Farm stands, wineries, cideries await fall visitors along a gourmet trail on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula.
VANCOUVER ISLAND, B.C. — The buzz of sea planes taking off and landing breaks the morning calm around Victoria’s Inner Harbour, but just 15 miles away on the rural Saanich Peninsula visitors are more likely to awaken to rooster calls and the smell of fresh bread.
Regulars start gathering around 6 a.m. on the porch at the Roost Farm Bakery for breakfast treats made with flour milled from wheat grown in the fields out back.
Nearby at the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, Joan Fleming is baking fruit pies and restocking the shelves of her farm store with homemade chutneys and jams.
Thirsty? Just follow the signs to the Marley Farm Winery for a tumbler of blackberry wine, or drop by Sea Cider Farm for a glass of sparkling apple cider as delicate as French Champagne.
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Culinary tourism is thriving along a southern Vancouver Island flavor trail that cuts through a narrow band of rolling countryside off busy Highway 17 north of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.
Away from the housing developments and suburban strip malls, roadside signs point the way to wineries, farms and orchards where owners keep the welcome mat out year-round.
Flanked by the Saanich Inlet and Georgia Strait, the fertile hills and valleys benefit from the balmy weather that nurtures the floral displays at the popular Butchart Gardens on the peninsula’s west side.
“We can grow anything, and pretty much year-round.” says Fleming, 55, who left a career in dentistry to work full time on the farm she runs with her brother, Mike, and daughter, Olivia.
Whether you’re interested in going behind the scenes to meet the farmers and winemakers, or simply looking to fill the trunk with gourmet treats, fall harvest is an ideal time to visit.
The Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa near Butchart Gardens is an elegant inn, but at nearly $300 per night at current exchange rates, it wasn’t in the budget for the trip my husband, Tom, and I took in mid-August.
More affordable was Peter and Diana Caleb’s Wintercott Country House B&B off a two-lane road where signs warn cars to “Watch out for horses.”
The $106 nightly rate for a large room overlooking the garden included taxes and breakfast. Fortified with Peter’s eggs Benedict and sausages made by a local butcher, we set out with stomachs too full to sample all that awaited.
Pizzas and pumpkins
Using a farm map published by the Southern Vancover Island Growers, we found the Roost Farm Centre and bakery at the corner of East Saanich and McTavish Roads. Scottish-born Hamish Crawford and his wife, Bonnie Yarish, bought what was mostly vacant land in 1989, then planted fruit trees, wheat and most recently, wine grapes.
The bakery opened in 2002, partly to make use of the wheat (there’s a small grain mill where visitors can watch the wheat being ground into flour), and partly because Crawford “wanted to have a place to go and get a sticky bun in the morning and still stay on his property,” explains his son-in-law Dallas Bohl, who runs the bakery with his wife, Sarah.
Parked next door is an old bible-camp bus decorated with lace curtains and cafe tables, an idea Crawford came up with to sidestep rules against adding more seating inside the bakery.
His latest project is growing giant pumpkins. The largest so far is 600 pounds and still growing. The bakery is open daily for breakfast and lunch and Thursday-Saturday for dinner and wood-fired pizzas. Farm tours can be arranged for families or groups. See www.roostfarmcentre.com or call 250-655-0075.
Cider by the sea
A few miles down the road, Sea Cider Farm’s tasting room sits on a hill overlooking a 4-acre apple orchard facing the water. Rows of trees bear unusual varieties of apples long cultivated for cider-making in Europe. This year, owners Kristen and Bruce Jordan added a pink fleshy Russian crab apple, which they hope to use to produce a rosé cider.
Hand-pressed in the fall, the fruit turns into juice that ferments, producing dry and sweet alcoholic ciders. New this year is a European-style “Perry” cider made from local pears.
Like many cider apples, the tiny rocklike pears are inedible, says Kristen. “You’d spit them out, they’re so awful.” The drink, however, is dry and refreshing, with an aroma of fresh dill.
One of the best parts about doing a tasting here is pairing the ciders with locally made gourmet snacks. We sampled several ciders with cheeses, chunks of maple-smoked salmon, slivers of bison sausage and spoonfuls of red-pepper jelly.
See www.seacider.ca or call 250-544-4824 for information on tours and tastings. Visitors are invited into the ciderhouse to see the pressing, fermenting and bottling operations.
I don’t have kids, but if I did I’d take them to the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, formerly the Saanichton Christmas Tree and Ostrich Farm.
The Felmings grow a variety of trees, 200 types of dahlias and strawberries that last into late fall. But the stars are the farm animals, including baby chicks and 600-pound Penny the pig. Visitors are welcome to wander around on their own or take a one-hour guided tour (Cdn. $3.50 for kids; $5 for adults).
Until recently, the Flemings raised ostriches. Joan Fleming made pepperoni from the meat, wallets from the skins and sold the eggs to artists.
But finding someone to watch the flock when the family went on vacation proved difficult, so they sold them all except 17-year-old Diane. She continues to lay a 3-½-pound egg every two days, the equivalent of about two dozen regular eggs.
The farm store stays stocked year-round with homemade jams, jellies, chutneys and preserved fruits.
Farm tours and trout fishing by appointment. See www.ostrichfarm.ca, or call 250-652-3345.
Wine and chocolate
Vancouver Island has more than 20 wineries, many small and family-owned, producing wine with grapes grown locally and in the Okanagan. Our map showed seven within a few miles of each other.
A platter of farm cheeses, prosciutto and fruit compotes paired nicely with glasses of a summery Ortega on the patio of Muse Winery (www.musewinery.ca) across from the Deep Cove marina.
Inland was the Marley Farm Winery, (www.marleyfarm.ca) where the specialty is fruit wine made from local kiwis, rhubarb and berries.
Into our trunk went a bottle of “rastaberry” wine made from raspberries, tayberries and blackberries. All we needed to go with it were a few chunks of dark chocolate, and we didn’t have to go far to find it.
Down the road was a sign advertising eggs, fruit, veggies … and chocolate. We turned into a long driveway and found a shed painted in rainbow colors. Inside were cut flowers, bundles of dried herbs and a refrigerator stocked with chocolate bars labeled “Planet Love.”
I dropped a few dollars in the honor box, then noticed a note tacked to the door.
“Have the best day ever,” it said.
I think we just did.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org