It's a culinary blast in the Comox Valley

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      Droplets of moisture sparkle along tidy rows of blueberry bushes in the sunshine as Marla Limousin and her husband, George Ehrler, enjoy a morning coffee. In 2004, when this couple decided to buy a four-acre organic blueberry and greens farm in the Comox Valley, they were as naive as newborns. Limousin is a landscape architect by trade, and her previous gardening experience amounted to coaxing a few vegetables from a cold frame while working and living in northern Canada. Ehrler, an engineer who, by his own admission, “builds things” as opposed to growing things, dreamed of making fruit wine.

      “We thought this would be kind of fun. It can't be that hard,” Limousin says with a laugh, looking back on the day they first wandered the grounds at Natures Way Farm.

      However, their timing was perfect. Hundred-mile diet fanatics and slow foodies have given a boost to food processors, restaurants with locally focused menus, and small-scale farms like Natures Way. True, it's been fun, says Limousin, but it's also been a barnload of work. Over the past six years, while juggling busy careers, the couple has executed their vision for the farm, investing several hundred thousand dollars building the Blue Moon Estate Winery from the ground up, as well as a tasting kitchen and wine bar on this rural property, located a few minutes' drive from downtown Courtenay.

      Natures Way is just one item on a growing menu of gastronomic attractions that are drawing visitors to the Comox Valley. Less a valley than a pastoral landscape of field and forest that rolls down to the sea midway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, the Comox Valley is divided by the Trent, Puntledge, Tsolum, Courtenay, and Browns rivers. Comox, Courtenay, and Cumberland form the urban base, with the remainder of the population scattered in outlying rural pockets.

      Long before the arrival of European settlers, the Kwakwaka'wakw and Coast Salish peoples harvested the bounty of the land and sea; the elaborate patterns of cedar stakes still visible in the Comox Harbour at low tide attest to a sophisticated system of weirs used for centuries to trap fish. Post-contact, farming quickly became integral to the economic and social makeup of the region. However, only in the past five years or so has the Comox Valley, aptly known as “the Land of Plenty”, undergone a food and beverage renaissance, becoming a culinary tourism contender.

      The Comox Valley Farmers' Market, which operates Saturdays year-round, now boasts 100 vendors, 60 of them farmers and the remainder value-added food processors. These include producers of wasabi, spicy Italian sausages, honey, preserves, and smoked tuna, among an embarrassment of local riches. The Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery has made a splash in the winemaking world, despite being from a region of British Columbia not exactly renowned for grapes. Owners Susan and Jeff Vandermolen have already celebrated a gold medal at the 2010 All-Canadian Wine Championships for their 2009 Ortega, while their 2009 Siegerrebe took home bronze from the London International Wine Fair. Beaufort offers picnics in its vineyard, pairing its varietals with award-winning cheeses from Natural Pastures Cheese Company, such as the Comox Brie, a 2008 gold medallist at the World Championship Cheese Contest. Coastal Black Winery, located on a family farm of four generations in Black Creek, recently bottled its first batch of Blackberry Sparkling wine, while Shelter Point Distillery will release its first single malt in 2014, produced from barley grown on-site. Until that much-anticipated day, the owners are providing distillery and farm tours.

      At Locals Restaurant in downtown Courtenay, it's all in the name. Chef Ronald St. Pierre's almost religious devotion to Comox Valley ingredients caught the attention of Stephen Harper's handlers during the last federal election, when they called with a request to cater a special in-flight meal for the country-crossing incumbent prime minister. The menu included crudités of organic vegetables and sandwiches featuring Tannadice Farms ham, Estevan albacore tuna, Natural Pastures cheese, and meat from Island Bison.

      Chef Kathy Jerritt, founder of Tria Culinary Studio and a graduate of Vancouver Island University's culinary-arts program, is equally energized by the local bounty. She offers custom catering, cooking classes, and full-moon feasts at an intimate space she rents at Natures Way Farm. From her mobile kitchen she spins out sweet and savoury crepes made with hand-picked local ingredients. They're a regular Saturday-morning hit at the farmers market.

      “For a chef, this is the best place to be,” Jerritt says, relaxing after catering a wedding reception at the spectacular new Centre for Shellfish Research overlooking Deep Bay. “We have local beef, pheasant, emu, and bison—you name it. With respect to produce, everything is here. I've had seasonal watermelon and cantaloupe from Pattison Farms that is tastier than anything I've experienced. The figs from Hazelmere Farm are amazing.”

      Jerritt says, as a cook, remaining devoted to local producers and growers still requires creativity and tenacity. Supply chains are clunky, and ingredient costs are often higher; it can be challenging to convey these costs to customers who are used to the bargain-basement prices of national grocery chain stores filled with agri-industrial imports. However, on the upside, Jerritt says local growers and chefs are talking with one another more than they ever have in the past, and that is helping sustain the food-scene buzz.

      “These days it's hard to step into any independent restaurant in the Comox Valley that doesn't have at least a few locally sourced items on the menu,” Jerritt says.

      Perhaps the greatest indication of the agritourism revolution in the Comox Valley is the fact that the farmers market is outgrowing its location at the Comox Valley Fairgrounds. Plans are in the works to relocate to a permanent site on an old farm near the Courtenay River estuary. Now all the members of the farmers-market association need to do is raise $2 million to build the market. “Getting a bunch of farmers to agree on something can be interesting,” says Limousin, who is also a farmers-market board member. “But this is a very exciting time to be growing food in the Comox Valley.”

      ACCESS: From Nanaimo, drive about one-and-a-half hours to reach the Comox Valley. For more on Comox Valley farms, vineyards, and dining, see www.discovercomoxvalley.com.

      Comments

      1 Comments

      KH

      Jul 28, 2011 at 1:27pm

      Great article, nice to see the Valley's great food culture getting some accolades... check out www.eatlocalcomoxvalley.com for even more info on great food producers/restaurants/farms on the island and make plans to join us next July 2 -> Aug 2 for the 4th Annual 30-Day Local Food Festival.

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