Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
NEW LONDON, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — How talented of a culinary instructor is Norman Zeledon? Before I met him, I had never shucked an oyster, believing it was a sure form of self-mutilation and an activity to be avoided, just as you would avoid impaling yourself on a steel beam or acquainting yourself with barbed wire. In 20 minutes, though, Zeledon taught me the technique to open, plate, and dress an oyster so well that two nights later I was able to instruct a German visitor to Prince Edward Island on how to do it herself — without drawing blood.
Oyster shucking was one highlight of a unique, fun, and tremendously satisfying culinary tourism initiative started by Zeledon and his business partner, Annie Leroux. Set within the renovated walls of a converted church that’s a one-hour drive from Charlottetown, Annie’s Table and Culinary Studio offers cooking classes daily that incorporate the overwhelming abundance of product from Canada’s smallest province and Zeledon’s experience with a range of flavours. Born in Nicaragua, Zeledon was raised in Calgary and has travelled the world, visiting 21 countries and working as a cook in 17 of them. His recipes meld tastes from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and many more regions.
The ingredients are almost all from Atlantic Canada (Thai produce such as lemongrass and galangal have to be imported). You’ve heard of PEI potatoes and lobster, but your eyes and taste buds will awaken when Zeledon smears black garlic in front of you and tells you to taste. Very rare and difficult to grow in volume, black garlic is not at all what you might suspect. It’s sweet, not bitter, with a flavour similar to a date or fig. There’s no odour and it has a shelf life that is months longer than the white variety of the bulb. On PEI, it’s grown by Al Picketts of Eureka Garlic. Picketts has a Ph.D in food technology and has created a strain of black garlic that is not grainy like the Korean version used by many restaurants around the world, nor is it sticky like white garlic. Zeledon can’t get enough of it, saying he can use it in any dish, even desserts. On the day of my visit, it was used in a sauce for mussels, along with a cup of Sir John A. Macdonald Honey Ale from Prince Edward Island Brewing Company.
“The province is so rich in seafood, with oysters and mussels and lobster, but there’s also incredible pork and lamb on the island, and PEI grass-fed beef is really becoming well known,” says Zeledon, who will be participating in the PEI Shellfish Festival on September 12-15, 2013.
Culinary Travel Spotlights PEI’s Bounty
He beams when he talks about the wealth of ingredients he has access to through the food suppliers within a short distance of Annie’s Table. His Malpeque oysters come from a neighbour across the street whose products are shipped to luxury restaurants around the world, and he saves choice selections for Zeledon. Once we’ve shucked them — wedging the shucking knife into the shell and turning it as if it were a key to crack it open, then slicing across the shell to cut free the muscle that binds the top and bottom parts of the bivalve — we plate them on a bed of sea salt (Zeldon says you can use aluminum foil at home as a substitute for the salt) and then eat them “the island way,” with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of PEI’s beloved moonshine. Zeledon also shows how to serve them three other ways.
He later teaches me how to make potato latkes (or pancakes) that are fluffy and plates them with Spanish cream, which is similar to creme fraiche, and smoked salmon and capers, and a colourful edible flower from the garden outside.
Once classes are complete, the meals are served on a long table made from pine. Light pours in from the stained-glass windows at the front of the house, while looming from above is the church’s original pulpit. When the church was decommissioned, the community asked for proposals from entrepreneurs looking to convert it into a business. Leroux’s bid to create the culinary travel experience that focuses on the province’s local food and suppliers won despite the fact hers was far from the highest bid for the space.
“It’s about sustainability and teaching people about where their food comes from,” says Leroux, noting that visitors — particularly those from the United States and Ontario — have been her largest clients in the culinary studio’s first two years. “I felt this was a perfect idea to highlight the island’s food and it’s experiential, and people are travelling more and more these days looking for ways to interact with local cultures, and food is a big part of that.”
Leroux and Zeledon accomplish that aim of educating and entertaining during their courses, which last up to four hours each. Some of the dinners include wines and beers and, like any good kitchen party, there is lots of laughter.
“The whole idea is to have you come in and prepare what you will eat,” Zeledon says. “You go to the kitchen, you put on the apron, you get messy, you learn where the food comes from, and you have a good time. That’s what it’s about here. It’s what we try to do every day.”
More About Annie’s Table and Culinary Studio
Location: 4295 Graham’s Road, New London, PEI (see map below)
Contact: Telephone 1-902-314-9666 or email email@example.com to book.
Cost: Classes are offered on most days and range from $50-$140. There are 22 options, including classes in a variety of international cuisines, as well as practical courses on gluten-free cooking and barbecue classes that are popular with men. Here’s the calendar of events to plan your visit.
Noteworthy: Leroux moved to PEI from Alberta seven years ago and had been an antique dealer. Some of her favourite pieces decorate the culinary studio, including cooking utensils from more than 150 years ago.
More About PEI Shellfish Festival
Dates: September 12-15, 2013
Location: Charlottetown Event Grounds (corner of Water and Grafton Streets)
Tickets: $12 for general admission tickets purchased online ($15 at door) for September 13-14 events; $7 for September 15 general admission tickets purchased online ($10 at door).
Notable Activities: Celebrity chef Michael Smith will be performing cooking demonstrations daily and signing cookbooks. The Raspberry Point International Oyster Shucking Championship takes place September 15 at 3 pm. For a full list of events, click here.
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