On the Island: Exploring P.E.I.’s Culinary Connection to the Sea
The New London Lighthouse on the north shore of P.E.I. Photo: Tourism PEI/Sander Meurs
Lobsters and oysters and mussels, oh, my! Shucking off big city convention, Dick Snyder goes to the sea and finds the source on P.E.I.
It was a beautiful day on the water. We’d puttered only a few minutes out of North Rustico harbour to the fishing grounds just a stone’s throw from the point. Our lobster boat lolled in a gentle swell. Not a cloud in the sky – rare for September, when shorts weather on the North Atlantic is pretty much unheard of.
The captain, David Livingstone, cut the engine, reached over the side and pulled a sea monster out of the depths. At least, it looked like a monster to me. It was blue and green, gnarly and big … staring back at us from inside the trap. And it was a she. We could tell by the eggs clutched tightly to her underside.
Today was the first day of the annual P.E.I. International Shellfish Festival held every September. I looked forward to a weekend of feasting on oysters, mussels, scallops – pretty much anything with a shell. Or stripped of a shell by the time I was through. With our world currently engulfed in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s too early to predict if large gatherings will be happening this fall. But let’s hope P.E.I. can celebrate the festival’s 25th year with a proper party.
Our beautiful monster – topping five pounds and perhaps 10 or more years old – would not be destined for the cooking pot. Nor my belly. Any lobster caught with even one single egg attached must be returned to the sea. And so she was – and I was happy about that. There would be plenty more where she came from.
This was my second time visiting P.E.I. The first was 20 years ago. I grew up in Newfoundland and have been lucky to visit all the Atlantic provinces. I tell anyone who asks: each one is different, wonderful and unforgettable. The vibe on the East Coast is very agreeable, especially to urban folks like me. As one islander quipped when I commented on the palpable slowness of a tiny fishing village: “We’re so far behind we’re ahead.”
Fishing is not just a way of life on P.E.I.; it’s the way of life. Once you experience the salty-stinging spray of the mighty Atlantic, you never forget it. And you begin to understand the power of this sea and why everyone here is so tied to it, and so happy about that connection. On P.E.I. – that’s “on,” not “in,” if you pay attention to the island vernacular – the ocean is everything.
With Charlottetown as my base, I executed daily sorties to villages on the north and south shores, while taking the nightly activities of the Shellfish Festival headquartered at the event grounds in the capital city, just a 15-minute walk from downtown.
The sold-out opening night of the festival is a major party. It felt like the entire population of P.E.I. – all 153,000 of them – were there, with host and celebrity chef Michael Smith acting as master of ceremonies. Smith runs the Inn at Bay Fortune, about 90 minutes outside the city and is pretty much the island’s de facto foodie ambassador.
Smith presided over some fun and games, including a blind oyster tasting. Participants had to identify the non-P.E.I. oyster on their plate. No surprises here: P.E.I.’s minister of fisheries nailed it. As Smith told the crowd: “P.E.I. is one giant sandbar, so our oysters are mild and sweet. New Brunswick oysters are all granite and mineral.” You’ve heard of terroir with regard to food and wine? Well, this is merroir.
The fishing village of North Rustico, where we caught our monster, is on the Green Gables Shore, about an hour’s drive from Charlottetown. Called The Crick by locals, it’s certainly a tourist destination, with a sandy beach, a very cute little coffee shop-cum-souvenir stand and a few lobster-and-oyster–centric eateries. But it’s also a hard-working fishing village. I witnessed this firsthand on the water with the Gauthier family. They run Joey’s Fishing. Joey got started in 1978, and now his son and daughter work with him, fishing lobster commercially and running private charters. They took me out on one of their educational experiences, as the actual fishery had ended a week earlier.
Earlier that day, I had some schooling in P.E.I.’s lobster fishery, along with a half dozen fellow students, at The Table Culinary Studio in New London. In a former United Church built in 1953, The Table runs cooking classes by day, drawing on the bounty of local produce and treasures from the sea. By night, this is one of P.E.I.’s most popular restaurants. It’s an hour from town, positioned adjacent to a farmer’s field, and it’s a breathtaking spot to while away an evening with good food and banter.
Under the tutelage of ex-pat Ontarian Derrick Hoare and his team, we learned the proper techniques for handling our sea creatures. Turns out all you need is steam and salt. Why? Because a lobster is full of seawater. By the process of osmosis, unsalted water will boil out a lobster’s flavour and texture. Ergo, three to four handfuls of salt to one inch of water in a stockpot – replicating the salinity of the sea – is the way to go. (This point was made another evening as I tucked into a lobster while chatting with a local fisherman. “I likes them salty,” he said, chewing and wincing – as these were clearly not.)
During our class at The Table, Hoare told us that lobster fishing licences are awarded to individuals, rather than just applied for, and it’s common to have husband-and-wife teams, even the whole family, work the waters. No corporation can own a licence. This ensures sustainability, for no family would jeopardize its livelihood – or that of its neighbours – through overfishing or abuse. Licences are hard to come by: none has been awarded by the government in about 20 years. Sold on the open market like taxi licences in the city, you could pick one up for a cool one million or so. Then factor in the cost of a new boat – maybe another half million – and a few hundreds of thousands for fishing gear. Yeah, the work can be lucrative, but getting into the business doesn’t come cheap.
After cooking class – and with a belly full of lobster, scallops and mussels – I set out to meet with Jim Conohan of Along the Edge Experiences to go “tonging” for oysters near the town of Cardigan.
