I love how PEI is embracing its foods from its land and the sea that surrounds it! The Island has long been known for its great seafood and what better way to celebrate it than by hosting a large Shellfish Festival! The best way I can describe this annual PEI event is that it is one gigantic Island kitchen party with lots of local musical entertainment and great seafood – always a winning combo!
Now in its 16th year, the Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival has grown substantially from its beginnings drawing, according to organizers, a crowd of over 8000 this year at its new venue at the Charlottetown Events Grounds near the City’s waterfront. From September 13-16, attendees were treated to everything seafood in this signature event of the Island’s “Fall Flavours” Culinary Festival. Visitors to the Festival came from afar. In fact, organizers say over 50% of attendees were tourists to the Island coming mostly from the Maritimes, Ontario and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. This attests to the popularity this event enjoys.
Jennifer Caseley, Marketing and Sponsorship Manager for the Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival, tells me the event began in 1996 by Liam Dolan, a Charlottetown restaurateur, as a means to extend the PEI tourism season. Up until that point, tourism all but stopped after Labour Day and tourist operators basically closed shop.
Asked what the main objectives of the PEI Shellfish Festival are, Jennifer says there are five: 1) To promote PEI’s high quality shellfish; 2) to generate off-Island visitors; 3) to increase the profile of PEI shellfish worldwide; 4) to create new export opportunities; and 5) to increase consumer trial and consumption.
This year’s schedule of events was jam-packed. The weekend started with a “Feast and Frolic” gala dinner hosted by Chefs Michael Smith and Mark McEwan. Over the next three days, there were lots of cooking demonstrations featuring PEI shellfish and agricultural products and hosted by headliner celebrity chefs. These included two of the Island’s finest: Chef Michael Smith, author of six cookbooks and TV chef personality with his own show “Chef Michael’s Kitchen” on the Food Network, and Gordon Bailey, owner of the trendy and upscale Lot 30 restaurant in downtown Charlottetown and judge on the TV show “Cake Walk Wedding Cake Edition”.
Inside the super large white tent, there were lots of food vendors set up selling local fare and, of course, primarily featuring seafood. Oyster shuckers were kept busy keeping up with demand and, yes, they even had an oyster shucking championship as one of the many events of the Festival! One of the busiest booths had to be where Chef Michael Smith was signing his new cookbook, a real hot item over the 4-day festival!
Outside the tent, the Tie One On Competition provided entertainment for onlookers as teams of two competed in typing buoys and hanging mussel socks over the side of an actual mussel farming boat brought onsite to simulate mussel farming.
Offsite, at the Red Shores Racetrack & Casino, a private function featured a meet-and-greet event on Saturday afternoon with Chef Michael Smith. I was fortunate enough to be invited to this event where approximately 30 lucky people got to personally meet and speak with Chef Michael who, to the delight of those attending, took his time and unhurriedly talked with people, answered questions, posed for photographs, and signed yet more copies of his new cookbook.
It was at this event that I met two ladies vacationing from British Columbia. They did not come to the Island specifically for the Festival but they were certainly enjoying both the Shellfish Festival and several of the other Fall Flavours events!
One of the perennial favourite highlights of the Shellfish Festival was the chef competition for the best seafood chowder championships. In fact, there were two championships: 1) PEI Potato Seafood Chowder Championship, and 2) International Seafood Chowder Championship. Below are some photos from Heat 2 of the PEI Potato Seafood Chowder competition.
How fabulous and appetizing do these chowders look!
An event of this magnitude takes a phenomenal amount of planning and requires a large team of volunteers to keep the event moving smoothly. Jennifer tells me that, over the weekend, 80 volunteers were on board.
From humble beginnings in 1996, this event has definitely evolved into a signature culinary event that highlights both local and visiting chefs and compliments the food with great local entertainment. This means visitors not only get to sample our great Island seafood but they also get to experience our PEI culture at the same time. What a great blend! The Shellfish Festival is the anchor event of Fall Flavours and certainly the biggest draw for tourism in the fall. As Jennifer says, “The event just keeps getting better. This year was the biggest and best yet with a 40% increase in visitation over 2011. As PEI’s largest culinary event, it creates value and awareness for our superior quality shellfish as we continue to put PEI shellfish on the worldwide map”.
