Joy of Discovery: Island Food

Part of cruising is the joy of discovery. The Admiral and I just returned from a six-week cruise to Desolation Sound, and explored places we had never been. There is an anticipation each time one rounds a headland or correctly identifies an island from its outline on the chart. And even though we had many more resources than M. Wylie Blanchett’s Coastal Pilot, there is a particular pleasure in discovering that the description of the approach matches the reality of making it.
Perhaps it’s the French blood in me, which still cries out for fresh bread with its morning café au lait, but one of my joys of cruising is the joy of discovering local food, or at least locally prepared food.
On Cortes Island in Desolation Sound, for instance, I bolstered our coffee stores with a bag of “Betty’s Beans,” (roasted on the island, grown elsewhere). But as coffee aficionados know, the roaster’s art is an important part of the process, and the task even more delicate and time-critical than the winemaker’s. We used our last scoop of Betty’s three days ago, and we’re sorry to see that last cup of mocha java disappear.

I replacedCoffee and Bread it with some beans from Saltspring Coffee Company in Ganges. On a previous trip through Ganges, we discovered that the company used to roast on the island, but the powers-that-be objected to the smell, and the company was forced to move that operation to Richmond, BC, on the mainland. That story continued with the news that the Richmond facility now is able to roast enough coffee to supply outlets throughout Canada. I still think of that coffee as being “local.”

Saltspring Coffee Company’s motto, “Believe in being better”, is classic island commerce: it comes with a philosophy. There are island enterprises without them, of course, but most have some sort of vocation attached, a distinctive raison d’etre that penetrates to the people who have come there out of some purpose, either lost or found, and underlies their work and its product.

Salt Spring Wild, for instance, makes classically dry and semi-sweet hard cider, made from heritage apples and other fruits on the island. But the second paragraph wants you to know more: “Owned and operated by a philosopher and a stone sculptor…” The cider is excellent, but on the island, it’s not just about the food, is it? It’s about the source ofSalt Spring Cider inspiration.

All of these foods are experiences that arrive with their own narratives of provenance.
Island resources are not as plentiful as those of the mainland, and that is part of what makes the concept so attractive: there is ordinarily a simplicity in the making of the food. There’s also the fact that if one is producing food for one’s fellow Islanders, one can follow one’s own idea of what that food should be. No one is holding endless focus groups to determine how much sugar should be in one’s jam, or which label would be more competitive on the wide shelves owned by a national supermarket chain.

If you stop in to the General Store next to the ferry dock on Shaw Island, you can buy “Monastery Cheese,” made bMonastery Cheesey the Benedictine monks whose disciplines include a component of work. The cheese is made with raw milk from their Jersey cows. If you like, it comes with a short history of religious life on Shaw Island, delivered by the storekeeper. In the mouth, the cheese itself is a joyful simplicity that cuts through the complexity of a cheese plate delivered in a high-end tapas bar, and reminds one that there is milk and there are cows, and people who care to convey that to you through their labor.
Since the Admiral and I have begun cruising full time, I discovered that fresh bread is easier to keep on board, but harder to keep fresh. Luckily, islanders need bread as well, and there are bakeries to supply that need, and therefore, my own. My general observation is that the smaller bakeries are the ones that will yield the more toothsome bread. I rarely did well by shopping at the marina stores or supermarkets, both of which tend to supply bread that is preserved well and generally appealing. This meant seeking out a bakery. On Galliano, we rented mopeds in Montague Harbor and discovered the Trinconmali Bakery, which had a marvelous multigrain sourdough bread.

Towards the bottom of the Malaspina Inlet, we had an excellent lunch at the Laughing Oyster restaurant, and I remarked on a baguette that they served with our lunch. My server informed me that it is ordered from Victoria, intentionally arrives less-than-fully-baked, and is then finished in their ovens before being served. Would the proprietor sell me a loaf? She would. The next few mornings board Selah were redolent with the fragrance of bread being finished in the oven, as the coffee brewed. Not a bad way to cruise.

While we were in Montague Harbor, we stopped in at the Crane and Robin, which bills itself as a restaurant, and has replaced the café connected with the small marina there. It was hot, and we asked for some salsa and chips to go along with our cool beverages. The freshly-cut salsa immediately declared itself as original. We were told that the salsa is hand made by the chef, contains capers and is heated with house-made horseradish. No amount of cajoling could pry out more details from our server. We were informed that this was a matter of matrimonial loyalty; the chef was her husband. On another visit to the same establishment, it was cold and rainy. The Admiral ordered their ginger miso pho, which was another improvement on the expected, as were the roasted curried cauliflower tacos with house-made hummus.

The clientele at the Crane and Robin is local; it just happens to be in a marina. This is part of my point: the originality inherent in each island presents itself in the local food. An observant cruiser will find it, and, one hopes, delight in their own discoveries.

I would love to hear about your own.

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