The Canadian cold makes my hair stand on end. It creeps into my jacket, grinds over my neck and shoulders, and settles into the small of my back like an icy ball of metal. The wind isn’t helping. It hurls itself at me in big, strong gusts, numbing my ears and the tip of my nose.
“Think oysters,” I tell myself. “Plump, juicy oysters.” I soldier on past the wooden pier, a souvenir shop, and a docked cruise ship, until I reach a little log hut. My feet quicken when I hear strains of Acadian music. I take the wooden stairs, two at a time, until I am, finally, in the warmth of a heated bar. “Why, hello there,” a young, blonde waitress says, simultaneously opening the door and handing me a stiff shot of whisky. “The oysters are over there.”
A good number of the islanders have their roots in Acadia, a former French colony in northeastern Canada known for its musical traditions. When the Acadians were expelled from their motherland by the British in the 1700s, they sought refuge in P.E.I. and its neighbouring islands. Acadian music is a mix of bluegrass and country-western fiddling. Photo: Barrett & Mackay/ Dinodia
What a sight they are. Laid out on a six-foot-long table are scores of Prince Edward Island’s finest oysters. I take a big swig of my drink, feel the spirit burn its way down my throat, and methodically make my way through the line-up. “Tabasco?” the smiling man behind the counter asks. I shake my head. “Dash of lime.” Nope. “Cream sauce?” I give him the death glare. “Just give it to me straight,” I growl, like an addict demanding a hit.
Only a week ago, though, I was pretty sure I was not an oyster person. I had a swanky Sunday brunch in Mumbai to thank for that. Somewhere between plates of glistening pork spare ribs and smoked duck, I had chanced upon my first oyster. I regarded it with apprehension—it was unsettlingly jiggly and a little smelly. But I had my reputation as a food writer to consider, so I slurped up the contents with an open mind.
An uncomfortable minute later, I spat it out on my quarter plate in the most dignified manner possible.
These Canadian lovelies are leagues apart. These are Raspberry Points, a name that is usually mentioned in hushed tones by lovers of the gnarly mollusc. Harvested in the chilled waters off the coast of Prince Edward Island National Park, Raspberry Point oysters are known for their plump, moist flesh, their clean flavour, and their briny, lingering finish. Or so a brochure told me. To me, they’re like salty, wet kisses. And I can’t get enough.
I’m in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, a crescent-shaped piece of land off the eastern coast of Canada. The oysters are only one of the island’s many charms. Over the last few days, I have picked chanterelle mushrooms in thickets just outside town, gorged on Gouda under pine trees, and sipped honey-lavender tea steeped in flowers I picked myself.
P.E.I., as the locals call their piece of paradise, is frequented by Canadians from across the Northumberland Strait in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The island isn’t too large—it is roughly 224 km from tip to tip—but it has a vastness about it that’s unlike any place I’ve been to. The fields stretch on for miles, the beaches are endless, even the sky seems larger. I sheepishly mention this to Scott, my new friend at the oyster bar, after slurping down my tenth oyster. He chuckles politely, conveying a mix of warmth and confusion, and says, “Wait until you see our moose and pumpkins. They’re forces to reckon with.”
P.E.I. has a Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, which hosts a competitive weigh-off around Thanksgiving every year. Winners for the last five years have all been upwards of 400 kilos. Photo: John Sylvester/Dinodia
I encounter my first supersize pumpkin the very next day, on my way to Georgetown, another island county. It’s the colour of a ripe mango, and larger than a beanbag. I notice it lying on the side of the road, next to a hand-painted sign that says “Hello! Have a nice day.” Something about this sign with the wonky, painted sunflower tugs at my heart. It’s not advertising anything, not urging me to buy anything—not even the pumpkin. I stop and do the only thing I can think of. I joyfully climb on top of it, feel its smooth orange skin against my cheek, and get my companion to take a picture.
