Prince Edward Island is a dreamy place in the summer. Miles of sandy white beaches and delicate rocky red cliffs wrap their way around the small Atlantic province. You can pedal tip-to-tip along the Trans Canada Trail and marvel at the rows of flowering potato plants, or stop at a quaint teahouse for blueberry scones. Grab a bonnet and embrace your inner Anne Shirley with a shot of raspberry cordial and a walk through Green Gables.
When Labour Day passes and the riptide of Avonlea-obsessed tour buses subsides, people come for the Fall Flavours. The host of this province-wide food festival is chef and native son Michael Smith who says in the brochure “PEI is a food lover’s paradise, especially during harvest season when the fruits of our many passionate food artisans come to fruition.” I like the sound of that, and I like Michael Smith. For years I’ve watched him cook At Large, At Home, and Abroad. One episode had him cheffing for Canada’s lone NBA franchise, my beloved Toronto Raptors. At six-foot-seven he looked like a guard or possibly a small forward. More recently he was Bobby Flay’s challenger on Iron Chef America. Team Canada lost the Battle Avocado, but we’ll always have our hockey gold from the Vancouver Olympics.
The 2010 Fall Flavours boasted more than two hundred and fifty culinary events to choose from over four weeks.
“What should we do?” I asked my wife. “I’m thinking Culinary Boot Camp - Seafood 101. It’s a full day workshop at the Culinary Institute of Canada, and I get to keep the white coat.”
“That’s great, but what are me and the kids going to do?” she pointed out.
“We could all go to the Giant Bar Clam Dig & Cook-Out. What about the Charcuterie Curing and Smoking Class? That sounds like fun. Says here there’s a Festin Acadien avec Homard -- I like eating lobsters and speaking French. Or maybe we could try Shucking with Rick, whoever he is.”
Friday after work started packing for The Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival, billed as the "Biggest Kitchen Party in Atlantic Canada”. Although not listed as an Official Chef Michael Smith event, I was sure we’d run into him eventually. It’s not a big island and the man’s easily spotted in a crowd.
That weekend coincided with the 30th Annual Terry Fox Run meaning the family could cross the Confederation Bridge and raise funds for the fight against cancer. This impressive 13 km long concrete structure connects PEI to New Brunswick and it’s rarely opened up to foot traffic. Some exercise to counteract the impending seafood binge.
“We’re only going for one night, forget the roof rack. Say no to Michael Bublé.” Our bulbous luggage carrier from Wal-Mart has a name. Fortunately, the double jogging stroller and all our bags fit nicely into the back of the wagon. All set for an 8 a.m. departure.
First stop, coffee from Tim Hortons at Mastodon Ridge “conveniently located halfway between the equator and the North Pole”. The Ridge is named for the elephantine herbivores that roamed around in large herds until they were hunted to extinction 15,000 years ago. Several specimens have been unearthed in these parts -- I recall eating at a pub with a huge tusk hanging on the wall over the bar. I wonder what mastodon meat tasted like. I wonder if the proprietors realize that mastodon ivory has become a hot black market commodity and their tusk could be worth thousands. According to CBC Radio One, the receding glaciers have revealed enough fossil ivory to devalue the poached kind from Africa. Evidently, some Russian dude is buying it up, having it carved in India, then selling it in Europe.
For every Starbucks in Canada there are nine Tim Hortons. Coffee from the T-Ho is a reliable medium roast that tastes the same anywhere in the country. To order a cup with double cream and sugar in French, one can say “doub-double”. I carelessly ordered a “doobla-doo” last time I was in Quebec. My perky server smiled with her big brown eyes and repeated my words using a breathy French Canadian Scooby-Doo voice. The kids thought it was pretty funny.
Second stop, over the Cobequid Pass to Oxford, Nova Scotia. They claim the title “Wild Blueberry Capital of Canada”. To back it up there’s a cyanotic statue at the town’s entrance twelve feet in diameter with a sign that reads “Please keep off Blueberry to prevent injury”. We got some gas, a pint of berries and drove to Charlottetown.
Third stop, the Shellfish Festival. When we arrived at noon the Big Top was buzzing with people and seafood. The stage had an all-day line up of step-dancers, cloggers, fiddlers and folkies. No sign of Chef Michael but there were a few NHL hockey players from the Dallas training camp being held at the University up the road. The real Stars of the show were the local oysters and mussels, with lobster in a supporting role. Imagine a sloppy joe with lobster standing-in for the beef and a russet potato instead of a bun. Not much to look at but it sure hit the spot.
The presentation was fresh and simple with an array of toppings and sauces on the side. One guy was serving raw cherrystone clams on the half shell – a new and pleasant experience for me. Frankly, I was hoping to try some more unusual creatures. Where were the moon snails, whelks and razor clams? They were outside the tent in a saltwater petting zoo along with the starfish, urchins and sea cumbers. It seemed half the tank was trying to eat the other half. At least I picked up a few tips on how to find and prepare some of these critters at home. Razor clams are the hardest to catch because they burrow down in the sand faster than most people can dig. The solution is saline. One lad said to pump super salty water into the sand and watch them pop up like birthday candles on a cake. Good to know.
The beverage of choice for this daytime seafood extravaganza was the Unofficial National Cocktail called a Caesar, also known as a Clamdigger. It’s essentially a Bloody Mary where the beef broth has been replaced with clam juice. There was a busy Caesar station on site but it’s just not the same from a waxy paper cup, so I’ve included my own family recipe.
Rim a tall glass tumbler with lime juice & celery salt
2 shots of Alberta Vodka
1 dash each of Worcestershire & Tabasco
Fill with crushed ice and Mott’s Clamato juice
Garnish with celery and a straw
Sunday morning we did the Terry Fox. Pooped and peckish, we stopped for lunch on the way to the Wood Island Ferry.
“Does that sign say hamburger and soup $2.99?” I asked.
The curt reply was “No. Our soup today is hamburger.”
I guess they weren’t part of the Fall Flavours. We shared a big plate of poutine and waited for the boat back to Nova Scotia. The week prior Michael Smith was Chef On Board and cooked up a storm for the passengers, I later learned.
Shortly before the ferry docked people made their way down to the car deck. I buckled in the kids and inadvertently bumped the truck beside us with my backpack full of food tourist paraphernalia. There, inside that big green Toyota was The Man himself. I had so many questions. Chef Michael was reclined in his chair and engrossed in his hardcover book. He was probably hiding from people like me, so I did the polite Canadian thing and left him be. Maybe next year.
Peter Gamble is an eater, a husband and a father to 5-year old twins. His origins are in Toronto but he now runs a building design company from his home in Shad Bay, Nova Scotia.
Photos by the author.