Vancouver Island Slow Food
Apron dusted ivory by flour, smacking his hands together to shake off more wheat dust, his hair and blue jeans rimed white, True Grain Bakery proprietor and master baker Bruce Stewart is the very picture of a culinary artisan. "Red Fife, eh?" he says, shaking hands with visitors to the Cowichan Bay waterfront who have come to inquire about a locally grown Canadian heritage wheat variety that makes excellent bread. As it happens, that's just what Stewart has been milling that morning in an establishment that is an icon of the slow food movement.
Most days, True Grain and its neighbors look anything but slow. Throngs of travelers and gourmet food aficionados crowd the Cowichan Bay sidewalks, stores, cafes and docks to savor pastries and bread at True Grain, handmade ice cream at The Udder Guys, artisan cheese at Hilary's and fresh seafood at restaurants specializing in everything from fish and chips to five-course salmon suppers. Though this tiny bayfront hamlet has become a famed capital of the slow food movement, "slow" certainly does not mean stolid or dull.
There's nothing laggard about True Grain's delightful cinnamon rolls, whose whole-grain heft stands up perfectly to a hearty dollop of butter. Udder Guys' tart wild blackberry ice cream features hand-picked berries from Island backwoods. Hilary's Cowichan Blue cheese is robust and sharp—definitely not sluggish.
Cowichan Bay Village is North America's first "cittaslow," a term coined by the international slow food movement to designate a place that takes local food seriously, supports its production and preparation, and takes the time to appreciate it thoughtfully. And while Cowichan Bay Village has received a lot of well-earned publicity for its status, the truth is that Vancouver Island as a whole has long embraced the slow food philosophy like few other places in the Western Hemisphere. From one end of the Island to the other, local food growers and gatherers produce natural, healthful and flavorful ingredients for human consumption. Island chefs buy this produce and make it the foundation of their menus, which are famed worldwide for their distinctive character. Island makers such as butchers turn local ingredients into sausages, hams and more. Island stores fill their shelves with these local foods for residents and visitors. And Island residents, whether they are directly involved in the food industry or not, embrace the slow food philosophy.
So what's slow food?
According to Slow Food International, which started up in 1989 in Italy, it's a lifestyle philosophy that treasures "the pleasure of good food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible." Further, slow food is good for those who eat it, good for those who grow it and good for the planet. And it's largely local—foods brought by hand from nearby fields are obviously "slower" than those flown across oceans or trucked across continents. Though the official organization only dates back to 1989, it reflects centuries-old food traditions in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
Vancouver Island is the home of several pioneers of the modern slow food movement—in fact, some famous Island hospitality figures started practicing the philosophy before the movement took formal shape. Frederique and Sinclair Philip opened Sooke Harbour House in 1979 with an express desire to feature almost entirely local, naturally produced food on their menu, a philosophy they have held to for more than three decades—so much so that Sinclair has occasionally joked that he will pitch coffee from the inn's menu. (Not yet!) Guests at Sooke Harbour House enjoy foods cooked with Island butter rather than olive oil; Island seafood that often includes exotic creatures such as sea cucumbers; Island fruits, meats and vegetables, many grown at the inn's expansive gardens.
The Philips' support of local producers has helped many an Island farmer or food gatherer become established. Notably, Diane Bernard, the now-renowned "Seaweed Lady" who gathers at Island beaches; Brother Michael, a resident at the Cowichan Valley's Solo Dio Benedictine Monastery, who forages wild mushrooms in Island forests; Salt Spring Island's two famous cheesemakers, David Wood and Moonstruck—all have been on Sooke Harbour House menus for years
Innumerable Island chefs have followed a similar path over the past three decades, so many that the Island Chefs Collaborative was formed to support the slow food philosophy, and focus attention and purchasing power on local producers. Also part of the movement is the wonderful Feast of Fields annual outdoor dinner, which brings together chefs, producers and gourmands at an Island farm for a truly local feast. Boosting awareness of the movement is the Island Slow Food Convivium, a local chapter of the international organization.
"We are fortunate to enjoy tasty ingredients grown by local farmers and cooked by excellent chefs, locally-made artisan products such as cheese and sausages, seafood from our surrounding waters and wild foods such as mushrooms and berries," explains convivium leader Don Genova, concisely outlining the very reasons slow food has been so successful here. With the exception of tropical fruits, hundreds of fine culinary ingredients of almost every kind are available from Island producers, and chefs, diners and shoppers alike can follow a locally-grown philosophy while bypassing very little from the human food pantheon.
Philosophical though the movement's underpinnings may be, the fundamental basis of slow food that appeals to everyone is the simple fact that it's all about… good food. And winter is the ideal season to explore this colorful facet of Island life.
With mellow fires warming the atmosphere in local bistros, cafes and restaurants, the Island's slow food bounty is brought to table in a multitude of savory dishes now. Oyster stews with root vegetables; pork roasts with dried Island fruits; steamed wild fish with Island herbs; hearty quiches made with Island mushrooms, eggs, butter and flour; cheese platters and paired wines from artisans in the Cowichan Valley, Saanich Peninsula and Gulf Islands—there's no better time than winter to just relax and take the time to appreciate these.
In fact, we hear a tasting menu at a local restaurant calling us now…
For more information on slow food on the Island, visit www.slowisland.ca. The Island Chefs Collaborative is at www.iccbc.ca; and guides to all aspects of visiting the island are at www.vancouverisland.travel.
