First of all, why are all “lists” that get posted made up of 5 or 10 items? I am sure that the “Top 10” list goes back in history and you can find a detailed analysis somewhere based on the ability of the human brain to process a specific number of items. Either that or Late Night with David Letterman! And the “Favourite 5” lists most likely come from writers who lose interest and momentum halfway through the process. So I am going with 6 – not an exhaustive list by any means, as I find new secrets every day. I will continue to explore and continue to share most (but not all) of the secrets with my readers.
With this week kicking off the “Dine Around Comox Valley” promotion, I thought it would be a good time to share some less well known “foodie secrets” in and around the region. One of my personal pet peeves is that so many visitors to Vancouver Island start in Victoria, head up to Parksville, hop across to Tofino and say they have seen the Island. These are all gorgeous areas to visit, but it reminds me of foreigners who visit Toronto and Montreal, then tell their friends they have seen Canada. For the culinary tourists that our Island attracts, they are truly missing out by not extending their trip just a bit further North. Fly with WestJet or Air Canada back to the mainland, or take BC Ferries across to Powell River and down the Sunshine Coast – well worth the time spent!
1. Shellfish – Farming, Digging, and Trapping
While Campbell River is well known as the “Salmon Capital of the World”, the Comox Valley region is the largest producer of shellfish in British Columbia, and the largest producer of oysters in Canada. Focused primarily on clams and oysters until recently, there are now local businesses which are producing other species such as geoducks, sea cucumbers and urchins. This has opened up new opportunities for visitors to get out on the water, tour facilities, and learn about how aquaculture is changing the sustainability of seafood in a good way.
In addition to farmed shellfish, several beaches in the area are perfect for digging clams at low tide – for those who are a little more adventurous. While Eric Akis harvests his shellfish a bit further South on the Island, he has done a great job of summarizing the process in his Times Colonist article. As with fresh or saltwater fish, you do require a licence to harvest shellfish, and there are some restrictions re: size and daily limits. More Information can be found on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific Region website. Once there, you’ll see a link called B.C. Sport Fishing – click on it to learn how to obtain a licence and find tidal water fishing area maps that will help to determine which species can be harvested along the coastline and where.
If you’re looking for a true west coast fishing experience, there really is nothing like trapping a few Dungeness crabs and cooking them over an open fire on the beach. Parks such as Goose Spit in the centre of Comox actually set up firepits to be used during the summer months for just this purpose. Many of the locals will take a kayak out into the bay on a calm morning, bait and drop a few traps while they explore the shoreline, and pick them up on their way back to the marina. Or have Westcoast Gourmet arrange an afternoon trip for your group with a guide and private chef, setting some traps, touring the oyster farms, and eating fresh shellfish barbecued on the beach or the back of the boat.
Chanterelle mushrooms are famous around the world, and yet fresh ones are rare and expensive in most locations. On Vancouver Island, however, children have fun foraging for mushrooms on school field trips, and locals have their favourite picking spots to go to once those autumn rains begin. Chanterelles on toast or in a light creamy wine sauce over pasta, keep serious mushroom hunters focused while bush-whacking through huckleberry bushes. Vancouver Island Mushroom Adventures is a local business that sells wild edible gourmet mushrooms (Chanterelle, Pine, Morel, and Lobster are the most common) at the local Farmer’s Markets. They also offer Mushroom Identification and Cultivation courses/workshops so that you can learn to identify edible and medicinal mushrooms while sampling some of the most highly revered and health promoting medicinal mushrooms in the world.
4. Seafood from Fisherman’s Wharf
Visitors to Vancouver Island, and especially those who have cooking facilities in their vacation homes, are often looking for fresh seafood to prepare on their own, planning a feast of sautéed spot prawns and chowder to enjoy with a bottle of local wine. While our seafood markets and grocery stores do a great job of offering local products, there is really nothing like fresh fish from the docks. Seafood is often available at the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can buy directly from local fishermen. Comox Valley and Campbell River each have their own wharf, and the Harbour Authority websites do a good job of keeping us informed about what might be for sale on any given day. The Comox site even has an option to Sign up for Seafood Sales Updates, where you provide your email address and they will keep you posted re: details and times to pick up fresh Salmon, Prawns, or Halibut off the docks.
5. Some “Other” Restaurants
When I began this article, I did some research to remind myself of what has already been written on the topic. We really do have amazing restaurants so I found lots of recommendations for Locals, Atlas Cafe, Martine’s Bistro, The White Whale, Breakwater Restaurant (soon to be reopened as AQUA and Ocean7) Blackfin Pub, and Toscano’s Mediterranean Grill – just to name a few (I shouldn’t have even started, and apologize to ALL those that I have missed). There were also several articles written about the year-round Comox Valley Farmer’s Market (which has expanded to host 3 separate venues each week). And of course our three craft breweries, two artisan distilleries, and four local wineries within a stone’s throw of each other. Maybe two stone’s.
But then there are the little restaurants such as Yummies & Gyros Greek Cafe, locally owned and operated since 1999. And Islander Pizza & Pasta – also locally owned and operated, since 1993! The Kinaree Thai restaurant, owned by Soulat and Pasthida Ma, opened in 2006 to serve traditional Thai cuisine from Soulat’s childhood home in Bangkok. And while there are several good sushi restaurants in town, I still love Sushi Kobo for its authenticity. Primarily a take-out and delivery option, the small storefront is welcoming and efficient. At the other end of the spectrum, Green Dream Café in the Botanic Garden at Innisfree Farm, where you will find “a tranquil oasis for an al fresco vegetarian lunch”. The garden is an internationally registered botanic garden and learning centre with a specialty in food and medicine plants. Their tranquil gardens, healthy food, and afternoon teas which pair their own herbal teas with fresh baking are all truly a unique Vancouver Island experience.
6. Heli-Wine & Distillery Tours
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