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Culinary Tour of Vancouver's Cowichan Valley

In Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley there’s a growing food scene that’s defiantly (and deliciously) local. T+L samples the region on a three-day drive.

By Peter Jon Lindberg

If you live anywhere south or east of, say, Vancouver, you’ve probably not heard of the Cowichan Valley. This bucolic corner of Vancouver Island keeps a low profile, even by Canadian standards, which hold humility next to godliness. Residents prefer to let the valley’s food and wine do the talking. The Cowichan’s Mediterranean-like microclimate (with more sunny days than anywhere else in Canada) sustains an impressive range of small farms, vineyards, and artisanal producers, whose bounty is increasingly sought after by B.C. chefs. Comparisons to Napa and Provence miss the point: the Cowichan is far more rustic and homespun than either, not to mention more affordable. What the region lacks in high-end hotels—there are only a handful of inns and B&B’s—it makes up for with simpler delights: communal farm suppers, roadside honey stands, craft cider and microbrews, and the tastiest buffalo mozzarella this side of the Atlantic.

But the valley is just the highlight of Vancouver Island’s culinary circuit, which includes the nearby city of Victoria, with its own farm-to-table tradition, and the southwestern coast, the setting for the island’s finest restaurant. To experience all the region has to offer, we’ve mapped out the perfect three-day drive.

Day 1: Victoria to Duncan

Start in Victoria, a 25-minute flight or 1 1/2-hour ferry ride from Vancouver. With its prim flower gardens, Victorian follies, and mahogany-trimmed pubs, B.C.’s capital feels like a prosperous English city circa 1950, save for the floatplanes buzzing across the harbor and the occasional stuffed grizzly bear. Your first stop: the waterfront gastropub Spinnakers for creamy Fanny Bay oysters, rich seafood chowder, and the pub’s own ESB cask ale, served on a deck overlooking the harbor.

After renting a car, make your way out of town heading north. A 26-mile drive leads into the thickly forested Malahat range, where a 1,155-foot pass takes you over the mountains then down, down into the Cowichan Valley proper.

Highway 1, running north-south through the valley, is a remarkably dull stretch of road. It’s along the quiet back roads and gravel lanes jutting off of it that the Cowichan’s riches fully reveal themselves. At the end of one especially rutted drive is Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat & Guesthouse, the crown jewel of the Cowichan food scene, thanks to proprietor and chef Mara Jernigan, who also leads a terrific Saturday cooking class. Five guest rooms are upstairs in the 1896 farmhouse, with interiors that are just the right side of twee: patchwork quilts; tulip sconces; flatiron doorstops. Wander the farm’s 130 acres and visit the resident herd of water buffalo, source of Fairburn’s decadently creamy and tangy mozzarella. After a sound night’s sleep, you’ll wake to their distant lowing and the aroma of a hearty farm breakfast.

Day 2: Duncan to Cowichan Bay

If you’re not taking Jernigan’s cooking class, spend the day touring the valley. Get the lay of the land and sample local products at the Duncan Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday in Duncan, the valley’s workaday hub. Stop in for a pint at the convivial Craig Street Brew Pub, whose Shawnigan Irish Ale is the best of several house-made beers.

Then follow the clanging of ships’ bells and the squawking of gulls to Cowichan Bay, the first town in North America to be recognized by Cittaslow, the Italy-based Slow Food organization. Seemingly every resident makes a daily pilgrimage to True Grain Bread & Mill, whose organic loaves you’ll smell from blocks away. You can assemble a great picnic lunch here and at Hilary’s Cheese & Deli, where the young, mushroomy goat’s-milk blue is the standout among nearly a dozen local varieties. Take it all down to a pier on the marina, where sleek yachts and rusty fishing vessels occupy neighboring berths. For dessert: a black-cherry cone at the Udder Guy’s Ice Cream Company.

The hazy, golden light of late afternoon is the ideal backdrop for a hike through the orchards of Merridale Ciderworks, seven miles south of Cowichan Bay. Rick Pipes and Janet Docherty make their cider from English and French heirloom apples and distill a fine Calvados-style brandy using a traditional copper still.

Before sundown, head back to Cowichan Bay for dinner at the Masthead, a maritime-style tavern filled with acres of worn wood, flickering oil lamps, and a winningly retro vibe (tableside Caesar salad service; a pianist playing “Theme from St. Elsewhere”). Sit out on the deck above the marina and order Whaletown oysters from Cortes Island and seared scallops from Qualicum Beach, just 60 miles north.

Alternatively, if Bill Jones is hosting one of his monthly themed dinners, book ahead at Deerholme Farm. Jones, a supremely talented chef, is also a passionate forager, and wild mushrooms are often the highlight of his tasting menus, served in his cozy farmhouse. Working with a single sous-chef, Jones puts a French and Asian spin on farm-to-table cooking: a recent meal included a Chinese-style duck with hoisin sauce made from Deerholme’s own squash, and a hen-and-egg dumpling soup infused with fresh ginseng and wasabi from the garden.

Day 3: Duncan to Sooke

Anyone in the valley on a Sunday should make a reservation for Mara Jernigan’s epic Italian-inspired lunch at Fairburn Farm, served on communal tables on the porch. (It’s open both to guests and to people who aren’t staying at the inn.) The six courses might include a stellar salad of just-picked baby greens, a lasagna of chanterelles, braised lamb shanks with featherlight gnocchi, and a plate of Cowichan cheeses with figs and house-made mostarda (a spicy candied-fruit condiment). After lunch, cross back over the Malahat range on Highway 1, then follow Route 14 along the southwestern coast. Here, as the shoreline grows more rugged and the winds more blustery, habitations are fewer and farther between. In the sleepy hamlet of Sooke, stop in at Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery to sample the excellent honey and strong mead. Then check into the 28-room Sooke Harbour House, tucked away on a semiprivate peninsula.

The inn is best known—and deservedly so—for its restaurant, where chef Sam Benedetto works wonders using almost exclusively island ingredients: that means no olive oil, no citrus, no produce that can’t be grown in the inn’s expansive garden. Thankfully, what can be grown here is remarkable: sweet Asian pears; four varieties of kiwi; nasturtiums whose buds can substitute for capers; orange begonias that emit a tart, citrusy juice; and dozens of distinctly flavored geraniums, which taste uncannily of garlic or apple or dill or lime. The daily-changing menu is especially strong on seafood, be it a Dungeness crab soup or sweet Weathervane scallops served with sea asparagus and sorrel. The 15,000-wbottle wine list is overseen by the inn’s charismatic owner, Sinclair Philip—who, along with Jernigan, helped start the island’s Slow Food movement. Toast them both with a glass of smoky-sweet Brandenburg No. 3, an amber dessert wine from Cowichan’s own Venturi-Schulze. Then it’s off to bed with the sound of waves lapping on the rocky shore below.