A Dash of Salt Spring Island

Last fall, I had the pleasure of venturing up to the Canadian Gulf Islands as a part of my friend Danielle Custer’s (former chef and current director of Taste Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum) annual birthday trip. In the gang are three others – Rose Ann Finkel, owner – with her husband Charles Finkel – of the Pike Brewing Company, Linda Stratton (sales and marketing at the Pike), and Monique Barbeau, former chef, now mom and foodista.

Each year we pick a different wine region (so far, Willamette Valley, Lake Chelan, Okanagan, BC) – this year, we had access to a great cabin on Salt Spring Island in BC.

And even though there are only two wineries there, we jumped at the chance to visit some of our favorite creameries and see one of the oldest of the settled Canadian Gulf Islands.

The weather was with us. Even though it was October, we had gorgeous, sunny autumn days, and spent the afternoons driving from luminous farm to luminous vineyard, ending each day back at the cabin, cooking up our finds.

When we first got off the ferry in Fulford Harbor, we curved down a little road on the way to the main town on the island, Ganges. The first person we encountered was a little Quebequois guy on the side of the road selling lobster mushrooms. Huge bins of bright orange mushrooms were stacked all around him, and he knelt beside a little Sterno where he had a saute pan sizzling with butter, garlic and mushroom. His lunch, and taste samples ensured a sale. They were delicious. My friend Langdon Cook calls lobsters “silky” – and yes, they are. They are also meaty, and take a bit longer to cook than most mushrooms, even portabellos. The lobster (Hypomyces lactifluorum) is a product of a parasite that sets up shop in  certain mushrooms and makes them get harder and turn a gorgeous florescent orange color. The result tastes like its own animal. Our first purchase on the island was $20 bucks worth, a huge bag that would last us through the trip, but for now, waiting for the rest of our Salt Spring meal to reveal itself.

The mushroom chef
Local Lobsters and Chanterelles

We stayed at a friend’s cabin in an old co-op housing area called Maricaibo – a bit off the beaten path, but with easy access to the island. One thing we loved, is that you could find maps of the island everywhere, and on said documents, all the artisan creameries, farms and weavers, etc. were listed with a number – then their number was posted on a sign on their entrances, so it was really easy to find all these hidden gems.  We also loved the farm stands that were everywhere – unmanned. You would stop and peruse the goods – when we went it was a bounty of squashes, root vegetables, onions, greens, and we bought lamb from a freezer that said “help yourself, leave your money.” Imagine, the honor system! I’d like to think food lovers are a trustworthy sort.

Our cabin at Maracaibo
Wooly friends
Relax! This ain’t the mainland!
Monique and the Oyster Guy
Cute locals!

We visited two of the three wineries on the island: Garry Oaks (named after a type of oak tree indigenous to this area), and Salt Spring Vineyards (organic). Both were fascinating in their own way – Garry Oaks was run by a couple – the gentlewoman farmer, Elaine Kozak, makes the wine, and the gentleman farmer, Marcel Mercier, tends the vines. The place is for sale, so if you have a hankering for a slice of paradise (and have poche profond), give them a call. We walked their stone labyrinth, ate grapes almost ready to harvest, and tasted (and bought) some of their delicious Pinot Noir. Meal almost accomplished!

Before heading home to cook up our finds, we stopped at SS Vineyards, happening upon their grape stomp (those are NOT my legs!). The place was teeming with locals and their kids, out for a good time on one of the last sunny, cool crisp days of autumn. A glass of cool pinot gris and about a dozen oysters later, we headed out to find the last course. Cheese!

This is a bit of a longer story, but basically, all five of us are cheese freaks. We stopped at the two best creameries on the island: Moonstruck Organic Cheese, Salt Spring Island Cheese. These cheeses are truly stunning. The Pacific Northwest Cheese Project has some great pics and tells the story more fully than I can do here – but let it suffice to say that we each spent coin on cheese. We got back to the cabin and proceeded into a blissful evening of cooking together and eating (and discussing…for HOURS) some of the best cheeses we’ve ever eaten.

Gorgeous island lamb
Lobsters in their glory
Salt Spring Island Cheese’s Marcella soft-ripened goat cheese
Dead Soldiers – believe it!

The last morning at 5 a.m., we packed up the car – I unpacked the fridge and filled coolers with the detritus of our four days of gastronomical adventuring – and we headed out to catch an early Monday ferry halfway across the island at Fulford Harbor.

Halfway down the island, in the darkness of the back seat, It struck me (a similar feeling to when I left my newly placed wedding ring on a truck-stop cafe table and my new husband and I were an hour down the road in a dark Greyhound)…”Ladies, did you all get your cheese out of the fridge?”

Silence.

Ugh. I felt terrible, and a pall was cast over the rest of our drive. We had, as a group, left $150 worth of deliciousness in the cabin fridge. When we got to the ferry, we called the caretaker and asked her to put it aside for us.

Salt Spring Island

After emails, phone calls, communiques for days, I finally decided that it was my mission to return to the island on a cheese rescue. Two weeks later, I went back by myself, sneaking away for another blissful two days on the island, eeking out the very last of the sunny autumn days, and happily languishing in the atmosphere of briny breezes and golden leaves. I felt I had discovered the secrets of the superheroes – they do it not for the glory, but for the pure pleasure of not knowing what will happen next.

the girls: Rose Ann, Linda, Danielle, Shannon, Monique
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