Despite its seaside location and full name, once upon a time Sidney-by-the-Sea was best-known as a center for something utterly terrestrial—books. With nine bookstores lining the town's main street, Beacon Avenue, and neighboring streets, Sidney is the only Canadian, and one of the few North American, examples of a European phenomenon, a booktown. Booktowns are found along the back roads of England, chiefly, little hamlets devoted to selling books of all descriptions. Bibliophiles make pilgrimages to such places to walk the quiet streets, browse the shelves in the various stores, enjoy midmorning coffee, take home some ink-and-paper treasures.
All those were and still are wonderful reasons to visit Sidney. You can start with breakfast at the Third Street Café, whose eight varieties of eggs benedict include, of course, smoked salmon and crab. Then stroll down to Galleon Books, whose specialty is Canadiana and BC history; Tanner’s, which not only has books but also offers 2000 magazines and 40 newspapers, the largest selection on Vancouver Island; the Haunted Bookshop, specializing in rarities, maps and prints; and a half-dozen other fine stores.
After lunch is a great time to visit Sidney’s new crown jewel, the visitor attraction that has reoriented this seaside village to its aquatic surroundings. The Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre is a compact but exquisitely detailed facility that offers a comprehensive introduction to the rich and colorful marine life in the Salish Sea just a hundred yards away.
And we do mean colourful: The green anemones, ivory nudibranchs, crimson and purple starfish of the near-shore waters are a match for any coral reef in vivid beauty. The rockfish, cods, salmon and other fishes are among the world’s most prolific. The Puget Sound octopus is the world’s largest. And the delicate interplay between onshore ecosystems and underwater ones is one of nature’s greatest wonders—all depicted in marvelous detail here in carefully crafted exhibit tanks. Kids will especially enjoy the hands-on tanks in which they can touch sea urchins, starfish and other creatures, following the “one-finger” rule that protects both sides of the encounter.
After visiting the Shaw Centre it’s delightful to wander outside by the bayshore, admire the view of the nearby Gulf Island and San Juan Islands, breathe in the fresh sea air and reflect on the oceanic marvel that surrounds our Island and brings it all the elements of life we treasure.
So, a trip to Sidney: Book it!
Vancouver Island Skiing
Got mountains? Check. Winter? You bet. Weather source? Yep—the Pacific Ocean. Those are the three most important ingredients needed for winter sports, and Vancouver Island offers visitors and residents some of the best skiing—Nordic and alpine—in Canada. But it’s kind of a well-kept secret. Few people think of an island, no matter how big, as a skiing mecca.
Nonetheless we are the home of one of North America's most notable ski areas. Poised atop a low peak in the mountains west of the Comox Valley, Mount Washington Alpine Resort not only features 1,600 acres of well-rounded terrain with sublime areas for beginners, intermediates and experts, it has something few other areas can boast: Heaps of snow. Record-breaking piles of it, in fact—well over 10 meters (34 feet) in an average winter. The mountain has several times won the North American snowfall title among major ski areas, and the base elevation (1083 meters, 3558 feet) and location mean the snow is lighter and drier than that found at other areas along the Pacific Rim.
From the top of the mountain's unique Boomerang chairlift, which goes up one side and down the other of a secondary ridge, the vista embraces a full-on view of the Vancouver Island Range, including 2197-meter Golden Hinde, highest peak on the Island. Turn the other direction, and you see the mainland Coast Range's snowy fastness framed by the sparkling blue waters of the Strait of Georgia. The resort is just 40 minutes from the Comox Valley, whose airport has daily flights from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Full-service accommodations, dining and rentals are supplemented by a huge Nordic area whose delightful groomed trails wend their way through the woods into Strathcona Provincial Park.
Poised above the mild climate of the Comox Valley, Mount Washington also offers an intriguing opportunity available almost nowhere else—ski in the morning, play golf in the afternoon. Tack on a few runs on Nordic skis and you've got a recreation trifecta worth bragging about.
Mount Washington isn't the only ski area on the Island. Farther north, in the mountains west of Port McNeill, Mount Cain also boasts incredible snow, with annual accumulations totaling 15 meters. Although it's not a major resort, there is some limited on-mountain accommodation, offering the sort of crowd-free deep-powder skiing experience few winter sports enthusiasts ever find.
For strictly Nordic skiers, the trails threading Strathcona Park welcome cross-country skiers of all experience levels, offering the chance to experience the deep woods of the old-growth forest in a quiet quilt of snow. Many Island communities also maintain local trail networks for cross-country and snowshoe use—We've got mountains, winter and snow, and we put all three to good use.
Favorite Romantic Things to do in the Vancouver Island Region.
For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans and our staff, what their FAVORITE Romantic Things to do are in the Vancouver Island Region.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Watching the sunset over Vancouver Island from Quadra Island
- Camping on Newcastle Island Provinical Park
- Cycling the Galloping Goose Trail
- Kayaking / Canoeing almost anywhere on the Island
- Visiting Gardens on the Garden Trail
- Visiting the Hot Springs on the West Coast
- Storm Watching
- Walking on one of the many spectacular beaches
- Visiting Island Wineries for tastings and a picnic
- Sight-seeing tours by float-plane
For more information about things to do on Vancouver Island, visit www.vancouverisland.travel
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