Day 1: The Dining Room
Sarah and I are running late, but the drive to PEI is pleasant. The sky is calm and overcast; the trees are finally green in full. On the way, we chat about photography, food, family, and how to move a chapel. I take a nap; Sarah plays music.
This is my first time to Charlottetown, and to PEI, and what a way to be introduced. Representing The Starving Sailor, Sarah and I have been invited on a Media Tour with The Culinary Institute of Canada (CIC) and Tourism PEI. Along with a handful of other photographers and writers interested in food and lifestyle in the Maritimes, we’ll have tours of kitchens and breweries, demos and workshops, a boat ride, plenty of drinks, and lots and lots of good food.
Our first culinary experience on the tour happens in The Dining Room at the CIC. First touring the kitchen, we are told about the emphasis on the kitchen being seen. At one end, a large window allows guests to watch the staff at work, while at the other, the kitchen opens completely into view for the Dining Room guests
The Dining Room itself is large, open, and darkly furnished. Everything appears slightly backlit by tall windows at its far end overlooking the Northumberland Strait. Polished wine glasses and folded white napkins glint on dark wooden tables.
As my waitress pours me my first glass of Pinot Noir, its deep black-red hue reflects in the mirror-shine of my cutlery.
We are due for a four course meal: two small plates followed by a choice of a main course from The Dining Room’s summer menu, finished off with dessert.
Our first dish is perfectly seared scallops in duck fat, served with roasted cauliflower purée, blood orange gastrique, and a sesame crisp.
Next appears a seasonal salad with thinly sliced radish, wide shavings of sheep’s milk cheese, fiddleheads, asparagus, and a delicate vinaigrette. The waiters return to pour us a Riesling white wine.
Thoughtful, fresh, and well balanced, this is one of my favourite dishes of the evening.
For the main dish, I opt for the Arctic Char steak with sautéed fiddleheads, pomme purée, and roasted hazelnut, alongside a nice merlot to sip on. Sarah and many others have chosen tender strips of beef with spruce tips, some pickled, some with chimichurri.
IMG 173 Our last dish is dessert, and being lactose intolerant, I am unable to indulge in the chocolate espresso crême brûlée provided by the pastry team here.
Instead, I am given a warm rhubarb soup with candied walnuts and sorbet. Lightly fermented rhubarb in its own mild sweet juices slowly melt the cold scoop of sorbet, while the walnuts add depth and body to the dish. I don’t feel shorted in the slightest.
Final hot drinks are offered after dessert, and soon we are wrapping up to head to the Dundee Arms Inn for bed.
Day 2: How to Grow an Oyster
The second day of the tour begins with a trip to Raspberry Point Oyster Co., on New London Bay, where we spend our morning with its manager, James Power. Huddling around crates brimming with fresh oysters, James explains the farming process and the key methods that create differences in oyster taste and appearance.
Oysters merit at least a whole blog post to themselves – perhaps an entire blog – but I’ll let you in on a few things that stuck with me after the tour.
Firstly, the different varieties of oyster a waiter might offer you are likely not different species (PEI is known for its Malpeque), but rather, different “brands.” Oyster farmers brand oysters as a marketing technique. Though some brands are nearly indistinguishable, environment, farming methods, and time of harvesting can create deliberate differences in taste and appearance.
The biggest factor is the qualities of the water where the oyster grows, referred to as its “merroir”, like terroir for wine, but in reference to the sea.
A retail-ready oyster takes about 4 to 6 years to mature. In winter, they hibernate. To prepare for this, oysters build up their glycogen stores in the fall, making fall-harvested oysters more sweet and plump.
James shows us the hard mesh bags used for oyster farming. These bags can float either just above or below the water’s surface. Flipping the bags alternately allows sunlight to kill the stuff that grows on the oyster shells, or while submerged, allows the oysters to feed.
