Celebrating PEI’s Splendid Shellfish
In 1867, Prince Edward Island, wearing a necklace of ochre cliffs, became the birthplace of Canadian Confederation. It is also one of the most beautiful regions in our nation. This “gentle island” is a land of story tellers who recount legends as if they were yesterday’s news. And there’s music! From community dances to church cantatas to kitchen parties where friends gather to sing and play whatever instrument is handy (I usually opt for the spoons.)
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 they’re generally known as ‘Malpeque”, top notch oyster farmers have developed their own followers with names like Raspberry Point and Colville Bay. These are arguably the finest such shellfish anywhere in Canada and they’re a study in excellence and the creativity, not to mention the tenacity, of their two farmers. Both men are entrepreneurs in the best sense. They strive for absolute excellence.
Scott Linkletter (at right), owner of Raspberry Point, 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 labeled ‘mooey gooey’). As a dairyman, he also thought, ‘why not make cheese, too?” and Avonlea clothbound cheddar (at left) was born. It has gone on to win nearly every award that there is in the Canadian dairy industry and is still made with 100% island milk. Sometime, during those years of cheese development, he 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 who is seen here at the helm of his lobster boat. With his brother, Leo, they harvest what Chef Michael Smith believes to be the most delicious oyster in the Canada. The basin where the Flynns tong most of their catch from is wider and quieter than the waters of New London that 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. They’re grown in much deeper water than oysters where the socks are loaded with the baby shellfish and 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 P.E.I’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 (the mid-weekend in September). Festival founder Liam Dolan, owns the Claddagh Oyster House and is himself 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 chowder…the more seafood in 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 politics from mayors to members of Parliament and television stars like Chef Michael Smith who is usually 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 5 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 ‘shine’… and you’ll still get back in time for dinner.
While you’re in Charlottetown:
The Charlottetown Festival is world-renowned and this year have launched the critically acclaimed play Evangeline. REALLY worth checking out.
One of the finest markets in all of Canada is in Charlottetown. Start with some island roasted coffee at Café Corner then pick up a bagel with Kim Dormaar’s fabulous cold smoked salmon on top.
Charlottetown Farmers Market – indoors, year round. 100 Belvedere Avenue Charlottetown, PE C1A 8C4 https://charlottetownfarmersmarket.weebly.com T: 902- 626-3373
Food Day Canada Restaurants to check out while you’re there!
For more information on traveling this magnificent island visit the Tourism PEI website.
And for the Shellfish Festival click here!