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How do their gardens grow? On Prince Edward Island, very well indeed.

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / May 11, 2005

BAY FORTUNE, Prince Edward Island -- When I first visited the Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island's western shores, I arrived courtesy of a four-day inn-to-inn sea kayaking jaunt. I paddled onto the property of this gray-shingled estate, complete with towers, and walked across the sloping manicured lawn. After washing the salt and rust-colored sand from my body, I arrived for dinner expecting the usual PEI meal of lobster and mussels. Little did I realize that I was in for a culinary epiphany.

The first course, pan-roasted oysters in a soothing soup, was creamy but not nearly as rich as a New England chowder. Then came a splendid salad of mixed greens and a waiter announcing matter-of-factly that ''everything on the plate is grown on the property, including the edible pansy." A seared rainbow trout topped with tomato risotto and black olives was picked to the bone by our table of four, only to be followed by a zesty roasted leg of lamb, butchered by the farmer down the road. For dessert, a peach, strawberry, and mint compote, made on premises, of course.

Before leaving I had to meet the talented chef who had shrewdly taken advantage of these homegrown goodies.

Standing tall in the kitchen was Michael Smith, a transplant from Manhattan who formerly worked as sous chef at Bouley, one of the few restaurants in the city awarded four stars by The New York Times. When he left New York, his colleagues thought he was crazy, but Smith knew he was headed to a farming and seafaring mecca. The gregarious chef pointed to a large map of Prince Edward Island, dotted with more than 60 yellow tacks. ''These are all the fishermen and farmers around the island that we use to get our supplies," he said, adding ''when we don't grow it ourselves." Bouley schmouley, I remember thinking to myself. This guy had struck the mother lode.

When I returned to the inn last fall after six years away, I was happy to find the treasured gardens much more expansive. After the success of his television show, ''The Inn Chef," on the Canadian Food Network, and the release of his best-selling cookbook, ''Open Kitchen: A Chef's Day at The Inn at Bay Fortune," Smith relinquished his cooking duties at the inn but still holds the title of chef emeritus. And according to new chef Renée Lavallée, Smith can often be found bending his lanky frame over the herbs in the garden as he plucks, say, one of the 12 varieties of thyme.

Like her predecessor, Lavallée has an impressive resume that includes stints at Les Fougeres, in Chelsea, Quebec, where she was voted best new chef in the province, and the popular French bistro Biff's in Toronto. Between restaurants, she could be found cooking for the rock bands Oasis and the Black Crowes. Her love of music is obvious once you enter the kitchen and hear the White Stripes blaring over the radio. Yet Lavallée is just as comfortable picking wild watercress by a nearby stream or finding an even larger circle of purveyors at the farmers market in Charlottetown. It's hard to imagine her needing more than she already has for her menu.

''I put in a wish list by Christmas so the gardeners can have everything ready," she said. This summer, the two-acre vegetable garden is home to lettuce, carrots, peas, tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, asparagus, Swiss chard, and beets. There's also a small fruit garden with raspberries, currants, gooseberries, and rhubarb.

Spend three days biking around the island as I did on my last trip, and you'll see how fertile the land is. Dairy farms and pastures flourish. Fields are filled with wildflowers and tall grasses.

''We can thank the potato for this," said Doug Deacon, owner of the Trailside Café, a favorite stop with bikers for lunch or dinner. ''Those farmers are on a three-year cycle to rotate crops [leaving some fields barren], so it gives the countryside that undeveloped feel."

More than 60 percent of the potatoes consumed in Canada are farmed on the island. Then there's the great bounty from the sea. Biking on the island-long Confederation Trail, along the shoreline of St. Peter's Bay, I gazed at a patchwork of mussel buoys that form black rectangles atop the water. The bay's mussel farmers boat out to their nets at least twice a week, even in the damp winter, to clear their lines of crabs and starfish.

Back at the Inn at Bay Fortune, an 18-room lodging that was once the home of actress Colleen Dewhurst and her husband George C. Scott, I eagerly awaited dinner. Lavallée's menu changes daily, depending on what the local suppliers bring to her doorstep. That night it was asparagus from the restaurant's garden, grilled with prosciutto, followed by a succulent salad of candy cane, golden, and white beets topped with local chevre cheese. Sweet pan-seared scallops mixed with the salt of pork bellies in the seafood course. Meat came in the form of a strip loin, compliments of a farmer in nearby Montague, on a bed of potatoes and Swiss chard. Next to the beef sat a poached Colville Bay oyster, from an inlet to the north. The meat was tender, the oyster awash in tasty brine.

Lavallée, like Smith before her, could easily be working at Biff's or Bouley in the big city, garnering far more attention from the media. Instead, she cooks in relative anonymity on the shores of this quiet Atlantic Maritime Province, happily creating dishes with her wealth of indigenous fare. Those with discriminating taste buds will want to follow in her footsteps.

Stephen Jermanok is a freelance writer living in Newton.

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