Sep 16, 2016
Boats heaving with fresh seafood, plates laden with locally farmed produce – Prince Edward Island is much more than the rural idyll in Anne of Green Gables, writes Catherine Marshall.
It’s late summer and Prince Edward Island (PEI), a tiny outcrop off the east coast of Canada, is erupting with sustenance. Apple buds ripen into glossy orbs that hang sweet and heavy from the trees. Potatoes tumble from their runnels in the harvester’s wake. Mussels emerge plump and briny from their socks. Pumpkins colonise the island, their elephantine leaves weaving a vast web across its hillsides, their colours foretelling the coming of autumn: polished orange, pale grey and muddy green.
In the village of Cavendish, literary pilgrims converge at Green Gables, the clapboard house that inspired the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. It’s for this fictional heroine – an orphan who comes from Nova Scotia to help a childless couple on their farm – that PEI is probably best known. But beyond the jaunty gables, gingham frocks and rope swings is an epicurean heaven: PEI is a banquet unto itself.
Tucked into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence beside neighbouring Maritime provinces Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – and nicknamed “Million-Acre Farm” and “Garden of the Gulf” – this islet yields some of Canada’s finest produce. Across its crooked 280-kilometre girth live the islanders who are responsible for cultivating its progeny; these descendants of Canada’s earliest settlers (Scottish, English, Irish, French) are guileless, salt-of-the-earth people who synchronise their lives with the seasons and live off the fruits of land and sea.
East of PEI’s capital, Charlottetown, the gulf waters bleed into the coastline in jagged fjords, bringing with them clams, rock crabs and mussels aplenty. Here, 18-year-old Riley Lavandier works on his uncle’s tourist boat, hoisting lobster pots – and their prisoners – into the sunlight.
“Lobsters can predict a storm two days in advance,” he says, gripping a specimen with glossy pincers. “The female wraps her tail inwards and protects the eggs underneath.”
But lobster season is now over and Lavandier releases the crustacean back into the depths of Georgetown Harbour. We’re cruising from the harbour up the Brudenell River, framed on its southern shore by pine trees in which a single bald eagle is perched high. Two winters ago, when the waterway was frozen solid, Lavandier skated from the harbour all the way up the river to the golf course. The island was snow-crusted and its fisherfolk had retreated indoors to mend lobster pots, paint buoys and wait for the ice to thaw.
But in late summer, the sun is shining, the water, fresh and warm, is sloshing against our boat and the fish are biting. We cast our lines and reel in Atlantic mackerel, their spines tattooed with tiger stripes, their tailfins glowing yellow in the sun.
Lavandier’s uncle, Perry Gotell – who fished for 30 years and now runs Tranquility Cove Adventures – fires up the barbecue. He’s rather unimpressed with our catch; usually the grill heaves with fish. “Oh, we fill her up,” he says. “Sometimes twice.”
In truth there’s plenty. The seagulls dive for the fishes’ entrails; the humans tuck into the moist maple-pepper-dusted fillets. I lick my lips and think of all the fish that got away.
Later that day, I hear a story about a 40-kilogram halibut that didn’t get away. It was reeled in near The Inn at Bay Fortune, up the coast from Georgetown, and snapped up by the inn’s owner, celebrity chef Michael Smith.
Chef de cuisine Cobey Adams relates the story while he prepares lunch in the cedar-shingled kitchen of the inn’s restaurant, FireWorks. No culinary school in Canada, he says, could teach you how to prepare this island’s bounty. “Every time we get in a new veg, a new protein, a new starch, we have to find ways to be creative,” he explains.
To illustrate his point, he gestures towards the blackboard for last night’s menu: the salad alone contained 48 ingredients – from onion stems and borage to fennel fronds – foraged from or grown on site. Most of the restaurant’s produce is gathered from the property’s 19 rolling green hectares; the rest is sourced from local farms and that generous ocean lapping at the inn’s toes. All of it, from the bread to dessert, is cooked using that most elemental of methods: wood fire.
I sit down to a late-harvest feast of potato-and-parsnip rösti fried on the grill, acorn squash and smoked apple soup simmered on the hearth, halibut seared above those flames and onions caramelised to perfection in the ashes. Adams has transformed this island’s humble yield into a work of extraordinary beauty.
In a few hours, FireWorks will host its nightly Oyster Hour, an oyster-slurping, cocktail-drinking feast that includes wood-fired meats. A chief supplier for this much-loved ritual is oyster farmer Johnny Flynn of Colville Bay Oyster Company. I find him checking the oyster beds on his 12-hectare lease at the junction of the Souris River and Colville Bay, not far from Bay Fortune. The beds are “as old as Methuselah”, he says as he drags his boat onto the rust-red, gravelly shore.
Colville Bay oysters are beloved of restaurants and bars across PEI and beyond. Their moss-green hue and the meat’s nuanced flavours are forged by fresh water flowing in from the Souris and an abundance of phytoplankton.
We walk from the beach to the sorting shed, where Flynn shucks a handful of oysters plucked from those beds just this morning. “We try not to discriminate against the ugly ones,” he says. “You can buy an old book or a new book but it’s still the same story inside.” And he’s right. The oysters are a motley-shelled bunch yet every one of them is perfect.
Just down the road from Flynn’s farm, I discover the ideal accompaniment for his oysters: a drop of moonshine. Although the islanders have been making this liquor for centuries, The Myriad View Artisan Distillery, swaddled by lush vines and overlooking Rollo Bay, is the first to do so legally.
“Growing up, a hot toddy was ’shine, maple syrup, lemon and hot water,” says co-founder Ken Mill as he pours me a shot. The moonshine glides smoothly over my tongue and delivers an electric shock to my throat. It’s a taste of this innocuous island that I hadn’t quite expected.
But PEI is all sunshine and virtue again the next morning when I head west, past Jerseys and Holsteins grazing on carpets of green; forests of spruce, maple and birch; and hay bales glowing golden in the sun. I imagine I’m driving across a sack of potatoes afloat in the gulf, for the whole island seems to be composed of these tubers. Farmers are out in their fields, harvesting russets, whites, reds and yellows; trucks are ferrying their cargo – great mounds that threaten to topple off the trays – to sorting and storage facilities.
Near O’Leary, I chat with potato farmer Derek Smallman, whose rows of freshly turned potatoes trail off to the horizon. He digs out a Yukon Gold from the iron-red soil. “I went to Alberta once and ate their potatoes,” he says, deadpan. “And I didn’t like them.”
It’s no surprise, as PEI’s potatoes are legendary. The island’s cooks turn out old favourites, such as fries, mash, potato salad and chowder, and put potatoes to creative, unexpected use in breads, cakes and fudge. Indeed, so beloved are potatoes here, they’ve been immortalised at The Canadian Potato Museum in O’Leary.
But Smallman’s potatoes, earth-caked and uncooked, are useless to me right now. I head back to Charlottetown and the Row House Lobster Co., where I order the famed Québécois dish, poutine. The crisp hand-cut fries, butter-poached lobster and smothering béchamel sauce and cheese curds offer up a symphony of summer flavours. This is Prince Edward Island made manifest on my plate. ￼
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