Foraging for the Ultimate P.E.I. Menu
Charlottetown Airport offers direct flights from major eastern Canadian cities. The other two ways in are by ferry — Cap-aux-Meules in the Îles-de-la-Madeleine to Souris, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S., to Wood Islands, P.E.I. — or by car over the majestic Confederation Bridge, which connects the island with New Brunswick.
There is a range of accommodations for any type of traveller, from boutique hotels in Charlottetown to rental cottages and campgrounds, 10 of which are within provincial parks. More than 10 beaches have nearby or on-site camping areas. For a historical perspective, book a room inside the old lighthouse at West Point, which has been turned into an inn overlooking West Point beach.
The Confederation Trail, often called the Spine of the Island, covers P.E.I. from end to end over old railway lines. It’s great for cycling, and chef Michael Smith says you can find much-loved chanterelle mushrooms in spots along the way. Brackley Beach, on the island’s north coast, is a popular spot for teenagers wanting to spend a day in the sun with their friends. The boardwalk in Charlottetown provides a condensed history of Confederation, while Anne of Green Gables mania is (mostly) confined to Cavendish.
Long before foraging became trendy in Toronto restaurant kitchens, notes Prince Edward Island’s celebrity chef-ambassador Michael Smith, islanders made meals from ingredients picked off the land. “Foraging is something that is already ingrained in our culture,” he says. “If you go back 50 years or so, this was what every family on the island did; you used every resource that was available to you. It was how you lived and stretched your dollar into a year.”
These days, the province is having a bit of a heritage moment as young chefs head back into the woods to pick cattails and fireweed and find ways to use them in delicious dishes paired with island seafood and crops. Zagat-rated restaurants in Charlottetown appeal to the gastronomes’ inclination to know every detail about a dish. Menu descriptions that include the origins of different ingredients illustrate the island’s arable, hornof- plenty bounty that Smith calls “Food Country” in his web video series of the same name. It highlights food experiences with island producers, many of whom are now part of the P.E.I. Flavours Culinary Trail tour that the island’s culinary alliance launched three years ago. Here are some of the foraged finds, new foods and island classics to discover along the way.
Found on sandbars just off the shore in a few feet of water, these clams were traditionally cellared for chowder, as the meat is quite tough. “It’s bigger, it’s got more flavour and it’s got more texture,” Smith says. “A bar clam is delicious if you know how to handle them.” Chef John Pritchard at Charlottetown restaurant Terre Rouge serves them as bar-clam fritters with pickled cattail and fermented leek roulade.
Al Picketts used to be a beekeeper. His principal crop is now garlic of 10 types, two of which he turns into black garlic by way of slow cooking (he won’t divulge at what temperature, for fear of the competition copying him). The owner of Eureka Garlic says it takes 23 days to turn black, at which point it’s devoid of its pungency, but not its flavour. The cloves become soft and easy to mash into dips and sauces, or even pop like candy. Picketts says the rocambole type makes the nicest black garlic, which turns out quite sweet. Chef Norman Zeledon of culinary studio Annie’s Table makes a moist cake with black garlic, dark chocolate and pear, and has used the blackened cloves to encrust a rack of lamb.
Sylvain Cormier makes a full-time living foraging for more than 20 of the island’s restaurants and says you can eat a part of the cattail for every time of the year. By mid-June, cattail tops start to go leathery, but the shoots are very tender. They taste crunchy like a hybrid cucumber-green onion and are good in salad. Smith has a recipe for pickled cattail hearts with cherry tomatoes. At Charlottetown restaurant Lot 30, the cattails are cooked with garlic and served with beef short ribs.
Colville Bay oysters
“Oysters taste like where they are from,” Smith says about what some call terroir. It’s not a term you’d hear from Smith. Back in 1998 he wrote in his cookbook, Open Kitchen, that food “can suffer from overanalysis and pretension,” and he prefers to shoot much straighter. He calls these oysters, with their distinctive algae-stained green shells and sweet taste, the best in the world. Oyster farmer Johnny Flynn says it takes four to five years for an oyster to get to market size in a labour-intensive process using collectors for the first stage of growth and net bags in later stages. “It’s a game of patience, observation and luck,” he says. When they are ready to shuck and eat, Smith recommends a few chews before swallowing. “The oysters are both salty and sweet, and you don’t get the sweet without chewing.”
The flowering part of the plant is Yukon’s territorial emblem and is tall and leafy, much like a lupin. Forager Cormier gathers the shoots of the plant for his chef customers who cook or wilt them and then use the stalks as a base for a plate of scallops, along with dandelion roots. Other menus featured fireweed mustard.
The Prince Edward Distillery’s gin rivals the blue-bottled variety because of its smooth taste and its bouquet of juniper berries, lemon peel, orange peel, coriander, cumin, ginger and lemongrass — the last two ingredients being unusual for gin. “We use no extracts,” says master distiller Julie Shore. “That’s cheating.” Rather, she distills through the botanicals, very slowly. It takes 14 days to make a bottle of the 40-per-cent Prince Edward gin, which island chef Gordon Bailey describes as “floral, with a very nice crispness.”
These edible honeysuckle berries, blue when ripe, pack a big antioxidant punch. They have one of the highest levels of anthocyanin of any fruit and grow in colder climates. The blossoms can withstand a temperature of –7 C and they’re ready for picking after rhubarb and before strawberries. Lynn Townshend, of Fortune Organics, discovered the plant in 2008 and was amazed. “It’s not very often that you’re in on the ground floor of a brand-new food crop,” she says. The tasty varieties are like a mix of raspberries and blueberries and are used in jams, wine and cobblers. This also represents a new, economically sustainable market for Townshend. “This berry, when it catches on, cannot be usurped by Chile, Peru or those guys that are taking over the high-bush blueberry market,” she says. “The haskap needs the freeze cycle.”
Irene Novaczek, former director of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, runs Oceanna Seaplants, which manufactures and sells (online and at farmers’ markets in Charlottetown and Summerside) skin creams made from foraged ingredients, mainly a few types of seaweed. Novaczek, however, doesn’t generally like to refer to the plants as weeds. “It connotes something that is pesky and unnecessary.” That’s why she goes with the term sea plants, which she believes everyone should have in their diet on a daily basis for the health benefits. She cites everything from immune system function to preventing cancers from these poly-potent functional foods. She says sugar kelp and dulse are great for salads and stir-fries, Gracilaria for pickling and Fucus serratus for medicinal purposes. She makes an herbal tea with Irish moss, honey, rhubarb and a dash of cardamom that is like a warm, sweet, throat-coating gel.
Chefs like the versatility of spruce shoots, because they can be used in sweet or savoury dishes. The tips of the spruce tree are at their prime when they’re light green — that’s when they smell and taste lemony, according to forager Sylvain Cormier. Chef Michael Smith says they aren’t that different from rosemary, if picked at the right time. “At some point in their life, everyone has popped a little bit of pine tree. It can be a very strong, very overwhelming taste,” he says. “We try to pick them in spring when they’re tender. It’s a much more delicate flavour.” Cormier says his Acadian ancestors used spruce shoots to flavour wild meats or mussels, while contemporary uses have been as a garnish on crème brûlée or in a gribiche sauce. It’s just one more example of how Islanders are putting a modern twist on their culinary heritage.