All posts by Barbara99

Maple Syrup Production – A Rite of Spring on PEI

 

Woodland Maple Syrup, PEI

Growing up in rural PEI, one of my favourite Spring-time memories was the tapping of maple trees, going to collect the sap every evening after supper, and watching the sap being boiled down on the stove for hours to make just a tiny bit of maple syrup.  It was a rite of Spring and heralded the beginning of warmer days after a long, cold Winter!

While not big industry on PEI, there are a few maple syrup producers who tap trees and make and sell maple syrup each Spring.  I recently visited the producers of Woodland Maple Syrup in Woodville Mills about 9 km from Cardigan in the Eastern end of PEI.  There, I met Richard MacPhee and Max Newby who were busy with their maple syrup production.  Having been operating for 15 years, they proved to be good sources of information on maple syrup production.

Woodland Sugar Shack, Woodville Mills, near Cardigan, PEI

This Spring, MacPhee and Newby had 450 taps running.  This process depends heavily on cold, frosty nights (about -5ºC) and warmer days (+5 ºC).  The alternating freezing and thawing causes the pressure in the tree to change and forces the sap to start running when the temperature rises during the day.   On PEI, there is a short window of opportunity to produce maple syrup, typically a 5-6 week period in March/April.

Trees must be at least 10” in diameter to be tapped and trees of that size are usually 40-50 years old.  Holes are drilled into the maple trees and spouts are inserted.  Buckets with covers to keep out bark, dirt, and rain are then hung on the spouts and are used to collect the dripping sap.

Maple Tree Tapped
Bucket Hung on Spout to Catch Dripping Sap from Maple Tree

Drilling holes into the tree and removing sap is not harmful to the maple trees and the same trees can be tapped year after year, provided new holes are drilled each time.  It is not uncommon to have up to 3 taps in large trees.  In fact, Max showed me one large old maple tree just outside the sugar shack that had three taps running and we examined the tree’s maple syrup producing history as we found various marks from previous years’ tappings.

 

Three Taps in Large Maple Tree

The sap is clear, has no color, and has the consistency of water.  I found it had little taste although it is 2% – 4% sugar and I could detect a slightly mild sweet taste but certainly nothing like the taste of the sweet maple syrup that is eventually produced from the sap.

Sap from Maple Tree

While some operations collect the sap through a network of pipelines strung between trees, at Woodland they tap individual trees using the spout and bucket method.  Once every two days, the sap is collected from each tapped tree and placed in a large tank on the front of a tractor and transported to another large holding tank just outside the sugar shack.  The sap is then piped into the evaporator inside the sugar shack where the boiling process takes place.

Large Tank of Sap Produces Just One 5-gallon Bucket of Maple Syrup

The sap is boiled in a large pan on a wood-fired evaporator until most of the water in it is boiled off and it boils down to a thick syrup.

Stoking the Wood-fired Evaporator

 

Boiling the Sap to Make Maple Syrup

 

This can take hours, not to mention patience and a close eye to make sure the sap does not boil too robustly and overflow the pan.

Evaporating the Water from the Sap to Make Maple Syrup

 

Keeping a Watchful Eye on the Boiling Sap to Ensure it Does Not Boil Over

Sap is continually added to the pan as the water evaporates so it is a continuous process.  The boiling process causes a chemical reaction to occur in the sap and transforms it into a flavourful syrup.

Pan of Maple Syrup

It takes between 50-60 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup.  The syrup is then filtered to remove any remaining impurities and, at Woodland, the last filtering is through felt which is a thick, dense fabric through which no impurities will pass.  The syrup is then ready for bottling.

There are different grades of maple syrup and grading is based on color.  The lighter the color, the higher the quality of syrup but the more subtle the taste.  The more amber, darker colored syrup has more flavour but, in grading terms, would be considered a lower grade syrup.  Light-colored syrup is traditionally used as a table syrup for pancakes, waffles, and French toast.  Darker colored syrup, on the other hand, is well suited for cooking and baking – e.g., ice creams and brulées as well as sauces and glazes for meats.

Woodland Maple Syrup, Woodville Mills, PEI

Woodland produces approximately 200 litres of maple syrup each year which they sell locally from their sugar shack and also sell to Island restaurants.  The syrup can also be purchased locally on PEI at Riverview Country Market on Riverside Drive in Charlottetown.

Maple syrup is a good source of manganese and riboflavin and contains antioxidants that boost immunity.

Maple syrup has multiple uses.  Perhaps the most commonly known is at the breakfast table on pancakes, waffles, and French toast.  However, it can also be widely used in many different cooking and baking recipes.  Over the next while, I will be posting some recipes using Island-produced maple syrup from Woodlands so be sure to come back and visit my website to see what is cooking and baking.

Waffles, Fresh Fruit, & PEI Maple Syrup – A Great Combo!

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My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Macaroni and Cheese

This is my favorite Macaroni and Cheese recipe.  It uses the fine cheddar cheeses produced right here on Prince Edward Island at the COWS Creamery.

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Macaroni and Cheese

When I think of “comfort food”, one of the first that comes to mind is Macaroni and Cheese.  So simple to make and it does not take any wild or unusual ingredients.

My preference of cheese for this dish is that made by COWS Creamery right here in PEI, actually not far from where I reside.  Their cheeses have been award winners for years now, attesting to their fine quality made, of course, possible by the high quality herds of dairy cattle here on the Island.

While I have made and tested this recipe with other cheeses and have found the results to be very good, no question.  However, if you have ever had it made with COWS Creamery Extra Old Cheddar Cheese, and their Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar Cheese, I suspect you will agree with me that these two cheeses take Macaroni and Cheese to a higher level.