If you are a foodie considering a visit to PEI, there is no better time than September to visit our Island. There are many culinary events that comprise the Fall Flavours Culinary Festival and planning a visit to coincide with the Prince Edward Island Shellfish Festival in the middle of September would make PEI a great holiday destination. For more information on this event, visit the Festival’s website at http://peishellfish.com/ where you will see they are already counting down the days until the 2013 Shellfish Festival begins!
On my last day of summer vacation, I went to boot camp – culinary boot camp, that is — at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, PEI. Sixteen people formed the group for the full day “Island Flavours” boot camp. We were a mixed group that came from PEI, Halifax, NS, Montreal, QC, and Waterloo, ON. It was a packed day of activity (and work!) but it was fun!
Now in their 4th year of operation, the boot camps (which started as a pilot project), are offered from May to October. Some are one-half day events while others are full day camps. A variety of bootcamps are offered that include half-day events such as Healthy Eating 101 and Chocolate and Wine. Full day boot camps include Lobster 101, Local Flavours, Seafood 101, Thrills on the Grill, and Seasonal Desserts. Half day camps start at $129 + GST/per person and full days range from $199 to $269 + GST/per person.
Asked why the Culinary Institute, a teaching school for training professional chefs, started the seasonal culinary boot camps, Chef Instructor Jeff McCourt who teaches most of the camps, says the initiative began with “the onset of culinary tourism and, being a school already, they [the Culinary Institute) are fulfilling a short-term education component.” Culinary tourism is one of the latest vacation trends. Whether it is simply choosing interesting, unique, and memorable regional dining options where you are vacationing, attending foodie events (like the PEI Shellfish Festival happening in Charlottetown this weekend, for example) or food conferences, or participating in culinary boot camps at acclaimed cooking schools like the Culinary Institute of Canada, including food-related activities on holidays is a great way to sample local cuisine, try new food products, meet people who share culinary interests, and/or learn new cooking methods and techniques.
Lindsay Arsenault, Boot Camp Coordinator, says one of their most popular culinary boot camps is the Kids Camp, a 4-day summer camp where youth from ages 7-17 are taught basic life skills about food – where food comes from and how to prepare basic meals and they even move on to more advanced food preparation. In this camp, the youth also get to spend a day on a farm, plant a row of potatoes, pick seasonal berries, and then return to the kitchen to learn how to make jam. The camp concludes with the youth preparing a buffet for their parents. Since its inception, the Kids Camp has become so popular that it is not uncommon for the Institute to have waiting lists for these camps. Says 10-year old Michael MacEwen, of Tea Hill, PEI, who is a “seasoned three-year veteran” of the Kids Camp, “I go to the camp every year because it’s fun, you learn how to cook “really good food” from “real” chefs, you get a chef’s outfit, and they are happy to adjust the recipes for me to be gluten-free. I go back every year because there is always something new to learn.”
Lindsay tells me the boot camps are gaining a positive reputation as shore excursions for cruise passengers visiting the port of Charlottetown. Currently, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas cruise lines have started offering the Boot Camps as shore excursions for passengers. The Culinary Institute has customized their boot camps to accommodate cruise ship visits and time lines. This is a wonderful opportunity for those passengers to taste authentic Island food, experience the Culinary Institute and cooking in a professional atmosphere, and go home with great Island recipes as a souvenir of their PEI port visit. As someone who is a frequent cruiser and a foodie, I know this is one shore excursion that would match my tastes! I also learned, from Lindsay, that some organizations have taken their employees to the Culinary Institute and used the boot camps as team building events. Now, that’s an innovative (and fun) way to bring work teams together!
Attending culinary boot camp is also an opportunity to explore future career options. At the boot camp I attended, a dad from Montreal brought his Grade 11 daughter to the Island specifically to attend a couple of boot camps as she is planning a career as a chef. This opportunity allowed her to experience a large industrial-sized teaching kitchen, work alongside a professional chef, and to decide if this is the cooking school she might attend full time when she finishes high school. The day before this boot camp, Alison and her dad, Stephen, spent a day with the chef. This is essentially a customized day of personalized attention where the participant(s) work with the chef on a particular subject of their choosing – in Alison and Stephen’s case, they chose to focus on preparing seafood. Alison’s comments after her culinary experience were very positive and there was no question that she thoroughly enjoyed it.