I say near … but not so near, it turns out. My confused mapping app eventually found the place, down a series of dirt roads in the deep woods. Jim realized that tourists are more than happy to pay to hear his stories of landing prize-weight tunas and to sit for a chat on the dock while shucking a few beauties straight out of the sea. Conveniently, the sea is Jim’s backyard. He’ll show you how to tong – using a hinged rake to dredge oysters off the sea bottom – and shuck. Direct from sea to lips … it’s the most incredible oyster-eating experience I’ve ever had. Never had I enjoyed an oyster so fresh, in all its sweet and salty glory while sitting right next to the spot from whence it came. It was an experience worth getting lost for.
Oysters are P.E.I.’s second most lucrative seafood – after the mussel – with an annual landed value of about $7.4 million, according to the P.E.I. fisheries department. In 10 years, that revenue has increased 245 percent. I asked Kieran Goodwin, who set me up with oysters and local beers at the Landmark Oyster House in Victoria-by-the-Sea, why oysters have become such a “thing.”
Just 100 or so years ago, oysters were tremendously popular on the east coasts of Canada and the U.S.A., but they were by no means a luxury food. Bought from streetside shuckers or enjoyed in dodgy taverns, this was cheap protein for the working class. But in the late 20th century, overfishing of more coveted seafoods positioned the oyster to take over the spotlight, and oyster cultivation took off. New Yorkers and New Englanders elevated the humble bivalve from pub snack to gourmet accessory and found the juicy little critters matched beautifully with fine Champagne and ales. Later in the century, the foodie craze hit, and an obsession with pure and unadulterated foods boasting a distinct sense of place – the aforementioned merroir – made the oyster into a rock star. Especially in big cities like New York, Boston and Toronto, where oyster bars attract the business expense account crowd who can afford what is now – at a price usually around $3 a piece – not for the light of wallet.
Goodwin is something of an oyster sommelier. “These were fished on Monday or Tuesday,” he said, naming each one on my plate. The Valley Pearl, the Colville Bay, the Savage Harbour and the Blackberry Point – the latter described as “like an ocean breeze.”
This was Thursday – so two days, tops, from sea to plate. This was the second-most incredible oyster experience I’d ever had. And there were so many more after this, I lost count. So let me tell you about the best chowder I’ve ever had, also from the Landmark, and created by chef Kaela Barnett who, foodies will want to know, worked with the famous Joe Beef restaurant team in Montreal. Her chowder had the most delicate and light creamy broth, a flotilla of mussels and supple chunks of fish, garnished with bright garden chives.
Among the other excellent chowders, oysters and lobster rolls I was privileged to consume, the other standouts deserve notice. Be sure to visit Point Prim Chowder House, where I tucked into a hot and creamy chowder and an excellent lobster roll as I watched the sun set, just metres from crashing waves, foraging plovers and the melodious calls of seabirds. This was my second lobster roll of the day. The first – and the winner in my book – was the lobster melt from the Wheelhouse in Georgetown. It was a gooey and cheesy twist on the traditional roll. And it might shock purists – but I’m no purist. I eat what’s good.
My final night on P.E.I. came too fast but delivered a knockout blow – one that I saw coming but still left me starry-eyed. The Inn at Bay Fortune, Smith’s garden of delights and home to his famous FireWorks Feast, more than lived up to its reputation. People come a very long way to feast at his communal tables, with the fortunate ones staying overnight in one of the cosy guest rooms. The evening kicks off with a toast at the flag pole, then a tour of the grounds, the gardens, the oyster shack and the many flaming things used for cooking many delicious items … as we learn and taste and chatter and cheers.
As I write this, I’m looking back hungrily over the menu we enjoyed on Sept. 22, as the season was about to close at the Inn. The menu lists multiple courses and 100 or so ingredients, every one of them sourced from Smith’s organic farm or from a farmer or a fisher from around the Bay – all of them Smith’s close friends and colleagues.
Smith was not at the Inn that evening as he was presiding over the closing ceremonies at the festival back in Charlottetown. I imagined him at that massive tent, with a few hundred happy islanders and a few hundred come-from-away-ers, toasting the bounty of the island. And, likely, everyone was getting a bit tipsy.
There was a real sense of joy and pride flowing from everyone I met on P.E.I., and I can’t wait to get back – and I sure hope we can all get back to “normal” soon. Normal on P.E.I., now that I think about it, is a combination of serenity, beauty and hard-working folks who know they’ve got it good.
And that makes me think of the captain who brought that beautiful monster up from the depths on my first day on P.E.I. A man who’d worked the sea his whole life and loved it more everyday. And what he said to me about life on P.E.I.:
“It’s not working. It’s fishing.”
Looking to bring the taste of PEI home? We managed to nab a few delicious recipes from Landmark Oyster House.
Sauce for about 50 oysters
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup red wine (Malbec)
6 tbsp diced shallots
1/2 tsp black pepper
Combine vinegar, wine, shallots and pepper. Let stand overnight before serving.
Landmark Seafood Chowder
1/4 lb bacon, medium dice
1 onion, medium dice
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 carrot, medium dice
1 stalk celery, medium dice
1 lb red potatoes, medium dice
1/2 cup individually quick frozen corn kernels
1 l whole milk
0.5 l water
8 oz fresh haddock, cut in large chunks
8 oz fresh salmon, cut in large chunks
1 lb fresh mussels
1 cup whipping cream (35%)
Combine vinegar, wine, shallots and pepper. Let stand overnight before serving.
For more information, go to tourismpei.com.