, and dine, in such fine company.

Brett Laidlaw

Limbert Mountain Farm Simply Fine Foods:
The Farm House Natural Cheeses: www.farmhousecheeses.com
The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn: http://www.wickinn.com/restaurant.html
Granville Island Public Market: www.granvilleisland.com/en/public_market
Middle Beach Lodge: www.middlebeach.com
Circle Farm Tour Brochures for the "Mighty Fraser Country": http://www.circlefarmtour.ca/
100-Mile Diet, "Local Eating for Global Change": http://100milediet.org/


The Baker's Wife said...

you rock!

Brett Laidlaw said...

Thanks, Baker's Wife!

Say, don't I know you...?