The boot camps can accommodate a maximum of 16 participants and Lindsay tells me that, on average, their boot camps are comprised of 50/50 Islanders and tourists. On the day I attended, we had a number of family groups participating – Alison and her Dad, Stephen, from Montreal, the six-member Simmons/Tummon family from Waterloo, ON, who were back for their second boot camp in as many years, and a mom (Debbie) and her son (Anthony) from Charlottetown. Debbie told me this boot camp was her Christmas gift to her son and she decided to join him for the day in what was her sixth boot camp in three years. Asked why she had enrolled in six boot camps, Debbie said, “it allows me to try different things. I probably wouldn’t have made the food we made in the camp if I found them in a recipe book but, after participating in the culinary boot camps, I am more inclined to be more venturesome in cooking.” The Simmons/Tummon family – mom, dad, two sons and two daughters aged 15-22, told me their attendance was a Christmas gift from an Island relative (neat idea). Dad, Shawn, told me they enjoy the camps – “the girls like to cook and the boys like doing different things”. I thought it was fabulous to see these families spending quality time together, enjoying themselves, and learning different cooking techniques. Two other women drove from Halifax, NS, specifically to take this boot camp as an extended weekend get-away.
So, now I’m going to share with you my impressions after attending the full day offering of “Local Flavours”, a new boot camp for 2012. For those of you regularly following my blog, you’ll figure my choice of “Local Flavours” was an obvious one given my blog focuses primarily on Island food products.
The focus of the “Island Flavors” boot camp is on cooking with ingredients that come from the land as well as the waters around PEI. After dividing the 16 participants into four groups and assigning each group their recipes, the day started out with participants boarding a small tour bus, along with Chef Instructor Jeff McCourt, to go on a shopping expedition for ingredients for the recipes to be made later in the day.
Chef McCourt handed each group $15 to buy fresh produce to enhance the recipes (note the main ingredients – fish, meat, cream, butter, etc., were all provided by the Culinary Institute and included in the boot camp fee). Heading along historic Water Street and passing over the Hillsborough Bridge to Stratford, our first stop took us to Balderston’s Farm Market.
Participants deliberated over what fresh produce to buy and, once selections were made, everyone was back on the bus and on the way back across the Bridge to the Riverview Country Market which sells both fresh produce and meats. More purchases were made.
The last stop was at the Liquid Gold Tasting Bar and All Things Olive shop on lower Queen Street where everyone enjoyed tasting the many different kinds of imported quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Yes, more purchases!
Back at the Culinary Institute, participants were outfitted in their official Culinary Boot Camp chef jackets and hats and then it was downstairs to the large kitchen facility. Each group assembled and started making their assigned recipes.
Participating in this kind of culinary activity gives participants the opportunity to see and work inside a huge, industrial-sized kitchen. And, I think some of my Paderno stock pots and pans are huge – un-huh – the Culinary Institute has pots so large that they are on floor stands – they make my pots look like little measuring cups! There was one frying pan that I declare was at least three times the size of my largest one! I wondered if I’d need a hydraulic lift to move it!
The day was long but passed by very quickly because it was so busy. Each group was intent on their work. This is very much a hands-on culinary event. Don’t expect to sit back, relax, and be entertained by watching someone demonstrate how something is done. Ah, no. You work in these boot camps! It’s learning by doing. That said, there were times throughout the day that Chef McCourt did gather all participants around for specific demonstrations – for example, he showed how to butcher a 30-pound halibut and how filleting is done and steaks cut. Both Chef McCourt and his assistant, Colleen Neilly, were very accommodating and answered any questions participants had and were very willing to show participants how to do things.
The basic recipes were provided but participants had the creative flexibility as to how they wanted to “dress them up”. For example, our group opted to prepare the halibut with a Cajun blackened spice rub and plate it over grilled yellow tomatoes and red peppers (bought at Balderston’s earlier in the morning), served alongside herb-roasted beets and chopped Chorizo sausage (purchased at Riverview Country Market). The recipes our group made were Potato and Lobster Cakes, Broiled Oysters (yes, I had my first oyster – but not raw!), Pan-fried Halibut, and Vienna Truffle Tortes (that we dressed with blueberries from Balderston’s).
