In the past 2 decades, Vancouver has become one of the top dining destinations in the world, bursting with an incredible variety of cuisines and making an international name for itself with its audacious and adventuresome Pacific Northwest cooking. The food mantra here is "buy locally, eat seasonally," a philosophy that lets chefs support local farmers and fishermen, and take full advantage of bountiful local organic produce, game, and seafood. Victoria has an even stronger farm-to-fork ethos and, as an island, the collaboration between chef and supplier adds a creative dimension to the eating experience.
This part of the world has always been known for the bounty of its land, rivers, and sea. The First Nations tribes of the Pacific Northwest were among the richest in the world, thanks to the abundance and seasonal variety of their food, which included year-round fish, game, berries, and wild edible plants. During the tribal feast and gift-giving celebration known as potlatch, the natural wealth of the coastal rainforest, and its rivers and coastlines, was fully evident. You'll still find one of the most popular potlatch dishes -- alderwood-smoked salmon -- on menus in Vancouver and Victoria.
As you might expect, salmon and shellfish became dietary staples for the new immigrants arriving from England, Scotland, and Europe. An enormous salmon cannery (it's now a national historic landmark) in Steveston, on the Fraser River, packaged and exported millions of tons of sockeye -- until the stocks dwindled and the industry collapsed in the 1970s.
The first European settlers were not known for inventive cooking. Victoria, in particular, took its culinary cues from England, and a large German population in Vancouver spawned so many delicatessens that Robson Street was formerly nicknamed Robsonstrasse. Up until the 1980s, restaurants in Vancouver and Victoria relied on the fried and true, serving fish, seafood, and area produce, but without the flair and imagination that rules the dining scene today.
What changed it all? A generation of young, creative, ambitious BC and Canadian chefs who trained in Europe and came back to experiment with the riches at home. That and a rising number of ethnic restaurants -- at first mostly Chinese and Japanese, but today encompassing just about every cuisine you can think of. It wasn't long before chefs started crossing culinary lines and borrowing influences (and spices) from Asian and Indian cooking. Fusion is big. So are Italian (Vancouver has several excellent Italian restaurants), French, sushi, and dim sum. Add to this, the region's craft beer culture (Victoria's brewpubs are numerous and classy), and you have a plethora of tasting opportunities and pairings -- usually you just have to ask and presto, you'll be in for a treat whether with hand-made chocolates, charcuterie, or multiple tapas!
Diane Bernard is known the world over as “The Seaweed Lady.” Since the late 1990s, she’s been harvesting the succulent wild marine plants that grow in the waters off her hometown of Sooke, about a 30-minute drive west of Victoria. She eats them, cooks them, sells them to fancy restaurants, and teaches others about their culinary and health benefits. In 2001, she launched Seaflora, a high-end line of spa products based on the healing power of seaweed, which you can try at some of the best spas on the Island. It’s organic, sustainable, anti-aging, and perfectly beautiful. For info, visit www.sea-flora.com.
Meanwhile, Andrew Shepherd had been working as a chef for a decade when he became intrigued by the idea of sea salt. As in, why were people harvesting it in France and England, and not from the pristine waters of the Salish Sea? And so he set about gathering buckets of water off the coast from the Cowichan Valley, where he lives, boiling it down, and harvesting the briny essence of the ocean itself. In 2010, he created the Vancouver Island Salt Co., which sells a variety of flavor-infused sea salts (blue cheese, smoked paprika, balsamic vinegar) as well as a delicate fleur de sel. His products are available at a variety of retailers, including the Victoria Public Market. For more info, visit www.visaltco.com.
Uncorking BC Wines
Be sure to try a British Columbian wine with your meal. BC wines are now winning international acclaim and rival vintages from California, Australia, France, and Germany. The big wine-producing areas are in the Okanagan Valley (in southern BC's dry interior) and on southern Vancouver Island (the Cowichan Valley). Some of these wines are truly wonderful, but you won't find them outside of Canada (and sometimes not outside of Vancouver). They're not produced in large enough quantities to export, and the restaurants usually snap up what's available.
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