Later that day we meet Captain Perry Gotellon, a lobster fisherman who conducts boat tours to introduce hungry travellers like me to the island’s crisp, blue waters. Over poached lobster salad and beef sandwiches on his spiffy white boat, Gotellon talks about P.E.I.’s sustainable fishing methods. The fishermen have a long list of rules to follow. They can only fish in certain zones, and must measure each and every crustacean they pick up. He hauls a trap out of the ocean to illustrate his point. There are four large lobsters, all pincers and beady eyes that threaten to pop out of their little lobster sockets at the slightest provocation. Gotellon’s blue-eyed boat boy, Andrew, flips the creature on its back, pointing to small, black, caviar-like beads on its belly. “They’re eggs,” he says, allowing me a closer look. “Which means this one’s a lady, and off limits.” Lobster No. 2, he decrees, is also a no-go, because it’s too small, suggesting it isn’t fully grown. Only one out of the four in the trap checks out—an adult male—but he too goes back into the ocean because fishing season doesn’t start for a few weeks.
I spend the afternoon cruising around Georgetown’s waters, fishing for mackerel and soaking in the deliciously warm sunlight. “It’s not rocket science why P.E.I.’s seafood tastes so good,” Gotellon says, gesturing to the far shore. “Look at this place.” To my right are thickets of pine trees. Farther away are the deep red cliffs of Cavendish Beach. Above me, Michelangelo clouds gently cruise the skies.
I feel a gentle tug at my rod, and a quick flick of the wrist later, there’s a gleaming silver mackerel thrashing on the deck. We make an impromptu ceviche with lime, sea salt, and parsley, and the captain tells me about the lobster’s surge in popularity. When he was growing up, Gotellon says, lobster was poor man’s food. It was what he took to school almost every day for lunch—mostly baked or poached with a dash of lime and a loaf of bread—all the while wishing he could have a beef sandwich like everybody else. Somewhere around the 1990s, “some savvy marketing dude decided it was gourmet, and my life changed”. He laughs out loud, as if two decades later, he is still unsure of how the seafood revolution came to be. I polish off the last spoon of ceviche, savouring its sour tang.
The island’s lobsters and mussels are as popular as its oysters. At cafés in Charlottetown, buckets of steamed mussels and lobster-mayo rolls are popular orders. Photo: Taylor S. Kennedy/National Geographic/Getty Images
A hurricane alert is sounded the following day, and happy, sunny P.E.I. has been reduced to swirls of grey and steady rain. My ocean education was due to continue with an oyster harvester in the morning; the afternoon was to be spent feeding pods of bluefin tuna. But the weather is playing spoilsport.
Determined not to stay cooped up in the hotel, I walk over to the Charlottetown Farmers Market, about an hour from my hotel in the city centre, stopping at stores along the way that catch my eye. I browse through a comic-book store, sample a frangipane tart at a hipster café, and coo over seashell jewellery in a snow-white boutique. En route, I meet a Chinese engineering student, an older gent who restores vintage guitars, and a gangly twenty-something who tells me he’s only two painting jobs away from financing a trip to Peru. They’re all sunshine-happy. Armed with their recommendations, I enter the gentle bustle of the market.
There’s the pork pierogi stall Huan, the engineering student, vouched for. A few feet away, a man slices veils of salmon, and carefully drapes them over bagels and cream cheese, like pink tutus. Stalls sell brawny bratwurst sausages, Chinese spring rolls, guacamole and fish tacos, slices of almond cake smeared with fresh cream, even samosas (advertised as Canada’s favourite snack). Pots of loveage, mint, lemon balm, and lavender lend the air a heady aroma. Hand-painted signs say things like “PEST FREE: We love our plants and our family!” I nibble on plates of organic this and natural that. The fresh bounty would make a chef go weak in the knees.
