There’s no doubt about it, Vancouver Island is a foodie mecca. In fact, another nickname, one perhaps even more fitting, would be “Island of Foodies.” And not just any foodies, Local Foodies; the island is filled with such distinctive tribes of locavore foodies, farmers, winemakers, cheesemakers, bakers and blueberry cultivators that they’ve pretty much coined the idea of “local food” and just about made it into a religion. Them and their guardian Faeries…
Little under an hour North of Victoria, in a pastoral setting nestled between Mill Bay and Cobble Hill, there is Merridale Estate Cidery.
Merridale, the first cidery on the island, is owned by Rick Pipes and Janet Docherty who readily admit that the undertaking is a “labor of love” and has been since they first bought the 20-acre property in 2000. No one else at the time was doing cider on the island. So Rick, Merridale’s cider maker, got in touch with Peter Mitchell, the U.K. -based “cider guru” to teach him some tips.
The result? Their “Traditional Cider” label took 3rd place in a blind international tasting in England. Janet is quick to point out that this really is something, considering that the English have been making ciders since before Shakespeare’s day. “It’s the temperate climate here. We’re in a rain shadow. Cider apples thrive here,” explains Rick who also revels in showing off his wood-fired, Black Forest Germany-made, hand-hammered, copper-topped still that he uses to distill his newest lines of spirits: Mure O blackberry eau de vie, Calvados-style apple brandy and the Winter Apple fortified wine (so smooth, so sweet!)
“Men have such an enthusiastic response when they see this still,” shares Janet. “It’s as if they’re looking at a Ferrari.” Rick explains that, “the copper ball on top is for the fruit brandies. It’s to capture the aromatics.” He continues by pointing out that “distilling is a new industry in B.C.” where locals describe some of the province’s holdover liquor laws as throw-backs to Prohibition Days.
Faeries greet you as soon as you enter Merridale and as you gambol through the property. If you look, you will even see the demure sign or two advising you that there is a Faerie Guard. “When children come to visit, we send them on a faerie hunt. They like to tell us how many they’ve seen,” says Janet with a twinkle, herself a mother of three.
Your stop at Merridale absolutely must include a snack or a meal at La Pommeraie, Merridale’s blonde-wood bedecked bistro, accompanied by a flight of cider tasting. My favorite was the Somerset Cider, an “English version of champagne.” Highly recommended is the Merridale Platter which includes Chef Dave’s (he has a Michelin-starred background – the island seems only to attract the best who’ve decided to showcase their culinary skills with a kick-back kind of flare) selection of local food stars such as Salt Spring Island cheese. There’s lots to choose from to take home with you from their on-site, wood-burning brick oven bakery and also their gift shop, but you’ll want to be sure to add a bottle of Scrumpy to your list. Scrumpy is both Merridale’s “sentinel Faerie” and their North American Brewers Award gold winning cider. “Scrumping” in olde English refers to when peasants would steal apples from the fields.
On the horizon: Ladies and Gents make your reservations now: Merridale’s Day Spa will be open by May of this year and will host groups of 4-12 for manis, pedis and massages. Janet currently has a line of organic beauty products under development made from the pulp of the juiced, squished apples which is high in anti-oxidants. With their CosmOh!’s and Oh!Tinis I can easily picture myself floating a spa afternoon away in the Gazebo by the pond at Merridale Cidery. And I’m certain I’d see a few Faeries as I floated!