I’m relaxing in a private massage suite at the Oh Spa. There’s a warm moist towelette covering my eyes and the requisite nature soundtrack, complete with birdsong and trickling streams, is being piped into the room at soothing volumes from hidden speakers. My massage is over and Iris, my masseuse, has left the room, but I can’t move; my body has just been rubbed into a state of lazy bliss. So, it’s an ideal time to reflect on the growing gastronomical appeal of the Comox Valley, which isn’t really a valley (but that’s a discussion for geographers).
The Oh Spa is the centre piece of the Old House Village, a 79-room boutique hotel in the heart of Courtenay situated next to ne of this Vancouver Island community’s venerable dining institutions, the riverside Old House Restaurant. Back in its glory days 20 or more years ago the Old House was doing the farm, forest and sea to table thing long before slow food was fashionable, and it was where now legendary chef Michael Stadtlander (Eigensinn Farm) once apprenticed. In the mid 1990s, a day spa in the Comox Valley, which includes the three Cs of Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland, with the sort of metropolitan feel of the Oh Spa, would have seemed as exotic as decaf lattes.
Past transportation to the Valley meant driving the scenic but tortuously slow old Island Highway that meanders north for two hours along the ocean from the Departure Bay ferry terminal in Nanaimo. If you arrived by plane, you collected your luggage in a repurposed Atco trailer. The Comox Valley’s stunning scenery was offset with a hick rural feel. Now there’s a four lane highway connecting it quickly to the rest of the island and a modern airport terminal that welcomes more than 300,000 passengers annually, thanks largely to WestJet Airlines adding the Comox Valley to its roster of destinations in 2001.
Food & Drink — Island Style
But it’s the food and drink that makes the region interesting these days. The Saturday morning Comox Valley Farmer’s Market now boasts 100 vendors, 60 of them farmers and the remainder are value-added food processors producing wasabi, spicy Italian sausages, honey, preserves, and smoked tuna, among an embarrassment of other local riches.
In community restaurants you’ll often find award winning Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery Ortegas and Siegerrebes paired with cheeses from Natural Pastures Cheese Company, such as the smooth Comox Brie that won a gold medal at the 2008 World Championship Cheese contest. Coastal Black Winery, located on a four-generation family farm in Black Creek, recently bottled its first batch of Blackberry Sparkling. At Blue Moon Estate Winery head winemaker George Ehrler took home nine wards for his fruit wines from last spring’s NorthWest Wine Summit in Oregon. On nearby Hornby Island, Middle Mountain Mead produces a creative selection of meads from ingredients like ginger, apple, lavender, and black currents. Then there’s Shelter Point Distillery, situated north of the Comox Valley, British Columbia’s first whiskey distillery that will release its inaugural single malt in 2014 produced from barley grown on site.
At Locals, a restaurant in downtown Courtenay, it’s all in the name; Chef Roland 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 custom menu included crudités of organic vegetables, and sandwiches featuring Tannadice Farms ham, Estevan Albacor tuna, Natural Pastures Cheese and Island Bison. And no picture of food and drink in the Comox Valley is complete without Atlas Café. When proprietors Trent McIntyre and Sandra Viney arrived to open Atlas in the early 1990s; Comox Valley cuisine was, save for a few exceptions, about as creative as a corned beef sandwich. The goal was simple. Offer up a delicious menu reflecting the seaside farming character of Vancouver Island but infuse it with a little international flavour. Then match it with top shelf service in a casual, warm space with scuffed wooden floors and a retro, head-high school map of South America on the wall. It’s a winning formula. The Atlas celebrates its 16th anniversary this year and continues to set the standard in Comox Valley dining. With starters like the warm roasted beet salad with goat cheese basil terrine, or the togarashi tuna salad are popular, and entrees such as the garlic and herb marinated lamb sirloin, or fish tacos featuring seasonal catches, and fruit salsa.
It’s this tantalizing array of cuisine and libations as well as the golf, ski, and water sport attractions that enticed Old House Village developer Roger McKinnon, the Nanaimo-based former VP of the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board, to cast his gaze up-island. He had known about the Comox Valley’s potential but only as a distant observer. In 2004, McKinnon learned of a piece of prime downtown property adjacent to the longstanding Old House Restaurant. He quickly made his play and went to work and in 2009 McKinnon and partner Rob Fuller opened phase-two of the Old House Village. He calls the Comox Valley the only true four-season destination on Vancouver Island.
