Prince Edward Island: Shellfish Shores
Sweeping beaches with sands that sing as you wander their often nearly-deserted expanses give way to dunes and beyond them, farms and fields as lush as any, filled with blueberries and potatoes and grazing cattle. Fleets of sturdy boats drag for Irish moss and haul in lobster by the ton. And in the brackish estuaries lay some of the finest oyster beds on the continent.
Although PEI oysters are generally known as 'Malpeque,' two top-notch oyster farmers have developed local varieties named Raspberry Point and Colville Bay. These are arguably the finest such shellfish anywhere in Canada and they're a study in the creativity, not to mention tenacity, of their two farmers. Both men are entrepreneurs in the best sense. They strive for absolute excellence. Scott Linkletter founded Cow's Creamery which produces what has been officially named by Tauck World Discovery as the best ice cream on the planet (my fave is one labelled 'mooey gooey'). As a dairyman, he also thought, "why not make cheese, too?" and Avonlea clothbound cheddar was born. It has gone on to win nearly every award in the Canadian dairy industry and is still made with 100 percent island milk. Sometime, during those years of cheese development, Linkletter decided that it might be interesting to grow oysters in New London Bay at the western end of Prince Edward Island National Park at Raspberry Point. On the other side of the island Johnny Flynn, the oysterman of Colville Bay, and his brother Leo harvest what Chef Michael Smith believes to be the most delicious oyster in Canada. The basin where the Flynns tong most of their catch is wider and quieter than the waters of New London, which are more open to ocean storms.
Then there are mussels. Island 'blues' are legendary and sought after in markets all up and down the eastern seaboard. Fifteen million pounds are harvested annually. This professionally run industry is the backbone of island aquaculture. Mussels are grown in much deeper water than oysters. Mussel socks loaded with the baby shellfish are lowered into nutrient-rich bays and river mouths to grow till they swell and the mature shells are full of plump, peachy cream-coloured meat. Rinsed and washed repeatedly in salt water 'wells;' they are sorted and packed for markets locally and all over the world.
Lobster is the third jewel in PEI's fishy crown. It is all wild caught during a few weeks every year. These 'openings' rotate all around Atlantic Canada. There are few food events as famous on the island as its myriad of lobster suppers. The most famous is in the basement of Saint Ann's parish church near Hunter River. Steamed lobster, warm rolls, melted butter, salads, country desserts... and a bib! Life can't get much better.
The highlight of the well-populated culinary calendar is Fall Flavours, an island-wide open house that lasts for most of September. One of its signature events is The PEI Shellfish Festival. Festival founder Liam Dolan owns the Claddagh Oyster House and is a seasoned veteran of the restaurant industry. He has made it his life's work to celebrate island ingredients and, more importantly, the people who harvest them. Everyone comes! From the fishermen who compete in 'Tie One On,' a race to see who can perfectly tie a series of mussel socks to the side of a boat, emulating how it's done on the ocean, to the island chefs who, during the chowder competition, whip the assembled crowd into a feeding frenzy with the many incarnations of chowd... the more seafood the better. The shucking competition draws entrants with their customized oyster knives, from all over North America. There are steamed mussels by the pound and tastings of both Colville Bay and Raspberry Point oysters.
In the crowds you'll rub shoulders with the who's who of the island, from mayors to members of Parliament and television stars like Chef Michael Smith who is on stage for most of the weekend. When you've learned all you need to know for the rest of your life about mussels, wander Charlottetown, bike the Confederation Trail built atop the old rail line or, best of all, hop in a car and dive into the island with a healthy appetite. Although the island is large on a map, it's actually quite easy to drive from end to end in less than five hours. Wind through rural communities, stop for ice cream at Cow's Creamery, try the top cheddar in Canada, watch the fishing boats land, sample the superb island vodka, gin and perhaps even a bit of 'shin... and you'll still get back in time for dinner.