The New Napa: Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley
Written by Jaillan Yehia
Vancouver Island is the largest Pacific Island west of New Zealand, larger than Sicily and a shade smaller than Taiwan – but while British Naval officer George Vancouver may have given his name to both his city and island discoveries, the name is where the similarity between Vancouver city and Vancouver island, ends.
‘The Island’ as it’s simply known throughout this part of Canada is an entirely distinct destination in its own right, and as I discovered at its heartland is food and farming.
The Cowichan Valley (meaning ‘the warm land’) enjoys the rather telling nickname of ‘Canada’s Provence’ – and this really is a genuine foodie paradise as well as a nature lover’s playground.
Last year I visited the city of Vancouver having heard how it regularly tops polls as one of the most liveable places on the planet, but only after my arrival did I discover the reputation of its island namesake.
Large enough to offer everything from zip lining to wine tasting, cultured city breaks to wilderness exploration, yet small enough to have a community vibe wherever you go, there’s something undeniably special and dare I say even secret about The Island.
The best of these secrets is the interwoven network of local, home-grown and organic food, wine and culinary culture which exists here, all thanks to the passionate expert chefs, farmers and foodie entrepreneurs who’ve chosen to make The Island their home.
This culinary explosion is just beginning to make an impact on the international tourist scene – forging an affordable, down-to-earth, friendly and expansive alternative to Napa Valley for those who want to jump in their car and stop only for fantastic food and wonderful wine.
And for foodies the Cowichan Valley is the place to head for – this has the most favourable growing conditions on the isle and is home to locally crafted meats and cheeses, vinegars and vegetables, wineries and cider orchards.
This haven for gastronomic exploration is till in its infancy meaning it still has its grip firmly on reality – meaning you can keep a similar grip on your purse strings.
Here are the a selection of stops on the Cowichan Valley’s foodie trail…
Cider Tasting Amongst The Orchards at Merridale Ciderworks
Owner Janet Docherty has been running these orchards for 13 years overseeing the apples which surround the restaurant and tasting rooms as they’re turned into a selection of tasty ciders which you can sample while learning fascinating fruit facts; for example it turns out that cider orchards don’t need to be fenced off from local wildlife as cider apples are too bitter for passing deer to nibble on.
There’s also a deli on site, the cidery makes a popular wedding venue, and there are outdoor eating options come summer – and even yurts to stay in if the potent Eau de Vie made on site tempts you to put down the car keys for the night.
Organic pesticide free wine and Balsamic Vinegar at Venturi Schulze
If wine is your tipple you’ll be spoilt for choice in this area but Venturi-Shultz is a highly experienced and impressive family run business dedicated to fine wine production aimed at connoisseurs and purists, with a pesticide and herbicide-free vineyard, also making high quality balsamic vinegar, available in beautifully hand-painted bottles.
Lavender and Rhubarb Wines at Damali
Imagine a winery, lavender farm and B&B somewhere called Telegraph Road, Cobble Hill – this is every bit as quaint and countrified as it sounds with a mini-labyrinth and chickens on the grounds as well as an adorable gift shop selling hand-made lavender products and of course the farm’s own quite new and highly unusual range of wines which you can taste in a very laid back setting before choosing your own favourite tipple to take home – I plumped for the lavender and rhubarb wine which was like nothing I’d ever tried before.
Foodie Foraging At Deerholme Farm
There’s not much local legend Bill Jones can’t tell you about the food and foraging scene here – a prolific author with 11 books under his belt Bill exemplifies the farm to table approach for which the area is becoming known.
Attend a culinary workshops or pop-up dinners at his farmhouse where he shares his passion for the food of the Pacific Northwest and imparts knowledge on his own particular areas of specialised expertise, for example the morel mushrooms which are abundant here in spring.
Where To Stay – Stone Soup Inn
Owner, head chef, chief gardener and one man culinary revolution Brock Windsor is living The Good Life and offering guests the chance to sample what it means to live sustainably on a tasty diet of farm fresh produce which has been foraged, picked, raised and grazed on the surrounding lands.
Brock handles everything himself here in the ultimate hands-on approach – from sourcing the food to cooking and serving it. Come for dinner, an overnight stay and a hearty breakfast, leave with an admiration for what can be achieved with hard work and pure dedication.
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