Learning from locals on Vancouver Island
VANCOUVER ISLAND, Canada - Vacation means sampling regional cuisine, stopping at farmers' markets, maybe even getting inside someone's kitchen to see how the locals really cook. On this large island off the coast of British Columbia, you can do all that at two inns.
Sinclair and Frédérique Phillip transformed an old farmhouse into the elegant Sooke Harbour House, an inn surrounded with gardens. At Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, also on the island, guests can learn to make French bread, forage for mushrooms, and find dinner in the garden.
Byron Cook, a transplanted American from Atlanta and a passionate gardener, tends the overflowing vegetable beds and flowers and herbs that envelop Sooke Harbour House. "We do not separate the garden into herb, vegetable, or flower sections," says Cook. "Everything is planted where it will grow best" - and everything is used in the kitchen. Patrons can cook with the chef using produce they harvest themselves.
When guests awaken at Sooke Harbour House, they can look out at Whiffen Spit, onto fishing boats along Sooke Bay that bring in clams, gooseneck barnacles, whole Dungeness crab, or rockfish. The daily menu may feature albacore tuna with arugula flowers, rockfish with nasturtium butter, tempura shrimp, honey-glazed grilled pork, wild mushroom stuffed chicken, and Vancouver Island artisanal cheeses. Dessert might include an apricot trio (mousse, jelly with caramel sponge cake, and sorbet), made with fruit picked from trees on the property.
The inn's Kitchen Adventures program, run by chef Edward Tuson and other kitchen staff, offers various plans. The first level includes a tour of the garden's 400 edible herbs and flowers, lessons in the kitchen on the day's ingredients, and a chance to watch or help the culinary team. The program ends with dinner, and includes two nights at the inn, and breakfast in your room. From October until June, you can stay longer and really go to work - cooking at a different kitchen station each day.
You might think that one island couldn't support two similar culinary ventures, but Vancouver Island manages to. At Fairburn Farm in the Kinsol Valley, you may be gardening, foraging, or cooking.
Chef Mara Jernigan began her career working for the family that owned Eaton's department stores. The young Jernigan became interested in the kitchen when a German chef was at the family residence cooking a special dinner. Soon after, Jernigan took off for Switzerland and Austria, where she made cheese on dairy farms.
Today, at Fairburn Farm, she oversees a culinary retreat and 2-acre farm in the middle of 130 acres owned by Anthea and Darrel Archer. The Archers' land is home to a rare herd of Murrah water buffalo that are milked for mozzarella cheese.
Jernigan is remodeling the 1896 manor house, where she leads cooking classes and rents cabins to guests.
In her "Field to Table" program, guests work the farm's kitchen garden and cook. That might mean making pasta for lasagna, or shaping mozzarella pizzas outdoors to cook in a wood-fueled oven.
If you signed up for an intensive culinary boot camp, you'll be doing all that, plus cutting up local chickens, gathering fresh eggs, butchering lamb, cleaning Dungeness crabs, making baguettes, gazpacho, cold smoked tuna with poached quail eggs, and blueberry clafoutis.
Pack your apron.
Sooke Harbour House, 1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, British Columbia, Canada, 250-642-3421; www.sookeharbourhouse.com. Costs to $750 (approximate USD) for two, depending on package and season. Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, 3310 Jackson Road, Duncan, British Columbia, Canada, 250-746-4637; www.fairburnfarm.bc.ca. Costs to $1,995 (approximate USD) double occupancy, depending on package and season.