I found it particularly interesting to visit the other groups around the kitchen and to watch how they chose to prepare their assigned dishes. At the end of the day, we had to plate and present our dishes and spread them out altogether in buffet style. It was simply astonishing and amazing to see the superb quality of the finished products that looked (and tasted) so professionally prepared.
Then, it was time to sample the fruits of our labour. After filling our plates, it was upstairs to the Lucy Maud Dining Room to enjoy our meal in style. The Lucy Maud Dining Room is the Culinary Institute’s teaching restaurant and it has one of the most commanding water views as it is situated just at the entrance to the Charlottetown Harbour.
This was simply a fabulous day and experience. For the foodie and at-home chef, this is a rare opportunity to work alongside a professional chef in a large, fully-equipped kitchen (yes, their walk-in refrigerators are as large as my walk-in clothes closet!) and learn food preparation techniques from the professionals. At the end of the boot camp, participants walk away with a monogrammed boot camp chef’s jacket to keep, a booklet of recipes that were prepared during the day, great memories of a busy yet fun day, and inspiration and motivation to try new ways of preparing ordinary local foods.
So, whether it’s a treat for yourself, a gift for those hard-to-buy-for folks who happen to be foodies (I’m thinking what a great wedding present one of these camps would be for newlyweds), an innovative team-building activity for your work group, or an activity to do with a group of friends or family members, a one-half or full day at the Culinary Institute’s boot camps is a great food activity and a sure way to have a memorable time. Oh, and the extraordinary buffet meal as the finale is pretty darn good, too!
Still can’t get over the fact that we accomplished all this in one day!
What a feast!
And, it all tasted so incredibly good!
For more information about the Culinary Institute of Canada’s boot camps, visit their website at https://www.hollandcollege.com/bootcamps/bootcamps/culinary/full-day-camps.
To whet your appetite, below is a sample of the kind of recipes participants experience cooking in one of these boot camps – this one from the “Local Flavours” boot camp. Shared here, with the kind permission of the Culinary Institute of Canada’s Boot Camps, is the recipe for Chef Jeff’s Seafood Chowder. This is a dandy chowder that has won awards at the PEI Shellfish Festival (and Lindsay tells me, more than once it has won!). This makes a very large pot of chowder but the recipe is easily halved or quartered as I did when I made it at home. The wonderful thing about seafood chowder is that it can be served as an appetizer in a smaller portion or, with a larger serving, as a main meal because most chowders are quite filling – and this one certainly is! The other great thing about seafood chowder is that, so long as you make up your quantity, you can use any selection of seafood you like and leave out any you do not care for. When I made the recipe at home, I didn’t have any Vermouth so I substituted Chardonnay which worked out fine. The other thing I would caution is to start “gently” with the Tabasco Sauce using only a few drops of it, then taste it and add more (if necessary) to your liking as, using too much of this hot sauce can quickly spoil a chowder beyond repair.
Jeff's PEI Seafood Chowder
Published: September 16, 2012
Ready In:60 mins
A smooth, creamy,and tasty seafood chowder filled with a variety of seafood.
So, I’m ready for the big reveal of my favourite seafood chowder on PEI. Last Summer (2011), I went on the hunt for the best fish and chips on PEI and there was no shortage of good choices. This summer, I was hunting down a great seafood chowder that would become my 2012 favourite and, once again, there were lots to choose from. Thank goodness most restaurants had the option of ordering a “cup” of chowder as opposed to a “bowl” as my waistline would have severely shown the results of my summer 2012 food challenge!
At the outset, I want to put forth some caveats and disclosures. First, I am not a professionally trained chef or food judge. My comments, impressions, and opinions are strictly my own; others may differ with the criteria I used to determine my favourite chowder and with my subsequent conclusions, or they may have different expectations that mine, and that’s perfectly fine. Second, I am not affiliated with, nor have any ownership in, any of the eating establishments where I sampled chowder; therefore, I have no bias for or against any particular restaurant’s chowder. Third, I did not try the chowder at every single restaurant on PEI – there are dozens and dozens of restaurants on the Island and, while I like seafood chowder, seriously, there is a limit to how many I could reasonably sample! Fourth, I suspect most restaurants did not even know I was on a mission to find the best seafood chowder – I was simply a paying customer to them so there was no special treatment or effort made for my benefit – their chowders were as they were on the day I chose to sample them. At the end of the day, the chowder I chose was the one I personally liked the best and felt all-round met my criteria and expectations of a great seafood chowder. Everyone’s tastes are different and what suits one person’s taste buds may not appeal to someone else. Also, if tried on another day with a different chef in the kitchen, there is no guarantee the chowder would be the same as on the day I conducted my sampling.
So, how did I choose the restaurants whose chowders I sampled? Well, some restaurants I already knew from personal experience were venues that served good food in general so I suspected their seafood chowder would likely be good, as well. I also invited, through Twitter, Facebook, my blog, and through word of mouth, people to put forth recommendations of restaurants they felt served good chowder. I also tried to make sure I sampled chowders from different locations all across the province.
What was I looking for in a good chowder? Let’s start with the chowder base. First, it had to be cream-based, not brothy. Second, the consistency of the base was important. This is purely a personal preference to individual palette but, if it is too thick, I find it is like eating a casserole; if it is too thin, then it’s a broth, not a chowder as the word “chowder” signifies some degree of a thickened consistency. Finding just the right consistency is a challenge, no doubt about it. Third, I was looking for a chowder that did not taste “pasty” or “starchy” – signs of too much potato or flour content. Some chowders sampled simply had too much “heat” – i.e., way too much Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce and too many spices of one sort or another. To suit my taste, nothing should be added to the chowder that masks, downplays, or overrides the “star of the show” – the seafood itself. In my view, the chowder needs to be lightly and gently seasoned and flavoured to “enhance” the taste; however, there is a definite line between flavourful and spicy. A hallmark of a good chowder, in my opinion, is that it should have a smooth, gentle taste that does not “burn the whole way down” or leave a “bite” or distasteful aftertaste on the tongue.
The second criterion was ingredient content – I wanted to see evidence of a variety of seafood. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how much “filler” some chowders can have. By that, I mean too much potato or too many other vegetables like celery or carrots and not much evidence of seafood or, alternatively, the only seafood you could detect would be some kind of white fish and no lobster, scallops, mussels, etc. The other thing I looked at was the size of each ingredient in the chowder. If an ingredient does not fit on a soup spoon then, in my opinion it does not belong in the chowder. One chowder I sampled had 3-inch junks of uncooked celery and ½-inch semi-raw carrot slices while another had potatoes, skins on, cut in [large] quarters. Another chowder, while otherwise tasty, had an ingredient I could not identify but it was a very large chunk (apx. 2” – 21/2”) of something that was very tough. In that instance, I asked the waitress to return it to the kitchen to have it identified. She returned saying the kitchen crew didn’t know but thought maybe it was a bar clam or quahog. Whatever it was, it did not belong in the chowder because of the size and because of the fact it could not be chewed. The fact that the kitchen staff couldn’t identify it raises a whole series of other questions! Just like the vegetables, the seafood ingredients need to be of a size that they fit on a soup spoon, too. That said, they do need to be sized so that they are not minced up and disguised yet not so large that you would really need to cut them with a knife to be able to eat them properly. In other words, I want to see a whole scallop or a piece of lobster large enough to know it’s lobster meat. Finally, the color of the ingredients – discoloured chunks of celery, carrot and other veggies are simply not appetizing and detract from the chowder – all ingredients need to be super-fresh.
Regardless what we might say, our eyes do some of the ‘tasting’ too – in my view, a good chowder should be a white or slightly off-white, rich creamy color. If it is pink, orange, or some other color, that’s a sign it has been overdone with spice – while it may have seafood in it and be some kind of “stew”, in my books, it is not a traditional Canadian East Coast seafood chowder.
I also considered the temperature at which the chowder was served. It should be ready-to-eat when it reaches the table – not blistering hot (suggestive it has been boiled) but neither luke-warm, bordering on cool. I did sample one that while I could tell it was tasty, it was barely luke-warm.
