For years I’ve been telling my family how much I’d love to spend a week in the South of France on a foodie adventure. We’d rent a little house, wander markets, cook, and visit great restaurants. Living the dream you know. What I didn’t know is that I could have a slice of that dream just a few hours away from my home in Cowichan BC.
Last weekend my friend Salma and I headed out on our second trip to Vancouver Island. I’ve been to the island many times, so I thought I knew what to expect in Cowichan, but the food culture there is really a hidden gem. We experienced craft, creativity, and courage in the food we tasted, and the agricultural experiments we got to see in action. In the span of one weekend, we met a young chef who is reinventing comfort food, an ex-barrister who is now a brewmaster, and the most zen tea farmer ever – who happens to be growing tea in Canada. Yup, you read that right, there is a a tea farm in Cowichan.
If you are a food lover, Cowichan is a must visit location. Sometimes we get caught up in this idea that we have to travel far and wide for the best food, and yes historically Canada isn’t known for it’s food. However, that is changing in the Cowichan Valley right now. You can easily find European quality wines and cheeses, award winning gin & cider, and farmers pushing the limits on what can be produced in Canada. Save yourself a long flight, take advantage of paying with Canadian dollars and eat more, just plan a visit to Cowichan.
If you are looking for your next foodie adventure, these are three experiences you have to try. I’ll be sharing some great places to grab a bite or sit down for a coffee next week, but these three are experiences that you want to carve out time for and really savour.
BREAKFAST AT THE OLD FORK
Don’t let the location fool you. The Old Fork might be housed inside a Ramada on the side of the Trans Canada Highway, but it’s no dive. This is comfort food at it’s best. House made jams and compote, fresh from scratch hot sauce, chef Scott Walmsley doesn’t cut corners.
The Old Fork menu ranges from traditional benny’s, to out of the box flavours like an earl grey oatmeal. Personally I was over the moon when I saw huevos rancheros on the menu, and they were perfection. If you stop by for breakfast do not skip the breakfast poutine, and get yourself a spicy Caesar. The house made hot sauce takes this drink to the next level. I can confidently say, this is the best Caesar I have ever had.
CHARCUTERIE & CIDER FLIGHTS AT MERRIDALE CIDER
Merridale Cider is a beautiful space to spend the afternoon. The ambiance is great, the charcuterie is top-notch, and the cider flights, yum! We had the opportunity to chat with the husband & wife duo behind Merridale Cider, Janet & Rick. Their passion for locally sourced ingredients and quality control showed in their words and products. I loved the idea that we were at their farm, sipping a cider made with honey collected on the farm. That’s craft!
The cider flights are a wonderful way to introduce yourself to different flavours and get an understanding of what you like best. If you haven’t had cider before, or if you’ve been avoiding it because you don’t like beer, I promise you they are not the same! The range of flavours that we tried at Merridale had everything from dry traditional ciders, to sweet fruity options, and even a dessert version. My preference is something a little more traditional and dry, but I did bring back some Cyser which Janet recommended for pairing with spicy Indian dishes and is made with local wildflower honey – looking forward to trying that!
TEA AT WESTHOLME FARM
Not going to lie, when we got our itinerary for our Cowichan trip, this was the stop I was most excited about. I’ve dreamed about visiting a tea estate in Assam or Darjeeling forever, and to find that experience here in Canada, and so close to my home, unreal!
When you arrive at Westholme Farm you instantly feel a sense of calm and zen. They’ve converted an old milking barn into a little tea shop where you can sit as long as you like. They have a range of premium teas from around the world, sourced from small farms using organic or biodynamic farming methods. (Side note, biodynamic farming is so cool. I had never heard of it before this trip, but it takes the approach of looking at soil fertility, lunar cycles, ecology, and many spiritual practices as part of farming, pretty cool stuff you should look up!) And of course, they can also serve you a cup of Canadian tea, grown on their farm.
Of course we were curious to know how tea can even be grown in Canada. Apparently Cowichan is one of the warmest climates in the country (who knew?), and there is a small pocket of the right temperature and temperament for Victor Vesely to grow truly Canadian teas here.
Taking the coolness factor up a notch – Victor’s wife and co-founder Margit Nellemann hand makes every cup and pot that is used in the shop, without a potters wheel. I told you the coolest and most creative people live in Cowichan! The couple is basically a living example of the relationship between tea & the vessel it is drank in.
Honestly, when you are going on a media trip to a new place you are almost always guaranteed a good experience, but I was blown away by the quality of these experiences. And the best part, I’m positive that each of the owners of these places give top notch service and experiences to their customers everyday, because they love what they do so much. As a foodie, that was my favourite thing beyond the flavours on my plate – meeting the makers and hearing their stories. I got to learn how Scott went from small plates to homestyle breakfasts on his menu, why Janet & Rick made Whisky Jack’s as a tribute to their dads, and how Victor turned a cold snap into an opportunity to give his teas a distinctly Canadian flavour.
Next week I’ll be rounding up places to stay, eat, and things to see in the Cowichan Valley. Make sure you check back!
Thank you to Tourism Cowichan for providing this amazing experience. All opinions are my own.