“If you want, you can golf and ski on the same spring day, and there are great restaurants and wineries starting to open up here,” McKinnon says.
As the Comox Valley grows, so does the demand for a more sophisticated dining experience. That’s what piqued the interest of chef Kathy Jerritt, founder of Tria Fine Dining and Custom Catering. As a 2006 graduate of Vancouver Island University’s culinary arts program, she was tempted to pack her chef’s knives for Vancouver or some other larger urban centre but at the same time was excited by the local bounty of the Comox Valley. With Tria she extends her passion for food beyond the restaurant platform, offering special dining events, like full moon feasts, in addition to a cooking classes on everything from Mexican cuisine, reflecting her mother’s cultural background, to seafood. From her mobile kitchen she spins out sweet and savory crepes, garnished with custom cured bacon from Tannadice Farms, greens from local market gardens and Natural Pasture’s cheeses, a regular Saturday morning hit at the farmer’s market. At a recent catered event at Vancouver Island University’s spectacular new shellfish research station in nearby Deep Bay, Jerritt featured “Kama Gway” oysters from Pentlatch Seafoods, a company run by the Comox First Nation plus sablefish from a sustainable aquaculture operation in Kyuquot Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast.
“I have traveled a lot and that’s how I chose to educate myself about food,” Jerritt says. “But you know, after living here for 16 years I realized the Comox Valley is hard to beat from a cook’s perspective. You have the ocean, wild foods, and all the farms. There’s even a place down in Fanny Bay growing citrus fruits.”
Beaufort Estate Vineyard and Winery
After a lazy breakfast at the sleepily historic Old House Restaurant I check out of my suite and drive north of Courtenay for 15 minutes along Hwy 19 to the Beaufort Estate Vineyard and Winery. The winery occupies a spectacular, dry south-facing tract of farmland with views over the Comox Valley and beyond to the namesake Beaufort Mountains, still snow-capped late in summer. A wooden replica of the brooding Easter Island statues, or moai, which Beaufort has adopted as its symbol, sits in the garden outside the winery gazing toward the mountains. Like Chef Jerritt, Beaufort founders Susan and Jeff Vandermolen discovered a culinary destination on the verge of taking off when back in 2006 they decided to turn a two-and-half decade long passion for making home wine into a business. In the short time since the Vandermolens, by profession a chemical engineer and businessman respectively, have put the Comox Valley on the winemaking map. They’ve earned top spot on the podium against a national and international field of wines, taking home a gold medal at the 2010 All-Canadian Wine Championships for their 2009 Ortega, and a bronze from the London International Wine Fair for the 2009.Siegerrebe.
“When we first drove up this road we looked at this property and thought, now this is a place for winery,” says Susan Vandermolen, about their decision to relocate from London and do a 180-degree career shift. “Once we realized that we could grow good grapes here we decided that we can do this. One of the most rewarding things has been the support we’ve received from the local community and also other winemakers on Vancouver Island.”
It’s a two-person operation: Jeff as vineyard manager and Susan as head winemaker. Although the couple grows three varieties each of red and white grapes, they’re not dogmatic about producing wines strictly from their own vineyard. For example, Susan prefers the result when she blends Okanagan pinot gris grapes with the pinot gris grown on the Beaufort vineyard. Similarly she imports grapes to make chardonnay, which she says are difficult to grow well on Vancouver Island with its relatively short hot weather season typically bracketed by months of wet weather. The Vandermolens are sticking to a small is beautiful approach, their wines only available directly from the winery or by mail order, as well as at select Comox Valley restaurants like the Atlas, Avenue, and Locals. It’s an approach that seems to be working. They regularly sell out before summer is over. Local wine writer and former president of the Canadian Wine Society John Challander is a fan, naming Beaufort’s Carpe Diem, a bottle-fermented pinot noir rose that earned silver at 2011’s NorthWest Wine Summit in Oregon, as one of the island’s top wines.
So, it seems fitting to enjoy a glass of this crisp sparkling wine and watch the sun set over the Beaufort Mountains. I soon leave the Vandermolens to their winemaking and drive on to continue my culinary exploration of the Comox Valley. Once a sleepy backwater of fishing, farming and forestry, most locals used to leave for fine food and wine; these days travelers and urban transplants are coming here for the same.
If you go: Tourism Vancouver Island – www.tourismvi.com