Escape from Seattle: North of Victoria to the Cowichan Valley

amuse_gazebo_500Recall that in my previous “Escape” report about Victoria, I mentioned how a bottle of balsamic vinegar tempted me to return to Vancouver Island for some culinary adventures. Sadly, I was fighting a cold during this trip to the island, so I continued my journey, I had to consolidate my efforts. This meant skipping a day trip to explore the Saanich Peninsula (where you can visit a winery, cidery, distillery, and farms in an easy afternoon) to conserve my energy, enabling me to make an overnight trip to the Cowichan Valley.

The historical waterfront community of Cowichan Bay was named the first Cittaslow community in North America. No Walmarts here, thank you. Just an emphasis on local growers and artisans.

cider_500Heading north from Victoria, my first stop was Merridale Estate Cidery, which features the largest rack and cloth press in Canada. I took a little tour of the grounds, then returned to the tasting room where I was eager to sip some cider. With more time, I’m told Merridale is a perfect place for lunch—perhaps in a picnic-like setting outside.

After a brief stop at Damali Lavender Farm and B&B, where I perused a cookbook of recipes featuring lavender, my drive took me to the water, meaning arrival at Cowichan Bay.

bread_ext_500There’s easy strolling along Cowichan Bay Road, and my itinerary included stops at True Grain Bread & Mill (an old-world bakehouse producing organic breads) and Hilary’s Cheese and Deli (carrying a variety of local and not-so-local cheeses) for the makings of a light lunch.

cheese_ext_500But my favorite food find was Udder Guy’s Ice Cream, which was named “Best Ice Cream on the West Coast” by the Lonely Planet Guide for Canada. The place was packed, and I was pleased to know that as the children (and children-at-heart, like me) ate their handcrafted ice cream, they were enjoying fresh, often local ingredients. Dare I say this ice cream was udderly delicious?

ice_cream_500As the afternoon came to a close, I had time for one last stop. While there are many wineries in the region, I needed to visit Venturi Schulze Vineyards, producers of the balsamic vinegar I so covet. All of the wines are grown, produced, and bottled on the premises without use of any pesticides or herbicides. While the tasting room is modest, the product speaks volumes. I loved the wines, but found myself really licking the balsamic—pure and delicious.

Most surprising to me was the verjus—pure, unfermented grape juice that is pressed from unripe or semi-ripe fruit. From the Venturi Schulze website, verjus has been “used since the Middle Ages as an alternative to lemon or lime [and] is enjoying renewed popularity as a versatile, vibrant condiment.” While it can be used in salad dressings, sauces, and more, I enjoyed a sampling of terrific sorbet made with this magical liquid.

It’s possible to stop and snack endlessly in this area, but I was saving room for a much-anticipated dinner at Amuse Bistro. Fitting for the area, Chef Bradford Boisvert is part of the slow food movement, with his cooking-from-scratch philosophy reflected in the quality of the food. My partner and I were dressed for dinner in the elegant dining room, but when we were offered seeking in the upgrade gazebo (pictured above) behind the main building, we jumped on the opportunity.

It’s a delightful space, and one we shared at first with a fabulous foursome from the area who shared notes on their favorite dishes. After they left, we had the place to ourselves. A very romantic setting, albeit a bit dark for photos, so apologies to the chef for not doing justice to his food.

amuse_bouche_500Amuse bouche: Eggplant clafouti with basil pesto

amuse_soup_500Cowichan Bay crab bisque with parsley cream (rich crab flavor)

amuse_mushrooms_500Tofino-foraged chanterelles in a brandy cream sauce (earthy and hearty)

amuse_scallop_500Pan-seared Little Qualicum scallops with corn & chanterelle ragout, zucchini clafouti, and cilantro-mint coulis (wonderful flavors, though offering a realization that my partner and I both like simpler preparations of scallops that unobstructedly showcase their sweetness)

amuse_bison_500Peppercorn-encrusted, pan-seared island bison tenderloin with gratin dauphinois, swiss chard, patty pan squash, and brandy cream sauce (loved this—and loved the return to simple pan-searing as compared to sous vide preparation)

amuse_dessert_500wDessert: A sweet, gorgeous ending to the meal

dragonfly_dock_500My overnight stay was at Dragonfly Dock Bed & Breakfast, located right on the shores of Shawnigan Lake. Della and Kevin Lawrence were welcoming hosts, providing just the right balance of privacy and engagement. The bedrooms are comfortable, and there’s a “mi casa es tu casa” feeling. Behind the home is easy access to a walking trail, while in front is a hot tub offering serenity under the stars. And across the street is the dock, a perfect place for water activities on the heavily utilized lake.

dragonfly_spread_500You won’t go hungry at Dragonfly, as breakfast is bountiful and delicious. During my stay, I enjoyed baked brie, fresh fruit, and crepes. While the common table might be uncomfortable at some B&Bs, I got the feeling that the conversation is always stimulating at Dragonfly. It was tempting to linger over coffee, but it was time to continue my journey to Sooke, site of the next and final report of my three-part Escape to Vancouver Island.