For a day of delight, make your way to Cow Bay. This little seaside village boasts some of Vancouver Island’s star culinary attractions. They are: Hilary’s Artisan Cheese, True Grain Bread, and newly refurbished Cowichan Bay Seafood.
The Cowichan Valley Regional District is also home to Fairburn Farm, the decade-long Slow Food and Water Buffalo mozzarella cheese farm championed by Mara Jernigan and the Fairburn Farm family. Just a meandering island country road down from there is Blue Grouse Vineyards and Winery, one of the founding estate wineries of Vancouver Island. There’s also the Cowichan Valley Meat Market [and Quist Family Farm processing], an important component in ranking as a Slow Food Community, as Vanessa, on Cowichan Bay’s Slow Food Board, is quick to point out, “Everyone can grow their own vegetables and keep their own chickens, but what about the protein source?” she rhetorically asks, during a discussion about Vancouver Island’s unique on-island meat processing facilities.
Cowichan Bay is a small unincorporated area, more a village than a town, that is tucked inbetween Victoria to the South and Comox Valley to the north. Salt Spring Island is just a stone’s throw away across from the neighboring Genoa and Maple Bays.
If you’re into “Slow” then you probably already know that Cowichan Bay is the first North American community to be awarded the Citta Slow designation; a designation they won only just last August and due to the focused efforts of Mara from Fairburn, Hilary Abbott of the fore-mentioned cheese, Bruce of famed True Grain and Vanessa Elton of Affinity Guesthouse. Full membership of Cittaslow is only open to towns with a population under 50,000. To qualify as eligible, a town must score at least 50 percent in a 52-point Citta inspection – Cow Bay scored 93 percent, one of the highest scores in the entire International Network. This little village scored particularly high for their environmental policies and also, since Vanessa and her husband Dwight who run Affinity Guesthouse had something to do with it, friendliness as well.
An afternoon is barely enough time to take in Cow Bay, we recommend a weekend, and here’s some of the must-sees:
Check in to your B&B as only the view from a private residence will afford you the real glimpse of the Bay’s pastoral setting. The views from the two rooms at Affinity Guesthouse look out onto a river, a green and lush backyard that opens up onto the Bay and trees that appear to have popped out from the pages of a picture book. Likely Dwight will be jumping off of his tractor to greet you as you pull up. Don’t be swayed by the neighboring homes as you find your way to their off-the-beaten path Guest House, the destination at the end is well-worth driving through the few brambles.
True Grain Bread & Hilary’s Artisan Cheese
Next stop is True Grain Bread and Hilary’s Artisan Cheese, conveniently located side-by-side in Cowichan Village. Locals will tell you that on any given Saturday morning, there are lines outside the bakery for the fresh loaves and they’re often sold out by noon. Yes, they are opening a second location on April 15th in Mill Bay. What makes Bruce’s bread so different? They use no pre-made mixes or dough and bake only with organic grains. “We favor Red Fife Heritage wheat and ancient varieties such as Kamut, Emmer and Spelt that are pure varieties,” says Bruce, who, with his wife Leslie bought the business in 2008 and moved to the Island from Calgary. They bake all their loaves fresh that day or they give them away to the community. They use no preservatives, sugar, dairy, coloring, TransFat, GMO’s and so forth. Some loaves you will find: Hazelnut, Apple Cranberry, Bay Wheat, Kamut Pumpkin Seed, Whole Spelt…
Interestingly, for most Slow Food communities, protein is the challenging aspect as many regions do not have ready access to meat processing plants. The island, with their ingrained sense of “food security” has this aspect licked, but what proves to be a challenge to these native foodists is grain.
