It's three hours before chef Mara Jernigan's guests are to sit down to dinner at her Fairburn Farm culinary retreat and guesthouse, and...
VANCOUVER ISLAND, B.C. — It’s three hours before chef Mara Jernigan’s guests are to sit down to dinner at her Fairburn Farm culinary retreat and guesthouse, and she’s literally picking the ingredients for the meal as she walks through a neighbor’s garden as casually as she might browse the aisles of a supermarket.
“How are the zucchini flowers?” she asks Armande Daugenet, a sturdy French woman dressed in shorts and work shirt. Daugenet runs Cali Farm in the Cowichan Valley, an agricultural area 45 minutes north of Victoria, where rural wineries and artisan food producers are attracting tourists more interested in sipping champagne than English tea.
Daugenet bends down and clips a few yellow blossoms. Jernigan inspects them as she mentally composes her appetizer. She’s thinking about frying the flowers in a light tempura batter and stuffing them with goat cheese and lemon thyme.
Into her basket go fat fava beans. She takes scissors from her pocket, snips some cilantro and asks about the beets. Daugenet pulls a half-dozen out of the ground, and Jernigan thinks out loud about how she’ll combine them with the quail eggs she bought on impulse an hour earlier from a Czech man who runs his delivery truck on used olive oil.
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The Cowichan Valley is on southern Vancouver Island, 35 miles north of Victoria and 31 miles south of Nanaimo.
Ferry service to Swartz Bay near Sidney, 17 miles north of Victoria, is via Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay, B.C. (888-223-3779 or www.bcferries.com) and Anacortes (206-464-6400 or www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries). Service to Victoria is via the Victoria Clipper (www.victoriaclipper.com) from downtown Seattle, and the Coho ferry from Port Angeles (360-457-4491 or www.cohoferry.com).
Remember to bring along proof of citizenship when going to and from Canada. This can be a U.S. passport, birth certificate, certificate of citizenship or certificate of naturalization. If you are not a citizen, you will be asked to show your green card or a valid Permanent Resident card.
Along the culinary route
Contact Tourism Cowichan (250- 746-1099 or visit.cowichan.net) for a guide showing the locations of a dozen or so wineries and other artisan food producers near the towns of Duncan, Cobble Hill and Cowichan Bay village. Best times to visit are Wednesdays-Sundays May through the fall harvest.
B&Bs: Contact the South Cowichan Bed & Breakfast Association at www.southvanislebnb.com
Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, 3310 Jackson Road, Duncan. Four rooms in a century-old farmhouse and a cottage. B&B rates starting at $140 CAD (low season) to $155 CAD (high season), $123-$136 USD, based on current exchange rates. Dinners (for overnight guests only), $65 CAD ($57 USD) per person.
Chef Mara Jernigan offers Saturday cooking classes and weekend farmers market tours through Sept. 3, $130 CAD ($115 USD) including lunch. Sunday lunches at the farm run through Aug. 27, $85 CAD ($75 USD) per person. Call 250-746-4637, or see www.fairburnfarm.bc.ca.
Farmers markets: Duncan Farmers’ Market, corner of Canada Avenue and Government Street, year-round from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. Also, Market in the Square, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. April-October, Saturdays, downtown in the city square.
Open houses, tastings, vineyard tours, etc. at the 2006 Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival, Sept. 29, 30 and Oct. 1. Details at wines.cowichan.net.
The 2006 Vancouver Feast of Fields, a farm/food extravaganza to benefit local charities, is 2-6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 in Victoria. See www.feastoffields.com for tickets and details.
Back at Fairburn Farm, where Jernigan, 43, is the inn’s chef and manager, a half-dozen overnight guests await dinner. She trades her red jacket for chef’s whites and heads for the kitchen where she starts cooking the duck breasts she bought earlier in the afternoon from another local farmer. A half-hour later, she makes a last-minute run through her garden for pea shoots, radishes, raspberries and herbs.
A couple from Canada, another from Texas, and my husband and I gather at tables on the side porch. We open bottles of wine and listen to the sounds of bells coming from sheep grazing in the pastures.
Then, around 7:30 p.m., the feast begins.
First comes Irish soda bread made with red fife wheat. The quail eggs turn up in a salad with the fava beans, pea shoots, beets, radishes and wild salmon cheeks. The duck is pan-seared and topped with black currants, zucchini and mint.
