Discovering Prince Edward Island

Janie Allen 16 June 2021

Prince Edward Island serves up rural charm and a seafood feast that doesn’t end

We arrived on a wet September day and drove for miles past fields and farms to our lodging, a golf resort and spa tucked into western Prince Edward Island. It was the end of a two-day drive north from New York into eastern Canada. In the early evening chill, my husband, Glen, and I hurried to the soon-to-close restaurant and ordered seafood chowder.

Generous bowls of steaming, creamy goodness were brought. New England clam chowder has nothing on this comforting feast. We inhaled the salt-air aroma and spooned in shrimp, clams, haddock, lobster, and potatoes. It tasted heavenly—rich and hearty—and we devoured it, all but licking the bowls as we relaxed for the first time that day.

Holidaymakers flock to PEI, Canada’s smallest province, most summers for its parks, red-sand beaches and quaint seaside villages. Fans of the red-haired Anne, of the classic children’s books, are drawn from far and wide to Green Gables Heritage Place.

PEI clam chowder, the ultimate comfort food

But it’s the seafood that attracted Glen and me to this 140-mile long crescent in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canada is a major supplier of seafood to the world; PEI mussels make up 80 percent of Canada’s yield, and PEI lobsters account for one-fifth of the country’s production. The island is the leading oyster producer in eastern Canada.

We were here for the Fall Flavours Festival. We’d catch a few events, meet locals and explore the island. But after our first night, we added chowder to our agenda, and looked up the list of 63 restaurants on the “Chowder Trail.” As the days passed, our affection for the “garden of the Gulf” grew.

Our first destination the next morning is the biggest tourist attraction in tiny O’Leary: a 14-foot fiberglass potato out front of the Canadian Potato Museum. In addition to the island’s underwater bounty, PEI’s rich red soil is also brimming—with spuds. The industry is worth a billion dollars annually to the island’s economy. More than half of PEI’s harvest of some 85,000 acres is processed into products including a fast-food staple.

“A plant here supplies the french fries for Wendy’s [a fast-food chain] as far west as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and as far south as Washington, DC,” Jonathan MacLennon, 45, a fourth-generation potato farmer, tells us. Soon, his warehouses will be filled with 22 million pounds of potatoes. That’s a lot of frites.

"The island is the leading oyster producer in eastern Canada"

Basin Head Provincial Park, on the east end of the Island

We eat lunch in the museum’s Country Kitchen, and I order lobster-stuffed baked potato. A treat back home, lobster here is as common as chicken. Over the next few days I see it on menus as an ingredient in pot pie, poutine, lasagna… there’s even lobster-stuffed chicken!

By late afternoon we are at Skinners Pond. The year’s second lobster season is on, and boats are bringing in their catch. On the wharf, workers at the Royal Star Foods shed are unloading crates of lobsters. They don’t seem to notice the wind blasting off the sea, and cheerfully answer our questions.

Half of Royal Star’s 47 boats here didn’t go out today because of the stiff wind, says Chris Hogan, a seasonal worker. Still, some 10,000 pounds have come in. Chris grabs a writhing male as big as two dinner plates to show us. Royal Star ships live lobsters as far away as China and Japan.

"A treat back home, lobster here is as common as chicken"

Fisherman Blain Gavin, 53, says he brought in 700 pounds today; 500 to 600 is “pretty typical.” A really good day would be up to 2,000 pounds. Fishermen get around CAD5.50 a pound, but licenses are limited.

“You have to get one from somebody who’s getting ready to retire,” Gavin says, or buy someone out. Thirty years ago, Gavin paid CAD75,000 for a licence. “Then I bought my father’s ten years ago for $300,000, and my uncle’s a year ago for $1 million.”

We end the day’s sightseeing at North Cape, the island’s picturesque northwestern tip and location of one of PEI’s 63 lighthouses. Upstairs in the Wind & Reef Restaurant, seafood chowder packed with clams, scallops and more hits the spot as we look at the view of red sandstone cliffs—PEI’s cliffs, soil, and beaches get their hue from iron oxide—and a churning, desolate sea. Hogan had told us two men died out there in a lobster boat two years ago. “It hit a rogue wave that almost took the cab off.”

Charlottetown

Aquaculture is thriving in PEI’s bays and estuaries. Blue mussels are “rope-grown” inside mesh socks suspended in water, and oysters are either wild or cultured on private leases.

Curious, we arrange to meet oyster farmer Adam Buchanan next morning at his home on the Trout River in western PEI. When we arrive, the 37-year-old is in the yard screening oysters heaped on a tray, part of an order of 80,000 to be picked up by a processor today.

From May through November, he’ll market a million oysters from his 32 acres of leases on the Foxley River. I ask him what it takes to grow them to market size—around 3 inches—and I get an unexpected answer. 

“We’re just babysitters,” he says. “We provide habitat. They eat algae and plankton that grow in the rivers.”

Each summer during spawning, many oyster farmers gather oyster larvae, called spats (Buchanan gets his at a hatchery). As they grow, they are transferred to mesh bags, then suspended in cages in the river for up to four years.

PEI oysters, widely referred to as Malpeques (after PEI’s second-largest bay), are special, he says, because they’re small—“easy to eat”—and the water’s salinity is high compared with oysters from other regions. “We have a good sweet-salty taste.”

Cooking lobster on the beach at Fall Flavours Festival

Matthew, Buchanan’s helper, shucks two and hands them to us. I take a dripping shell, uncertain. “I’ve never eaten a raw oyster!” I admit.

“There’s no neat way to do it,” Buchanan says.

I bite, and it’s extremely tender. Scraping it off the shell releases an exquisite burst of briny flavor.