In answer to this, owners Brock and Heather of Makaria Farms, along with a few others, have begun the Island Grains project. This project has local residents planting, CSA style, rye, barley, Red Fife and hard white spring wheat. Participants are referred to as “grainies” and they get to take home a share of the grains planted on Makaria Farms. It’s the Island’s first-ever Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) grain and each participant this harvest will get about a 40-lb slice of the rye and wheat harvest. The communal harvest is forecast for August when grainies will show up with their “scissors, sickles and pruning shears.” True Grain will mill the flour and with respect to the threshing, hull-less oats, wheat, barley and rye are encouraged. On the wish list this year: a mechanical thresher! Www.IslandGrains.com
Hilary’s Cheese is a wonderful stop to stock up on picnic supplies such as his freshly made goat cheeses and the deli meats he keeps stocked behind the glass counter. It’s also a great place to grab a bowl of soup and sit at one of the tables in the lunch room overlooking Cow Bay’s “float homes,” (not to be confused with houseboats, an altogether different animal). If you think to call ahead and you get lucky scheduling-wise, we’ve heard that Hilary will give Cheese Tours from time to time for the chosen.
Just a couple doors down and past a potter’s studio and other artist attractions, is Cowichan Bay Seafood. Recently bequeathed a new coating of paint, it’s one of the freshest, cleanest fish markets you’ll find anywhere. Fresh halibut, now in season, as well as crabs, shrimp, scallop and, yes, fresh oysters and mussels, are all ripe for the picking.
Blue Grouse Vineyards
Just a short drive up the road, across the main “highway” and down a country lane you’ll find Hans at Blue Grouse Winery and Vineyards. “True and healthy varietal wines,” is how Richard Kiltz and his father describe their wines. On a picturesque sloping estate, just a few kilometers from Fairburn Farm, the Kiltzes established their vineyards in 1989.
“Ja, we came to the island in 1989,” Hans will tell you, “At that time, there were 28 wineries in all of British Columbia. Eight of them were owned by Germans.” Richard, trained in the tradition of oenology in Germany, credits the pure air and spring water with providing the raw stuffs that make the grapes that great wine comes from. Ortega is a grape they’ve planted since the beginning and for a splash of freshness, drink a glass and take home a bottle of Blue Grouse’s Siegerrebe, an offspring of Gewurztraminer and Madeleine Angevine…mmm!.. rose petals and peaches. Www.bluegrousevineyards.com The Sixth Annual Cowichan Valley Wine & Culinary Festival happens in September.
It’s time now to find a quiet little nook to enjoy your picnic foragings on your first Cow Bay food run. Find your way down to Providence Farms and once again, you’ll walk right into a picture book. It’s the tall Church Steeple and red farmhouse you will see as you drive along Tzouhalem Road. Providence is a “therapeutic farming community;” a 400-acre haven bequeathed by the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Ann and was established in 1979 as the Vancouver Island Providence Community Association. Www. Providence.bc.ca
The grounds themselves are pastoral, picturesque, picture-book like scenery. But not to miss are the greenhouse and nursery where you can pick up annuals, perennials and herbs and the Farm Store where you can buy treats for yourself and to take home such as freshly baked cookies, canning from the Kitchen Program – a program that Dwight and Vanessa volunteer for – and fresh eggs from “the girls.” You’ll want those for your breakfast in the morning. All purchases go toward supporting the running of the farm.
If you happen to be on the island in Spring, absolutely not to miss is the Stinging Nettle Festival at Fairburn Farm. Stinging nettle dates back to ancient times as a food source, and even farther back as a medicinal and clothing fiber source. It contains the most chlorophyll of any vegetable. It also contains 40 percent protein and has higher volumes of vitamins A, C, and D than spinach, even, when cooked, as well as potassium and calcium.
Mara Jernigan, who is soon off to Italy for an indefinite amount of time, but is, at the moment, still the Slow Food Canada President, is hosting this 5-course Nettle Dinner at Fairburn. Entry fee includes stinging nettle tea, taste workshops and guided nature walks. You can even purchase lunch items made with nettles at the “Stinging Nettle Cafe.”
Stinging Nettle Festival April 17th and 18th at Fairburn Farm. Www. Fairburnfarm.bc.ca