Anita Stewart’s Canada File: The Real P.E.I.
By Anita Stewart
The real Prince Edward Island begins where the pavement ends. Map numbers seem to indicate highways and they always do lead somewhere, perhaps a hard-packed beach where you can walk alone for miles or a sandstone shoreline sparkled with sea glass. But even with official-looking highway markers, they also could easily be a single-track, red-earth dirt road under an archway of trees or through a field of flowering potatoes. You just need to learn to trust your instincts and not the GPS, which likely won’t work anyhow.
P.E.I. is a tightly knit community, fiercely proud of their part of Canada and as the home of Confederation in 1867. In a very savvy move they have dubbed themselves “Canada’s Food Island” and as you immerse yourself in island life, even for a few days, it’s clear that they’re onto something special. Sure it’s an exercise in excellent branding but there’s also a synergy happening these days that spans the Province. Canada’s former Minister of Agriculture lives and farms there; the current President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the largest such organization in the nation, calls P.E.I. her home. The Canadian Culinary Institute in Charlottetown provides much of the talent for restaurants across the island and across the country. The Shellfish Festival is into its third decade and just gets better every year anchored by Chef Michael Smith, a host of Food Network stars and chefs from all over the continent. It’s smack dab in the center of the five weeks of another festival called Fall Flavours when the entire island is dotted with food events and music.
Although it has a relatively small landmass P.E.I. is an incredible culinary destination with entrepreneurs who are making some terrific ingredients and farmers markets that are homespun and downright fun. So much so that most of my recent visit had me focused on the eastern extremity of the island with its dozens of sandy beaches and lighthouses and food.
The P.E.I. I knew when I first began to write about travel was a quieter tradition-bound place but today what you’ll find is no less authentic. The wide flats are still filled with soft-shelled and razor clams. In the broad bays all around the island there are strings of floats marking the lines on which millions of mussels are suspended peacefully below in the purest of saltwater. Fishermen still make a living hauling in and selling beautiful seafood, especially lobster. There’s a successful bluefin tuna fishery that is so tightly controlled that each boat can land only one fish annually.
P.E.I. excels as a culinary incubator. There are dozens of success stories. Take Mickey Rose for instance. He grew up in a Souris fishing family selling fresh-caught mackerel from the back of his dad Huntley’s pick up truck.
Emulating his dad, he started selling the freshest fish at a reasonable price from the back of a small fleet of trucks across the island and is now shipping all over the continent. You may even see Huntley at the Souris location near the farmers’ market hawking fish with a smile and the knowledge that comes from decades of experience.
The same holds true for Scott Linkletter of Cow’s Ice Cream. He began his small chain of ice cream shops in 1983 and went on to produce Avonlea Cheddar, a clothbound cheese that won SuperGold at the 2015 World Cheese Awards and was named one of the top 16 cheeses on the planet. He only uses Island milk in all his products including a delicious butter.
Check out the Lobster Shack on the causeway leading into Souris. It’s owned by the Flynn, a lobster fishing family who also grow Colville Bays, arguably the finest oysters in eastern Canada. On that same stretch of beach, you’ll find Chef Michael Smith’s Flavour Shack. About the size of a walk-in closet, it’s jammed with neat Island foods (I love the black garlic!) and, of course, his books. Nearby the Poké Shack serves bluefin tuna when it’s available with local greens and good kombucha.
Myriad View Distillery (336 PE-2, Souris) was one of the first craft distilleries in the Maritimes. Carrying on the island tradition of making moonshine, their ‘Shine’ is fiery and above all, it’s legal. They are distilling a great pastis which is so good for using in shellfish cookery.
For fabulous house-made ice creams and terrific coffee, visit chef Rebecca Kosak’s Cherry on Top Creamery, a tiny emporium in downtown Souris. Try the one she’s dubbed pancake and maple syrup! The Creamery is part of Artisans on Main (120 Main Street, Souris), a cooperative shop selling some beautiful, island made crafts and jewelry.
There are few as recognized names in Canadian food as Chef Michael Smith. With is wife, Chastity and their family, they purchased the Inn at Bay Fortune, the same inn where Chef Smith’s career began in Canada in the 90’s. Full circle? Yes, but the meals are now cooked over and in a “brick-lined, wood-burning beast” that contains “every form of live-fire known to man.” The FireWorks feast is a performance art of the most delicious order. Beginning with the farm tour guests wind their way through a forest path marked with pots and pans from an earlier kitchen. This is not a garden built for show, it’s a working mini-farm that supplies the kitchen all season long. Oyster Hour follows in the adjacent Fire Garden beginning with the challenge to beat last year’s oyster-eating record. Harvested from the briny waters of both Colville Bay and Gowan Brae, there is no limit to the number that guests can happily consume. Everything, from red wine and fennel Waygu sausage to Island beef heart with blueberry gastrique is cooked over an open fire using inn-made charcoal. From the Fire Garden guests assemble at long tables inside the restaurant where the “Fire Brigade” changes the menu daily.
From farmers markets to roadside stands to the Amish families selling produce and butter, it’s worth taking P.E.I. slowly, savoring every experience and letting the salt air wash away the cares of daily life.
Where to Stay:
Inn at Bay Fortune is the home of Fireworks and the nightly fire-focused feasts. Beautiful rooms and with a sister property, Inn at Fortune Bridge (391 Route 310)758 Route 310, Fortune Bridge, PE, C0A 2B0 +1-888-687-3745 or (902) 687-3745
The Inn at Spry Point is operated by Innkeeper David Wilmer, a well-known name in Island hospitality. https://www.innatsprypoint.com/
222 Ark Lane, Little Pond, PE, C0A 2B0 T: 902-583-2400
Cottage rentals abound but will require a bit of forward planning. The prime location is near Basin Head, a beach renowned for its ‘singing sands’.
Anita Stewart is the Food Laureate for the University of Guelph and founder of Food Day Canada. She holds a graduate degree in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu/University of Adelaide and is a Member of the Order of Canada. She lives in Ontario.