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!