Like the bears, I’m on auto-graze at this time of year. The season of feasting started with the 15th annual Vancouver Island Feast of Fields (#VIFeast) in Duncan. Then came the first Flavour – North Island Gourmet Picnic event (#FlavourSept23) in the Comox Valley. Last weekend, the James Barber Providence Farm fundraiser (#JamesBarber) near Cowichan Bay. Do I live in a gourmand’s paradise? I do. Waistline be damned!
Forget terroir; let’s get territorial
We’re a big enough Island that it’s possible for me to be both relatively well-connected and relatively ignorant of what’s down the road. I’ve even got a bit of a chip on my shoulder with my attitude about my home region – the Comox Valley – as a pretty good place to be in love with food and drink. That chip has gotten in the way of appreciating just how good things can be in my neighbourhod. Down the road for example. In the Cowichan Valley.
A tasty bit of enlightenment
A couple of days before heading south to #JamesBarber I realized that James Barber, “Canada’s Urban Peasant,” was an early influence in my love affair with food. His little handbook on using the frying pan may have been the first cookbook I read. It certainly inspired me to cook simply, with feeling for ingredients, and with the sharing of food in mind. More enlightenment was in store as I enjoyed what the Cowichan Chefs Table had prepared with this event in his honour.
I’m used to good local food. And the season’s previous graze-fests had alerted me to a number of artisans I’ll be following – like Cowichan Valley Pasta, Averill Creek Winery, Venturi Schulze Vineyards, among others. But here were some new ones that need paying attention to: Cowichan Bay Seafood, Hudson’s on First in Duncan (not yet open – watch for it!), Hilltop Bistro in Nanaimo, Hilary’s Cheese in Cowichan Bay. As the list shows, #JamesBarber wasn’t just about the region. As well as Nanaimo and Victoria, Port Alberni was represented by Chef Dave Lang of North Island College’s Culinary Arts Program (kudos to Chef Dave for the Italian prune plum, lox, wild sorrel combo!). But most of it came from the Cowichan Valley. All of it was delicious.Chef David Lang with the last remaining morsels of Port Alberni regional deliciousness
Savouring the moment
While a couple of vendors were new, most are long-timers. They’re part of the Cowichan Valley’s “slow food“ attitude. An inspiration for my part of the Island for sure: an approach to life that encourages savouring the moment. It’s how me and my sweetheart (and hungry girl) do our farmers’ market: drink it in, visit, gnosh, visit some more. The gustatory experience becomes a holiday from the ordinary. #JamesBarber was a liesurely tour from vineyard to cheese shop to bakery to winery to market to cafe – and then to bed.
Which prompted another pleasant discovery: the Ocean Front Suites in Cowichan Bay. We napped. Then wandered along Cow Bay’s waterfront cluster of shops. Found a bottle of wine. Ordered “caught in Cow Bay crab cakes” and an outstanding Caesar Salad at Terrain Kitchen. Took them both to our beachside patio and watched the sun set over one of the prettiest harbours on the Island. The only thing better would have been if Hilary’s Cheese shop had been open. Their goat bleu…. killer stuff.The October sunset from our patio picnic at Ocean Front Suites in Cowichan Bay
Regional feasts, compared
#VIFeast, #FlavourSept23, #JamesBarber. They’re different. VIFeast is the biggest, broadest celebration of what this Island offers. At 15 years, it’s the mother of our Island festivals of feasting. Flavour started with a regional focus. For it’s first year, it was a tremendously successful “community picnic” featuring mostly “our” producers and artisans, with mostly local feasters. #JamesBarber was of a different order: even focused, cohesive. The venue is impressive – what on the Island can compare to the Providence Farm setting? And this year’s challenge, that all flavours be related to one of the region’s top flavours – honey, be it a sweet, savoury, or spicy dish – meant that chefs were rising to a common challenge. I really liked that.
How do they compare? I love to eat and drink and be social. I wouldn’t miss any of them.Chef Bill Jones and a volunteer greeting us at Providence Farm. Part of the Cowichan Chefs Table team behind #JamesBarber.
Cowichan Chefs Table
Good food is about many things. I recently read a short post about how to become a great chef. Among the bits of sage advice was the note to find a way to engage in community, to develop a practice of philanthropy. I don’t know much about the Cowichan Chefs Table group except that they have a practice of hosting fun food events that benefit their community. #JamesBarber raises funds for Providence Farm, an historic property that has becomed a “therapeutic community” – “dedicated to restoring the spirit and skills of those with physical, mental and emotional challenges.” Good stuff. I’m thinking that the Cowichan Chefs Table are certainly in the running as a collective Vancouver Island #localfoodhero.
And in the end…
Will the Comox Valley ever truly manifest the marketing dream image of being “Canada’s Provence” to the Cowichan Valley as “Canada’s Tuscany?” Not important. But we can learn some things from the Cow Valley. #JamesBarber showed what can happen when a region’s talents pull together and when they connect with neighbouring urban centres. I’m inspired.
10 October 2012