Vivid red sand beaches, dazzling blue waters, rolling grass-covered dunes, dramatic sandstone cliffs — Prince Edward Island with its bounty of land and sea is an ever-popular tourist destination — and a chef’s paradise.
“The climate here is wonderful for agriculture. We’re a great, big, giant green farm floating in the deep blue sea,” says Michael Smith, an award-winning chef, cookbook author and TV host, as well as a long-time Islander (20 years plus) and owner of The Inn at Bay Fortune and its revered farm-to-table restaurant, FireWorks.
Spanning 5,680 square kilometers (2,185 square miles), this modestly sized island is home to the Culinary Institute of Canada (in Charlottetown) and the many renowned PEI- raised chefs who teach there. The hyper-local food scene typically serves up excellent fare prepared with fresh ingredients hauled from the sea or harvested from the fertile red soil.
“We’ve become more comfortable in our own skin, both as Canadians and as Islanders, and that’s allowed us to celebrate what is around us,” notes Smith. And although there has always been incredible local cuisine on offer, what brought significant culinary change is a new generation of chefs and diners craving PEI’s elemental connections to earth and sea.
Smith has been foraging on the island for many years, but interest in locally sourced fare has grown so much recently that local producers are able to sustain their success as small businesses, like independent forager Sylvain Cormier of Everything Wild. “Others here have realized we are surrounded by wild food, but Sylvain is out in the woods and on the beaches, foraging wild vegetables as a career, and that couldn’t have happened here before,” says Smith. “We now have five distilleries on the island. I had somebody come in through the door the other day who was making artisan mustard. I can’t keep track of all these new producers. They just keep coming and I love that.”
And then there’s Chuck Hughes, a professional chef who is based in Montreal but has a deep, special connection to Prince Edward Island. He started coming seven years ago to participate in the annual food event Fall Flavours, which runs in September in tandem with the PEI International Shellfish Festival. In 2016 Hughes filmed an episode on the island for his Food Network Canada show, Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip. He now spends a couple of weeks with his family every year at a cottage in Cavendish, a resort area on the northern shore.
“Obviously, there are great restaurants and there are artisans,” says Hughes. But the draw for him is something else. “It’s the people you meet along the way who aren’t chefs or restaurant owners but have this passion [for] where food comes from. It’s a little bit of what big cities have lost, and it is refreshing to go to PEI because of that.”
When you’re in Prince Edward Island, that connection to local producers is easily found. Hughes recounts going to Charlottetown Farmers Market just after his first child was born to buy a lambskin, which the vendor was selling next to the wool and the lamb chops that also came from the vendor’s sheep. Shopping at the market is a wonderful experience, he says, because there’s a wide range of choices, all locally sourced — from bountiful produce and just-baked goods to fresh-cut flowers and handicrafts.
It’s that local connection that Hughes says he feels, the minute he arrives. “For me, that’s the real PEI experience. And anybody visiting PEI is going to have a similar experience because the people are so proud of what they offer.
“It’s so honest and real. There’s an authenticity and connection to real food, and the joy of eating — and living.
Where The Chefs Get The Goods
PEI offers more than just Instagram- worthy beaches and that charming small-town vibe. This culinary dream of a destination boasts seriously premium-quality seafood and drink to delight residents and vacationers alike, such as chefs in-the-know Michael Smith and Chuck Hughes.
Around half of the 40,000 PEI oysters shucked every year at Smith’s restaurant, FireWorks, comes from Colville Bay Oyster Company (colvillebayoysterco.com), a family-run business in the port town of Souris — “quite possibly the very best oysters on the island,” according to Smith. And he cites the straight-up old-fashioned moon- shine at Myriad Distillery (straitshine.com) as a great example of the creative craft distilling that’s happening on the island.
Meanwhile, as an essential part of meal planning, Hughes heads to Gallant’s Shellfish & Seafood (gallantspeifood.ca) at Stanley Bridge for “live lobster, phenomenal crab cakes, scallops and,” he enthuses, “whatever is coming in at the dock.” Hughes also appreciates the extensive range of gouda available at Glasgow Glen Farm (glasgowglenfarm.ca), from classic to cumin and fenugreek.
By Lola Augustine Brown – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Fall 2018
Photography by: iStock