It’s nearly 10 p.m. by the time we finish a yogurt panna cotta with the raspberries, the finale of a dinner that went from farm to table in not much more time than it takes most of us city folk to go to the grocery store.
Bed and buffalo
If Victoria is a slice of old England with its Parliament buildings and high tea at the Empress Hotel, the Cowichan, on the other side of the Malahat mountain pass, is more like an undiscovered, mini Napa. Bright, fresh and outdoorsy, it’s filled with back roads leading to family-owned wineries, a cidermaker and plenty of opportunities for forest and river walks.
There’s a handful of B&Bs, but Fairburn Farm is unique in that it patterns itself after an Italian-style agriturismo, offering gourmet dinners, cooking classes and Sunday lunches in a century-old farmhouse sitting by itself at the end of a gravel road.
The farm’s owners, Darrel and Anthea Archer, own a herd of 30 Bulgarian-bred water buffalo and operate Canada’s only buffalo dairy behind the farmhouse where Darrel Archer grew up.
“In terms of Canada, we’re probably one of the two most interesting regions (the other is Charlevoix in Québec) for local food products,” says Sooke Harbour House owner Sinclair Philip. Philip’s award-winning Vancouver Island restaurant and hotel is known for its seasonal menus assembled with ingredients supplied by local organic farmers and fishermen.
The Cowichan’s climate (Cowichan comes from the Coast Salish word for “warm land”) is ideal for farming, with the highest annual average temperatures in Canada. But Philip says the area’s growing reputation for gastro-tourism also has to do with a health-conscious lifestyle that’s attracted small farmers and boutique vintners from Italy, Australia and Germany.
The emphasis is on sustainable agriculture. Everything is organic, fresh and seasonal. One winery eschews irrigation. Cowichan Bay Farm, run by Lyle Young on his great-grandfather’s land, supplies Fairburn Farm and Sooke Harbour House with ducks, geese and chickens pasture-raised in movable pens.
For Jernigan, a Toronto native who grew up in Nanaimo, lived on an alpine dairy farm in Austria and trained in Italy, the Cowichan is an ideal place to build a career teaching cooking and helping local producers connect with local chefs to find markets for their products.
A professional chef who left a 15-year-career in the restaurant industry to farm and teach, she is Canada’s representative for the Slow Food Ark Project, an international movement aimed at saving endangered foods by loading them onto a virtual Noah’s Ark.
“The way to save them is to eat them,” she says.
She raises sheep and goats, and uses eggs laid by her own chickens for the breakfasts and dinners, cooking classes and big community Sunday lunches she hosts at Fairburn Farm.
Goat cheese made by local cheese makers, Hilary and Patty Abbott, goes into her omelets. Her balsamic vinegar, precious as liquid gold at $43 for an 8-ounce bottle, comes from nearby Venturi- Schulze Vineyards.
Soon, she hopes to be serving her guests buffalo mozzarella from the Archers’ dairy.
Following their passion
Darrel Archer’s parents started Vancouver’s first organic cooperative here after buying the 130-acre farm in 1954. Darrel and Anthea took it over and ran it as a B&B until last year when they leased the their red and white farmhouse to Jernigan and turned their full-time attention to the dairy.
“We were looking for an animal that would eat what grows here,” Darrel Archer explained as he walked me through his pasture, stopping at a maple tree to cut a branch of leaves. “Come on girls,” he called. He leaned over the fence, waved the leaves and the animals charged toward us as he called their names. “Come on Little Paula. Hello Theresa.”
The Archers imported 18 river buffalo through Denmark in 2000. Two years later, they were forced to destroy the herd after Denmark had its first case of BSE (mad-cow disease).
None of the animals that were killed tested positive. The Archers were allowed to keep their Canadian-born offspring. They have been selling buffalo meat for several years and plan to start milk production this fall.
If all goes well, the Abbotts will turn the milk into Italian-style buffalo mozzarella cheese, and Philip at Sooke Harbour House plans to be one of the first customers.
People in the Cowichan joke about starting their own “Small-Mart” filled with one-of-a-kind products like this.
With the U.S. dollar exchange rate falling against the Canadian currency, American travelers won’t find any bargains here. A four-course dinner at Fairburn costs $57 a person, and it’s bring your-own-wine.
Still, nobody’s getting rich. Neither are they taking any shortcuts, even if doing things the hard way almost always translates into greater expense.
What drives them?
“It’s passion,” says Jernigan. “People here have a lot of passion. “
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org