Things seem to move in cycles on Prince Edward Island. The smallest and least populous province of Canada is a curious case: a tiny province in the world's second-largest country; a place of identifiable Britishness eight hours' flight away from my home, that feels at once foreign and familiar.
Islanders talk as fondly about their British and Irish lineage as they do about the province's role in bringing confederacy to Canada. But more than that, their pride is in their produce. This is a part of the world where the sea is bracing, and lobsters, oysters and scallops are beautiful and plentiful, and where artisans thrive. It's a natural larder the likes of which Scotland and Cornwall, on the east coast of England, can be jealous – bright red soil and sand meeting grey-blue surf; hectares and hectares of green fields that stretch their way out to the horizon and beyond. In fact, if not for the sparkling Atlantic that swings its way back into view around sweeping bends during my lazy looping around the province, I could almost be close to home in East Anglia.
My food journey here starts in the capital, Charlottetown. With a food tour, to be specific, beginning at the town hall and first dropping in at Lobster on the Wharf, a restaurant and seafood market where lobsters hang in suspended animation in crates resting in icy water, their claws taped up to protect probing fingers. There were 1.2m Canadian lobsters sold last year, I'm told. The ones here range from 0.5-1kg – pretty standard, although I'm also told the biggest ever caught in these parts weighed 20kg.
I try an oyster, too – fresh and briny but with a touch of sweetness, an early chance for PEI to open its fridge door and show off. Other stops on the tour include Gahan's brewpub, which brews its own brand of beers that are famous across the province, including some made with the first hops to be grown here; Dave's Lobster; and the Olde Dublin Pub - which may look at first like any North American 'Irish pub', but which serves us a delicious pot of mussels cooked in a creamy bisque. I must admit to being surprised, but by the end of the trip, I'm not.
This is, as I increasingly discover, a place where seafood is taken seriously. A few strip malls with the quintessential Tim Hortons cafés and KFCs there may be, but you won't see cheap diner food in the homely restaurants that line the water – you'll find plates laden with crushed ice, upon which sit oysters, clams and quahogs, no matter the time of day.
I also love the Chip Shack, run by Caron Prins (who also sings in a local covers band, naturally). She cooks up fries, served on their own, with lobster rolls or as poutine, out of a tiny cabin near the harbour. A few picnic tables are the only adornments, yet this is hallowed ground on PEI: she's after the title of 'best fries in the world', and hers are a genuine contender in my eyes. After all, as I discover, she's got among the best starting points around: the Prince Edward Island potato. That bright red soil isn't just to pretty to look at: it means the best possible terroir for its vaunted potatoes – those equal big business on PEI, with large-scale farming meaning they're exported all over Canada and beyond. The Islanders are, needless to say, just as proud of them as they are their fruits de mer. The Shack is the last stop on the tour, which circles back to the harbour where we started.
The biggest lobster ever caught in these parts was over 20kg
Myriad View distillery is another curious case, and one which, although at first seeming like a simple tale of a group of friends deciding to make spirits together, has an important story to tell about the province's history. Prohibition here, you see, wasn't ended until 1948, resulting in almost every family on the Island at one time or another distilling their own moonshine, the distillery's co-owner Ken Mill tells me. "It's just a question of when did they start, when did they stop, and were they any good at it."
Like all traditions borne out of necessity, it's still adhered to, with at least one member of a family distilling 'shine for special occasions like weddings, graduations, and wakes. Although classic moonshine, made with molasses, is one of the eight spirits Ken and his co-owners make in the distillery, the tradition is so strong that he, along with thousands of others in the province, will still reprise his kitchen recipe for such occasions.
Myriad View's 'Strait' spirits, which include Canadian whisky, brandy (made with grapes from a small vineyard behind the distillery), vodka, rum, gin and more are sold throughout the province - there's not a liquor store around you won't find them in. But the province isn't big, and they're still a small-scale manufacturer by choice. They turn a modest profit and aren't interested in big business, or contract distilling.
Ken tells me the reason he doesn't charge for tours of the distillery. He explains that, while it might provide a small revenue stream alongside the liquid they sell, it's not important. "The money someone saves when they see the distillery for free will probably go to a business one of my friends owns; or to the Oyster Shack where my daughters work." It's a wonderfully idealistic way of looking at things - a natural pattern that I suspect wouldn't present itself out in the relatively bigger-business of nearby Halifax, or further out in Ontario. But that's the beauty of this isolated, small province: cycles of good faith and good food can roll their way gently through the place.
I visit Rossignol winery, which uses local grapes that are hardened to the tough Canadian winter to make its wines – "perfect with oysters, scallops or steamed lobsters," one bottle of its self-professed 'table wine' says, to which I joke that we might struggle to find any. There's also Glasgow Glen Farm, which produces flavoured and aged gouda cheese, along with Charlottetown farmers' market and Prince Edward Island Preserve Company, whose jams and chutneys are as highly sought-after as Myriad View's Strait spirits. All of them are in the fairly unique position of being able to supply most stores and markets in the province, without having to produce huge prices.
PEI – in pictures
The climax of my journey to PEI, though, is evident when I get there: the Inn at Bay Fortune, and the Feast. The Inn is famous on the Island: it gave New York-born Michael Smith, who became Canada's hottest property in the world of TV chefs and cookbook writers, his first proper chunk of experience. He pioneered the farm-to-table movement in Canada before it was cool, and made the Inn famous the first time around when he filmed there.
How to get there
Air Canada runs three trips per day from Toronto into Charlottetown (YYG) year-round, with one additional flight in the summer.
Westjet runs one flight per day into YYG, with one additional summer flight.
Flight time is approximately 2 hours.
That's why, when opportunity knocked recently, he made a triumphant return to the Inn not just as the executive chef, but, crucially, as the owner – ready to reinvent its kitchen and put his stamp back on the place he clearly still held close to his heart.
I arrive at the Inn for the Feast, which is famous all around the province, greeted by appetisers of flame-seared beef with lemon aioli, and an almost-too-good-to-be-true salmon, hot-smoked in pastrami spices and served on a flax cracker with caper mayo. There are oysters shucked on demand for the hungry hordes, too, served with a homemade Bloody Mary ice, before we sit down and are treated to six courses of seafood as fresh as I've ever tasted, caught less than a mile away, and meat from further afield on PEI. The restaurant is called FireWorks, owing to the fact it's all cooked over flaming coals – cast-iron pans bubbling away, meat and fish smoking. No two nights' menus are ever the same, because the chefs cook on the fly with whatever produce comes in that day, but they all share something in common: they're a celebration of PEI's bountiful produce in all its glory; a stomach-busting journey through its sand and surf.
It's a fitting climax to a couple of days here, and when I complete the last looping drive back to the tiny Charlottetown airport, it's with a heavy heart, leaving the quiet cycles of Prince Edward Island to keep rolling on. ■