Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dogfish and other culinary delights of Victoria

Photo: Dan Hayes, the London Chef, about to slice up dogfish

Someone told me last week that Victoria has more good restaurants per capita than any North American city of its size.

That is debatable (have you been to New Orleans?). But I would not disagree that Victoria’s food and wine culture has come alive. That was highlighted last week at Taste, the city’s third annual food and wine festival.

After struggling in its first two years, Taste this year sold out a number of events – and not just to the locals. At one event, I met a couple from Atlanta who had booked a west coast vacation to escape the oppressive heat on the east coast. We had a great conversation until Barack Obama’s alleged progress to Marxism came up.

Today’s Victoria has changed remarkably from the quaint faux-English government town that I recall from the 1960s and 1970s. It still has plenty of quaint charm: tea in the Empress; boutique hotels; Murchie’s Tea Room right next to Munro’s Books; the gardens at Government House; Beacon Hill Park; pipers, buskers and artists; horse-drawn carriages; and more. And now, there is the burgeoning food and wine culture. The Union Club is no longer the only place to go for a power lunch.

Perhaps the corner was turned in the early 1990s when the first modern era wineries began opening on Vancouver Island at the same time as Okanagan winemaking began to take off. Good food and good wine go together. The results can be found on the great wine lists at (to name a few) Sooke Harbour House and Butchart Gardens.

Butchart Gardens won the award this year for the best list featuring British Columbia wines. In recent years, the sommelier there has replaced nearly all imported wines on their extensive list with British Columbia wines. Butchart Gardens takes the view that its visitors – many from other countries – have the opportunity at home to drink French or American wine; but when they visit British Columbia, they have a once in a lifetime chance to drink our wines, which is seldom exported.

There are many unique food and wine experiences to discover in Victoria and its environs. A group of us went on a guided walk one afternoon that began at The London Chef on Fort Street. This restaurant and cooking school was opened three years ago by Dan Hayes, a Londoner with a special passion for seafood. Not just any seafood, but underutilized species like dogfish and skate.

“In Britain, we use it for fish and chips,” he said while filleting a dogfish. A small member of the shark family with an unfortunate name, dogfish is a coincidental catch with the more commonly used species. Dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with house-made tartar sauce, the dogfish was delicious.

Near Dan’s restaurant, Hilary’s Cheese – the 10-year-old Cowichan Bay cheese maker – has its recently opened shop, its first one outside the Cowichan Valley. In parallel with island winery development, at least half a dozen cheese producers have opened on Vancouver Island or Salt Spring Island in the past decade. In fact, the Little Qualicum Cheeseworks opened its own fruit winery, called Mooberry, two years ago.

Photo: Patty Abbott of Hillary's Cheese

These are substantial businesses making world-class cheese. Patty Abbott, whose husband is Hilary, says that Hilary’s Cheese processes about 2,000 litres of milk a week, including 700 litres of goat’s milk.

Photo: Specials at Choux Choux Charcouterie

Further along Fort Street is Choux Choux Charcuterie, a tiny place that draws in trade with the most remarkable aromas of spice and meat products. Many of the meat products are made right there with premium cuts of fresh meat. On this particular day, the proprietors were dealing with a freshly butchered pig in the back of the store (out of sight from patrons).

Still on Fort Street, the Dutch Bakery is one of Victoria’s retro gems. It was established 54 years by emigrants from Holland and still uses grandfather’s recipes for some of its best pastry. The restaurant is authentically 1960s in style with formica tables and stools along the counter. Even the modest prices seem a decade or two old.

Photo: Silk Road's Daniela Cubelic

Another remarkable Victoria institution, right on the edge of the city’s China Town, is Silk Road, established in 1992 by tea master Daniela Cubelic. The experience here is totally sybaritic, offering not only exotic teas but aroma therapy and spa treatments. Daniela is also passionate about chocolate and argues for the merits of pairing teas and chocolate: black teas with dark chocolates, fruit-infused or green teas with milk chocolate, white tea (yes, there is such a tea) with white or light chocolate.

While there is more than enough to keep one occupied in Victoria, wine country is only half an hour from downtown, whether one goes to the Saanich Peninsula or to the Cowichan Valley.

Photo: Damali winery amid lavender

I chose the Cowichan Valley to visit the recently opened Damali Winery & Vinegary. The owners have created an oasis of lavender and vines, making an array of products that incorporate lavender, including two wines. I particularly liked Mure Lavande, a dry blackberry table wine with a subtle hint of lavender.

That put me in the mood for blackberry wine and I carried on a few minutes to Cherry Point Estate Winery. This Cowichan Valley winery, now owned by Colombian economist Xavier Bonilla and his wife Maria, pioneered blackberry “port” in the 1990s.

Photo: Cherry Point's Xavier Bonilla

Eight years ago, Simon Spencer, then Cherry Point’s winemaker, took blackberry port to a higher level by creating a solera-style version. It is arguably the best of the island’s numerous blackberry ports.

Xavier has an elegantly simply explanation of the solera process, illustrated by a three-barrel pyramid on display beside the wine shop. One begins solera aging by putting wine in all three barrels. When the wine is sufficiently aged, half of the volume in each of the bottom barrels is drained out for bottling. The wine in the top barrel refills the bottom barrels and fresh wine goes into the top barrel.

The actual barrel stack in the winery is much larger but the principle is the same. When aged wine is pulled off for bottling, it makes room for younger wine to cascade down the pyramid. The mixing of vintages adds to the complexity of the wine.

The wine is labelled Solera. I scored it 91 points and longed for a wedge of Hilary’s cheese to enjoy with it.

No comments: