Road Journals Blog—Whenever I visit Vancouver Island—which I did for a recent Via article about cideries—I always make a point of stopping by Merridale Estate Cidery, the largest and most conspicuous artisanal cider-making operation in North America. These days, however, it’s hardly the island’s only draw.
A quick trip to Cowichan Bay, an idyllic seaside enclave only a few miles north, offers travelers a true foodie experience.
The town gained worldwide recognition in 2010 when it was named North America’s first Cittaslow—or "slow city"—a moniker granted by the international Slow Food movement in recognition of the berg’s quality of life, care for the environment, and high-quality local-food shops.
Cowichan Bay has a maritime air about it, with skiffs motoring in and out of berths and a salt-air smell. A narrow band of waterfront features shops, art galleries, a maritime museum, and, best of all, cafes and a bakery selling handcrafted foods ranging from local buffalo-milk cheese to heritage-grain bread to ice cream made from area blackberries.
Stepping inside the glass doors of True Grain Bread, you immediately smell the grain that goes into the sourdough, hazelnut, and apple-cranberry loaves, among the dozens of breads and pastries sold here.
The bakery does brisk business. (Be sure to try the apple strudel, my favorite.) You can actually watch fresh grain being ground in a glassed-in gristmill. The owner, Bruce Stewart, frequently can be found here tipping buckets of wheat into a hopper above the millstone. The ground grain shimmies down chutes into cloth bags.
The wheat, Red Fife, a heritage variety that originated in Scotland and became the forerunner of nearly all Canadian wheat varieties, is grown only 30 miles from the bakery.
Next door, Hilary’s Cheese & Deli offers picnic fare and cozy lunches by the fireplace. The artisan cheeses—including a tangy goat milk brie/camembert called St. Michel, and the top-selling cow’s milk blue cheese, You Boo Blue—are locally made.
A few doors down, in a sunny yellow oceanfront shop, The Udder Guy's Ice Cream Company makes 24 flavors with heavy doses of all-natural, non-commercial ingredients. For coconut ice cream they start with whole coconuts, and the blackberry ice cream is made from Vancouver Island berries. Bins of brightly colored retro candies are an equal draw for local kids.
I feel like a kid myself whenever I visit Cowichan Bay, where life is lived at the pace of “real” and the treats are homemade.
Leslie Forsberg wrote about cideries for the March/April 2011 Oregon edition of Via.
Photography by Leslie Forsberg
This blog post was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.