Tourists can pick produce straight from the field (left); P.E.I.’s famous Raspberry Point oysters (right) take about six years to mature. Photos: Darwin Wigget. First Light/Corbis/Imagelibrary (cabbage field) Dave Bartruff/Genesis Photos/Corbis (oysters)
Almost everybody I meet grows their own produce and is a fountain of information. I learn that more than 70 per cent of the seaweed in the ocean is edible. From an elegant old lady with an affinity for silver jewellery, I buy a bottle of teriyaki seaweed pickle, seduced by its tart, mineral flavour. From Judy at the herb corner, I purchase cakes of rosemary-peppermint soap shaped like starfish. And from Dan, who looks like a skinny Santa, I get a bottle of electric jam: a mix of raspberry, blueberry, and strawberry that Dan nurtures from seed to finish. Their love for food is infectious and the morning’s disappointment dissipates.
Before long, I am on the road again, driving past cabbage patches and dancing fields on my way to Raspberry Point. A beautiful hour’s drive later, we pull up by a modest shack near the ocean. On a bench, two guys and a girl in navy-blue overalls with shower caps on their heads, are munching on sandwiches. Like so many thriving businesses on the island, Raspberry Point looks like a modest mom-and-pop shop, hardly the kind of place that exports four million oysters every year.
Inside, the smell of the ocean is like a double shot of espresso. I am wide-eyed again, drinking in the sight of thousands of freshly harvested oysters, waiting to be sorted and graded. Some will make their way to cafés on the island. Others will embark upon a longer journey to restaurants as far away as New York City to be dressed and plated by Michelin-star chefs.
A quick look-around later, I stroll on to oyster captain Scott’s barge, eager to be out on the water again. As we cruise out to sea, I see wooden poles sticking out of the water every few feet. These are markers for spots where the molluscs are harvested in baskets. I steady myself against the boat’s wheel. The water is getting choppy. Every time the barge hits a trough, a spray of water hits my face. My hair is damp and wild, and I have a huge smile plastered on my face.
Raspberry Points, like all oysters, are natural filters, feeding on micro-algae and removing silt from the water. A single mollusc cleans about 190 litres of water every day. Understandably, water has the biggest influence on an oyster’s flavour profile. The murkier, or more polluted the water, the grislier the oyster tastes. Reminded of the rubbery oyster I encountered in Mumbai, I find myself wondering where my food comes from.
Typically, oysters are farmed about three to five feet below the ocean surface in baskets or cages that are attached to floating buoys. The colder the water, the longer the oysters take to mature. Photo: Barrett & Mackay/Dinodia
Oysters feed on plankton in the water, filtering water in the process.They reproduce when the water warms, and can change gender more than once in a lifetime. Photo: Barrett & Mackay/Dinodia
Scott jumps over the side of the barge—the water is only about five feet deep—and pulls up something that looks like a plastic crate. Inside, about a dozen, misshapen, moss-covered oysters are snuggled together. They look like green rocks.
I learn that oysters harvested closer to the surface feed on more plankton, and have a stronger seaweed flavour. Ones that mature on the ocean floor, near rocks, have mineral notes, while those suspended in baskets a few feet beneath the surface have a higher salt content. Like grapes, oysters soak up the flavours of their environment.
As we talk about P.E.I.’s blessed terroir—a mix of sand, water, and climate—the sun suddenly peeks out of the clouds. Scott gestures to the water and my jaw drops. Every inch of the ocean floor around the barge, for as far as my eyes can see, is blanketed with oysters. Millions of them, patiently sitting around.
The moment is too perfect to pass up. I ask Scott whether I can have an oyster right now. He obliges with a crooked smile, picking a particularly gnarly looking shell from the floor.
I memorise the details of the moment: the coolness of the P.E.I. afternoon, the crooked wooden plank under my orange sneakers, the touch of ocean spray on my face. I focus on the transparent waters, the blue sky, and roughness of the oyster in my hands. Its flesh glistens, like fruit glazed with sugar syrup.
I gulp one half down, and slowly savour the next, smacking my lips when I am done. I feel deeply connected with my food.