Together we drive down a bumpy track to Foxley River, where we see rafts of cages suspended from floats. “Here we’d be well into tens of thousands of cages,” Buchanan says. “Probably the most expensive leases in PEI are in this river.” The leases trade for up to CAD40,000 an acre.

In the afternoon we head to Charlottetown, centrally located on the south coast. Fields yield to rolling spruce-covered hills. We detour to Victoria by the Sea, an arts community, but are disappointed to find it all but deserted on this autumn weekday. The cozy Landmark Oyster House is open, and we enjoy some chowder, with a new appreciation of the oysters in it; salmon, haddock, mussels, and bacon add to the bold flavors. A homemade biscuit is a nice touch. 

"We are taken aback by how few people live on PEI"

Our server says they’ll close soon for the winter. I ask where locals go when they want to eat out at that time of year, and the server replies that only about 40 people stay year-round. 

“Forty!” Glen whispers to me after the exchange. “They could all eat together!”  

We are taken aback by how few people live on PEI. The population is about 158,000; the capital, Charlottetown, has a mere 36,000, small for a city with a deep-water harbor, university and a spot in history as Canada’s birthplace (an 1864 conference here led to Canada’s unification). 

East Point Lighthouse is still operating more than 150 years after it was built

In Charlottetown we settle into the elegant Great George hotel, on a quiet street behind the 1847 Province House, and walk around the corner to the Brickhouse Kitchen & Bar—after all, it’s on the Chowder Trail. Its bowl was judged best at the 2018 PEI International Shellfish Festival. The broth of milk, lobster sauce and spices is more sophisticated than we’ve had so far. It’s packed with lobster, mussels, haddock and scallops, and splashed with olive oil. Delicious! We’re quickly learning that the basic ingredients are similar, but no two chowders are alike.

We’ve signed up for a half-day cooking class at The Culinary Table Studio, a Fall Flavours venue in New London, on the north coast. The former church building is a stylish space with a modern kitchen and big harvest table.

We are eight, three couples and two single women from New York, Florida, New Brunswick, Alberta and PEI, respectively. Owner Derrick Hoare introduces Chef Taylore Darnel, a Vancouverite with short hair and blue-gray eyes, and confidently announces, “By 12:30 you’ll be sitting down to a beautiful lunch.” On the menu: lobster risotto, fennel-steamed mussels and a surprise dessert.

We don aprons and each pick up a live lobster. After carefully sliding the rubber bands off the claws, some of us eye the steaming pot with apprehension. “They don’t have a central nervous system… so they don’t feel pain,” Darnel reassures us. I’m not sure if that’s true, but there’s nothing for it but to drop the lobster gently in.

Nine minutes later, we take them out, their dark shells now bright red. Soon we’re up to our elbows shelling lobsters; stirring risotto; debearding and washing mussels; and learning knife skills for dicing vegetables.

Fishermen with lobster traps, an iconic scene on PEI

We feel gratified as we enjoy lunch. The risotto is perfect, “not gloopy, not soupy,” as Darnel says. The mussels are delicately flavored. And we’re all wowed by dessert: “Scallops on the Beach.” The seared scallops garnished with candied lemon peel and crushed shortbread (the beach) are tender and sweet. It’ll be a talking point back home: “Scallops! For dessert!”

Our final three days include time at the Culinary Institute of Canada; browsing Charlottetown’s shops on Grafton Street; and a walking tour of historic homes. We head to North Rustico one evening for a “roving feast” in a harbor-side tent, where we devour more oysters, and, another day, we take a boat tour with a fiddle-playing fisherman. In the village of Cardigan, we find a new twist on chowder at Clam Digger’s restaurant: mussels in addictively good curry broth. 

For our final night, we’ve planned a special dinner at Chef Michael Smith’s FireWorks restaurant at The Inn at Bay Fortune. Smith, a TV chef, cookbook author, and the island’s official food ambassador, offers an eight-course set menu. His concept is simple, sustainable home cooking, all done over fire.  

Much of the food served is raised and grown on FireWorks’ biodynamic farm, and after Kevin Petrie, its manager, leads diners on a garden tour, we head to a firepit where chefs are grilling oysters on the half-shell. “Chef Michael's one rule is that you must chew your oysters!” he says. “You gotta open up the flavors.” You don’t have to tell Glen and me twice. The oysters, raw but warm, and seasoned with melted lovage-herbed butter, are every bit as good as that first one I tried.

At 7 p.m. we take our seats for the parade of food. The menu is a wonder, from “100-Year-Old Bread” made from heritage flour to a salad of shoots, stems, leaves, and flowers. “Everything on your plate is edible,” we’re told, including the tops of roasted carrots and beets. There’s pork belly, and bluefin tuna; the boat captain who caught it is named on the menu. The chowder is a feast of its own: mussels, bar clams, lobster, scallops, rock crab, seaweed, and more. By the end we’ve lost count of the courses—and the calories.

The end of our trip comes too soon. We loved the green countryside, beautiful coasts, friendly people, and all that fresh food. Did we find our favorite chowder? Not quite. All the more reason to return!

TRAVEL TIPS

 

GETTING THERE  Air Canada and WestJet fly to Charlottetown. You can also take a car ferry to PEI from
Nova Scotia, or drive across the 13-kilometer Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick.

LODGING Mill River Resort; Great George hotel, Charlottetown; The Inn at Spry Point

DINING Clam Digger’s Beach House & Restaurant, Cardigan, entrees CAD16-30;
dining room at the Culinary Institute of Canada, Charlottetown (prices comparable to area restaurants;
or Marché has inexpensive grab-and-go); FireWorks, dinner set menu, CAD165.

Check prices/availability of hotels, and restaurant hours, on their websites or at tourismpei.com (which has travel restriction updates). Note that some PEI tourist attractions are closed in winter.

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