Story by Renée Suen
CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — “Do you like chowder?” I was asked.
An innocent question that conjures up images of herb-flecked, creamy-rich soup studded with tender potatoes, sweet diced root vegetables and meaty chunks of seafood. I can feel a wave of senses-enveloping steam billowing up from the hearty soup to tickle my nose. I start to salivate, just a little. And an ear-to-ear smile follows suit.
Yes. Yes, I do like chowder.
That’s how I found myself with three other judges behind 30 bowls of chowder — two rows deep, pegged with the herculean (and somewhat enviable) task of selecting the best seafood and potato chowder at this year’s PEI Shellfish Festival.
However, visiting Canada’s Gentle Island was more than simply filling my belly with chowder (although having a legit reason to do so on behalf of Vacay.ca was great). It was a chance to discover the PEI that was unknown to me — namely, one that doesn’t breath Anne of Green Gables in the same sentence because frankly, that was all I really knew about Canada’s smallest province.
[box_info]See a video of the Anne of Green Gables theme village[/box_info]
Lessons began early on my first morning in the town of New London. Blessed with clear sunny skies, I joined the company of competing chefs from the festival’s prestigious Chef’s Challenge to learn about the agriculture and aquaculture industries on the Island’s northern coast.
PEI is known as the Garden of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. While I wasn’t surprised about the quality of the potatoes, the sustainably raised and harvested Raspberry Point oysters, or the world-famous mussels at the Prince Edward Aqua Farm — I was attending the 19th annual PEI International Shellfish Festival, after all — our group was collectively impressed with how these businesses were making every effort to preserve that title. By integrating technological advances and utilizing labour intensive practices that ensure minimal damage to the natural environment, this area — approximately 0.5% the size of Ontario — is able to produce most of Canada’s mussels and potatoes.
The next three days was an immersion in everything shellfish: from an interactive Feast and Frolic dinner with host Chef Michael Smith that had us singing like Islanders, to watching quick as lightning oyster shuckers blitz through platters worth of pristine bivalves. There were sessions on customizing Caesars that were made with Clamato, naturally; cooking demos between live music entertainment and dancing; as well as culinary competitions between local and international chefs vying for the winning title (and a $10,000 prize).
[box_info]See a video interview with Chef Michael Smith talking about Canadian cuisine[/box_info]
When there weren’t oysters, mussels or potatoes on my plate, there was an umami-packed, grass-fed PEI rib eye steak at Sims Corner in Charlottetown. When it wasn’t chowder, there were Row House’s delightful juices-dripping-down-your-arm soft tacos that overflowed with sweet chunks of lobster and a charred corn and tomato salsa. When it wasn’t casual bites, it was a well-crafted tasting menu that flirted with international flavours at Lot 30. The menu changes often and it isn’t on the current menu, but if you see the braised pork belly dish, it’s a must.
There’s pride in the region’s ingredients, none more obvious than at Terre Rouge Marche Bistro. Here, the focus is on local food products, mostly made in house — everything from the fantastic charcuterie platter using area-raised meat all the way to their bright PEI wild blueberry gelato.
If I wasn’t eating, I was checking out the local brews and spirits.
A brewery tour of PEI Brewing Company’s state-of-the-art facilities and popular event space was made better by quenching my thirst on the Canadian Brewing Award-winning handcrafted beer, including an unfiltered blueberry ale, or to my preference, the Island Red.
For spirits lovers, no visit to PEI would be complete without a stop at Myriad View Distillery; this is where Canada’s only legal over-proof moonshine is made. Be it novelty, or its surprisingly non-deathly taste (think: young tequila), you’re likely going to want to pick up a bottle or two to bring home. I did.
Between eating and drinking, there were trail hiking and sailing excursions.
On my second morning, I trekked north to gorgeous Greenwich. It was a brisk stroll through PEI National Park, where I encountered five distinct ecosystems along my 1.5-kilometre (0.9-mile) route. Grassy knoll transitioned to a shaded deciduous forest (home to a delicate blanket of grey dunes), then immediately turned into a floating boardwalk bobbing over wetlands, before becoming mountainous sand dunes speckled with thick tufts of marram grass, and finally a stunning white-sand beach hugging the coastline.
It was incredible. Unexpected. This was PEI?
Had it been warmer, there would have been some bare feet frolicking in water and sand. Alas, next time.
Another early morning I was aboard the Tranquility rod fishing (my first time!) for mackerel at the mouth of Georgetown’s harbour. Under the guidance of Perry Gotell, the owner/operator and skipper of Tranquility Cove Adventures, I managed to catch four fish despite the fact that strong winds were rocking the boat. (Okay, it was really three successful catches, but I still count the two-foot-long beast that flew over the boat as I reeled it up a catch.) We feasted on our fresh grilled bounty while those not already on the Trans-Canada Highway for the annual 70 Mile Coastal Yard Sale were just starting to wake up to grab for their morning paper.
[box_info]Read about Tranquility Cove Adventures’ Incredible Clam Digging Experience[/box_info]
Peppered between all these activities, I enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the Islanders I met along the way.
My last morning in Charlottetown was spent enjoying a cup of the city’s best coffee at Leonhards Café. Not only is the sweet and cozy restaurant a great place to people watch, it’s also across the street from Province House, birthplace of Canadian Confederation.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, and civic pride beamed all around the city, from street lamp banners to a gleaming red 1864 sculpture that commemorates the historical and significant date. The year-long celebration — which earned Charlottetown the honour of the No. 1 Place to Visit in Canada for 2014 from Vacay.ca — features over 150 events across PEI, including a christening of the new Charlottetown Events Grounds — where the Shellfish Festival was held — with top Canadian artists on stage on Canada Day.
Just before boarding my flight, I drop by COW’s head office for the ice creamery’s much lauded home-made super premium ice cream. Although tempted by the cheeky paraphernalia (everyone needs a T-shirt depicting a zombie cow exclaiming “Grains! Grains!”), I leave with blocks of Avonlea clothbound cheddar stacked high in my arms.
Yes, that Avonlea. It also doesn’t help my cause that the recipe for the award-winning cheese is made from a recipe that dates back to the time of (fictitious) Anne.
On my way home, I realize that there was still much to see and do. I had yet to discover over 50 lighthouses, 25 world-class golf courses with well-groomed vibrant greens, attend the many music festivals, theatre productions, or take advantage of the rich outdoor activities (running, cycling and sailing) the Islanders I met spoke about.
Oh, there’s also beloved Anne of Green Gables, but you knew that already.
MORE ABOUT THE PEI SHELLFISH FESTIVAL
2014 Chefs: The 10 chefs invited to compete for this year’s Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, included: Mike Clark (Charlottetown), Chris Corkum (Saskatoon), Maurice Desharnais (Niagara, Ontario), Missy Hui (Toronto), Matti Jamsen (Finland), Anthony McCarthy (Saskatoon), Ryan Morrison (Vancouver), Matt Nolot (2014 winner; Fort Wayne, Indiana), Eric Pless (Kelowna, British Columbia) and Jason Sopel (Winnipeg).
2015 Dates: September 17-20
Website: Visit peishellfish.com for event information and to purchase tickets.