My week in Prince Edward Island culminates at the International Shellfish Festival in the heart of Charlottetown. With enthusiastic locals, large families from Nova Scotia, and cruise-liner guests docked for the evening, I gorge on buckets of simple, steamed mussels and Caesars (a coastal take on the Bloody Mary made with clam-tomato juice). I have broiled lobster, rosemary crab cakes, soup garnished with tangy seaweed, crunchy squid salad, and apple pie made with fruit from an orchard I visited a few days ago. In this beautiful meal, the produce is clearly the star. What makes my night however, is the fact that I know exactly where each ingredient on my plate comes from.
Prince Edward Island’s landscapes are largely pastoral, punctuated by pretty, pastel-coloured homes with sloping roofs and picket fences. Photo: Gilles Rigoulet/Hemis/Corbis/Imagelibrary
The Canadian Province of Prince Edward Island is a small isle that sits pretty in the North Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, north of the Nova Scotia peninsula. The crescent-shaped island is spread over 5,656 sq km, and is separated from mainland Canada by the Northumberland Strait. Charlottetown is the capital of P.E.I, or the Gentle Island as it is also called.
Charlottetown is the chief airport of P.E.I., and is well connected to Toronto (2 hours), Halifax (40 mins), and Montreal (1 hour 40 mins). There are no direct flights from India to Canada; there is a mandatory layover in Europe or the U.S. The journey takes at least 20 hours including layovers. P.E.I. is connected to mainland Canada by the Confederation Bridge. There are shuttle buses (4 hours) between Halifax and Charlottetown, as well as ferry services connecting Caribou in Nova Scotia to Island Woods in P.E.I. (1 hour 15 mins). Nova Scotia makes for a lovely day trip.
A tourist visa for Canada is issued to travellers for a maximum period of six months. It costs ₹5,900, and the minimum processing time is 10 working days. However, it is best to apply 30 days in advance. Forms and a list of required documents are available at www.vfsglobal.ca/canada/india.
Renting a car is the best way to get around the island. Roads are in mint condition, the pastoral landscapes are captivating, and the locals are helpful with directions. Buses ply in and around the capital of Charlottetown but other parts of P.E.I., like Georgetown, have no local transport. Cabs are available on call but are quite pricey.
Winters in P.E.I. are hard, with temperatures dipping as low as -20°C. Fishing comes to a standstill at this time of year. Photo: Barrett & Mackay/All Canada Photos/Getty Images
May-September: Max: 22°C, Min: 4°C
Around mid-May, spring arrives in P.E.I. Ponds thaw out, layers are shed, and locals swap heavy winter coats for flannel shirts. Temperatures range between 8 and 22°C, and it gets progressively warmer from there. Summer months (July-August) are bright and sunny. On occasion, the mercury cross the 30° mark, giving residents much to cheer about.
October-April Max: 7°C, Min: -12°C
Shades of auburn and ochre fill P.E.I.’s palette around the end of September, when autumn sets in. The days are clear and bright with temperatures ranging between 8 and 20°C. Winter is harsher. Days are bleak and the average temperature is around -10°C.
The Holman Grand is a plush, contemporary, centrally located hotel in Charlottetown, across the street from the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Rooms have hardwood flooring and are equipped with flatscreen televisions, sunken bathtubs, and iPod docking stations (+1902-367-7777; www.theholmangrand.com; doubles from ₹10,000).
Delta Prince Edward is by the Charlottetown Harbour, and affords views of the ocean, yachts, and cackling seagulls. Unfortunately, the hotel also has a wing with less inspiring views of buildings. The Delta is pleasant but in need of a facelift (+1902-566-2222; www.deltahotels.com/Hotels/Delta-Prince- Edward; doubles from ₹7,500).
The Great George is a heritage boutique hotel that dates back to 1857. Inside its rooms, old-world charms like claw-footed bathtubs share space with sleek flat-screen tellies. It’s the sort of place where you could curl up with a book in front of a traditional fireplace, because some rooms actually have one (+1902-892-0606; thegreatgeorge.com; doubles from ₹9,000).
Appeared in the July 2014 issue as “Eats, Shucks and Leaves”.
loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
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