Oysters with greenish shells – such as Raspberry Point Oyster Co.’s “Lucky Limes” – have spent more time near the water’s surface, where sunlight allows more algae to grow on their shells.
Here I am relishing PEI’s famous Malpeque oysters – a rather luxurious second breakfast.
The rest of day involves lots of driving, looking, and more shellfish.
A tour of Prince Edward Aqua Farms gives us a peek into the world of shellfish processing.
At Glasgow Glen Farm, we learn about making Gouda cheese with Jeff, and are treated to his incredible wood-fired pizzas.
To end our afternoon, we zip around the Gulf of St. Lawrence with Joey’s Deep Sea Fishing, hauling lobster traps, shucking more oysters, and drinking up the sun and sea spray.
Our day comes to a close in Cavendish, where we are hosted at a cottage in Bosom Buddies Cottage and Suites.
The team from the CIC have prepared an amazing Surf n’ Turf dinner for us.
The main acts are steamed mussels and clams, Atlantic beef steaks, and of course the lobster we hauled up earlier that day, steamed on seaweed, shells turned a dramatic and beautiful red.
Day 3: Workshops
We start our last day in PEI wearing chef coats in a white, sterile kitchen with a lamb carcass and an enthusiastic chef. Today, the CIC is giving us a peek at what their students experience in their first year of study; and that includes butchery. With us today is Chef Bob Miller, who teaches the basics of cutting meats to freshmen each year. Here at the CIC there is an emphasis on using every part of the animal. Sought after cuts, such as strip loin and rib racks, are removed with care and precision, while bones, tendons, and tougher offcuts are used up for stocks and sausages.
A particularly enjoyable workshop is the Food and Wine pairing session held in CIC’s “The Dining Room,” hosted by instructor Marc Brunet. Our cohort sits at the long dark table to a glimmering array of wine glasses, ready for a taste of the basics.
Marc starts us off simply, with salted, pan-toasted almonds and a glass of Chardonnay.
We sip, nibble, and sip again, searching for the oak of the wine barrels among the warm nuts. Marc outlines key principles of food and wine pairings. Firstly, mirror the weight or intensity of the wine to to that of the food so neither overwhelms the other. Second, bridge ingredients in the food to flavours in the wine. Third, contrast the tastes or aromas of the food or wine with those in the other.
After the almonds, we receive a glass of Amarone Della Valpolicalla to go with a cheese plate, dressed with a beet chutney, a red pepper jelly, crunchy toast triangles, and several pastilles of milk and dark chocolate.
A warm hunk of soft pan-seared sheep’s milk cheese melts into one of my pastilles; underneath it, a semi-firm aged sheep’s milk cheese.
The third cheese, my favourite of the bunch, is a 9 month old sheep’s milk bleue. Between savoury bites, we exchange thoughts, trying to find language for the complex relationships of scents, feelings, and tastes throughout.
To finish off our session, Marc makes us traditional Crêpes Suzette to go with a Riesling ice wine. Both are golden and brimming with flavours; the buttery crêpe, tart fruit, and rich, syrupy wine come together in perfect harmony. By the end of this dish, the whole group of us are utterly seduced.
Our group is almost reluctant to move on after such a satisfying experience, but the CIC hasn’t finished spoiling us yet. Heading downstairs to the kitchen, we are treated to a three course lunch by the Culinary Youth Team Canada, based out of the CIC. The meal itself is top secret: we are getting the exclusive experience of trying out the team’s working dishes for the 2018 Villeroy Boch Culinary World Cup, held in Luxembourg in November.
After two brewery tours and some time to recharge, our trip comes to a close in true Maritime style. We eat, drink, and make merry at a final kitchen party. I’ll admit I’ve never been to a catered one before — or one held in such a deluxe kitchen — but the cooks, staff, and organizers at the CIC are no less warm and welcoming, and the live music reminds me of home. Sarah and I fully enjoy the good company, final dishes, and folk song. The East Coast hospitality rings strong and true.