While of less importance than the foregoing criteria, I did take note of the effort the restaurants put into presentation and what they served with the chowder. For example, those that garnished the chowder with a sprinkle of fresh parsley or paprika showed they cared enough about the product they were setting in front of the customer to dress it up a bit. Most served a biscuit or roll with the chowder and some presented the cup or bowl on a plate with a paper doily between the two – again, good effort on the extra attention to presentation.
Price is always a ‘touchy’ and subjective issue. When I started out on this challenge, I placed no specific limitation on how much I would pay for a cup or bowl of chowder. However, my common sense soon came into play. I live in a province where there is an abundance of fresh seafood so there are no transportation or import costs and seafood is in season on PEI in the Summer. There were a couple of restaurants whose menus I looked at but their seafood chowder listed at $16. and above so I didn’t even try them because, well, as one friend says, the restaurant’s menu didn’t list any endangered species in the chowder that would rationale those prices! I found those prices a bit rich for my wallet so passed them by because, quite frankly, there were tons of other seafood chowders more reasonably priced to sample! The chowders I sampled ranged from $3.95/cup to $9.00/cup. The large bowl-sized servings were generally $2 – $5 more. I learned a more expensive chowder is no guarantee it is any better tasting than a more moderately priced one. In fact, I often found that the lower priced chowders I tried were far more tasty than the higher priced ones (and, yes, they included all sorts of seafood like lobster, scallops, mussels, shrimp, salmon, and so forth, too).
Finally, I made a real effort to try chowders in different parts of the Island. I sampled chowders from Souris in the Eastern part of the Island to North Cape, the most westerly tip of PEI. I tasted chowders from the North Shore to the South side of PEI because there are as many chowder recipes on the Island as there are cooks and chefs cooking them. In total, I tried nine (9) different chowders over the summer. There were five (5) that, really, they were neck and neck vying to be my favourite. While each did have a slightly different flavour (due mostly to the seasoning and flavouring added to the chowder base), any of the five (5) was just great, in my opinion. But, at the outset, I did say I’d pick my favourite – just one — so I am selecting the one from The Sheltered Harbour Restaurant in Souris, PEI. It happened to be the first one I sampled and it set the bar high from the get-go. The chowder at The Sheltered Harbour, priced at $5.99/cup, overall encapsulated what I was looking for in a great seafood chowder. The cream base was flavourful – very tasty and not spicy nor hot. They got the consistency of the cream base just right – it was neither pasty thick nor brothy thin. It had a rich creamy color. The chowder had good ingredient content – there was evidence of what I expect to see in a seafood chowder – a variety of seafood including scallops, salmon, shrimp, and white fish and it was not overdone with potatoes as a filler. All ingredients were identifiable and in proper bite-sized pieces.
Close co-favourites were found at: Water and Prince Street Shop in Charlottetown ($6.95/cup), Brehaut’s in Murray Harbour ($3.95/cup), Maplethorpe Café in Lower Bedeque ($6.50/one size – this one had the best seafood ingredient content) , and Wind and Reef in North Cape ($8.50/one size – this one had, bar none, the best homemade rolls – incredibly light, airy, and flavourful!). Any one of these establishments, in my opinion, serves fine seafood chowder at reasonable and competitive prices. And, now, here is my ultimate test as to how good a chowder is: Would I return and order the chowder again? My answer to these five favourites is a hasty “yes, in a heartbeat and without reservation”.
The one thing I did learn from this exercise is to ask questions about the chowders before ordering and not rely on how the menu describes them. For example, ask questions like: Is the chowder cream-based or brothy? Is the chowder base homemade or a mix? What kinds of fish are in the chowder? Is it spicy? If so, what are the spices/flavourings used?
There are certainly more restaurants on the Island that I am sure serve great seafood chowders too but, as I mentioned earlier, I just couldn’t sample them all (hmmm, well, there is always next year!). So, my choice of my favourites for 2012 is based solely on my own taste test and expectations, one visit per restaurant. What I can say is that, on the particular days I tasted the chowders at these five restaurants, they were mighty darn tasty chowders!
(Mostly) PEI and Maritime Food – Good Food for a Good Life!