I serve Macaroni and Cheese (which freezes well, by the way) with a green salad and homemade biscuits, fresh from the oven and slathered with good PEI churned butter.  (This is not a sponsored post, by the way, and I don’t work for, or have shares in, COWS Creamery, nor have I been paid for this post.  I just simply really like their products.)

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Mac 'n Cheese
Macaroni and Cheese

My Island Bistro Kitchen's Macaroni and Cheese

By Barbara99 Published: March 28, 2012

  • Yield: 4-5 Servings
  • Prep: 25 mins
  • Cook: 30 mins
  • Ready In: 55 mins

A rich, flavorful macaroni and cheese dish using Cows Creamery Cheddar Cheese

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. In large pot, bring water to boil. Add salt, oil, liquid chicken bouillon, garlic, and macaroni. (I like to add some garlic and chicken bouillon to the water so it will flavor the pasta when it is cooking. This provides a subtle taste without overpowering or competing with the cheese which would be the case if the ingredients were added into the cheese sauce.)
  2. Cook macaroni, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent macaroni from sticking to pot. Drain in colander. Return macaroni to pot.
  3. Melt butter in saucepan. Add milk. Combine flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and dry mustard. Whisk into milk and butter mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring until mixture is smooth and starts to thicken.
  4. Add cheeses and stir until melted and blended
  5. Pour cheese sauce over macaroni and stir until well combined. Turn into a greased 2-quart casserole or divide into greased ramekin dishes for individual servings.
  6. Bake, uncovered, in 350F oven for 20-30 minutes.
  7. Serve with a green salad and fresh homemade biscuits.

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Cows Creamery Field Trip

 

Cows Creamery in Prince Edward Island

I recently paid a visit to Cows Creamery at its factory location on the outskirts of Charlottetown, PEI, where I was met by my two tour guides, Yvonne and Andrea.  As I soon learned, Cows is a whole lot more than its renowned premium quality ice cream.

With humble beginnings back in 1983, Cows has evolved into a large diversified operation that produces, along with its iconic ice cream, three varieties of cheddar cheese as well as its newest dairy product, creamery butter.  You’ll also find this company producing several food items such as chocolate-covered potato chips plus a line of novelty items (including its whimsical cow-inspired clothing line).   For the purposes of this field trip, however, my focus was on the dairy side of Cows’ operations.

Cows Ice Cream

 

"Wowie Cowie" Ice Cream at Cows Creamery

Cows began producing and selling one variety of ice cream (vanilla) on the Cavendish Boardwalk in 1983.  It wasn’t long before customers soon started associating Cows with premium-quality ice cream.  A short while later, Cows opened their first ice cream shop in downtown Charlottetown and you can still find it there on the corner of Queen and Grafton Streets, just across from the Confederation Centre  of the Arts.

Cows Ice Cream Shop in Downtown Charlottetown, PEI

Over the years, Cows added and operated, on a seasonal basis, several more outlets – Peakes Wharf in Charlottetown, Gateway Village at the foot of the Confederation Bridge in Borden-Carleton, and on “The Confederation” ferry that runs, May-October, between PEI and NS.  Of course, their new creamery near Charlottetown also sells ice cream year-round in the retain outlet.  Cows has also added several off-Island locations that include Historic Properties in Halifax, NS; Whistler, BC; Banff, AB; and Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON.

Today, Cows produces some 32 flavours (yes, 32!) of high-end premium ice cream with catchy names like my favourite, “Wowie Cowie”.  All the ice cream is made in their PEI creamery using milk produced on PEI dairy farms and as many locally-produced ingredients (e.g., berries) as possible.

Cows Ice Cream Production Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ice cream is then shipped to their various retail outlets in PEI and across the country.

Cows Ice Cream - Prince Edward Island

 

On the day of my late afternoon March visit, the ice cream operation was not in production mode.  However, their retail outlet was selling the delectable ice cream!  Cows ice cream is served in their tasty signature waffle cones that are hand-made in each store.  One bite and you know this is no ordinary ice cream cone.  It is so good that it could almost be described as a specialized dessert crisp cookie in and of itself!  The silky smooth ice cream holds its shape in the cone and does not melt too quickly like other brands made with less premium quality ingredients.

Single scoop (waffle cone included) is competitively priced at $3.75 + tax (at time of writing in March 2012) with other high-end ice creams.

The best way I can describe Cows ice cream is that it’s an experience unto itself, right down to the tip of the cone!  For me, Cows ice cream is the benchmark against which all other ice creams get rated and I’ve found no other commercial brand to date that tops it.  Just a word of caution, though, their ice cream is downright addictive!

 

Cheddar Cheese

Cows Cheese

 

Cows Creamery expanded its production line in 2006 when it started making cheddar cheese.  Today, their cheese line includes three varieties:  Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar (the strongest and most robust of the three); Cows Creamery Extra Old Cheddar, and Cows Creamery Applewood Smoked  2 Year Old Cheddar.

 

Cows Creamery Extra Old Cheddar and Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar

Just as with their ice cream, Cows makes their cheese using milk that comes from small rural local dairy farms around PEI.  Not only does this mean they are using fresh, quality ingredients but they are also supporting local dairy producers.  The cheeses are made using the English method and, in fact, my tour guides told me their recipe has its roots in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland.  The cheeses are all-natural products made from unpasteurized milk with no color added.  So, if your vision is of a bright orange cheese, you won’t find that at Cows.  What you will find, though, is a natural-colored cheese with full-bodied authentic cheese flavour.

I must admit I have never been a fan of old cheese, preferring instead the much more subtle flavours offered by mild and, on occasion, medium cheeses.  I was somewhat reluctant to try Cows cheese for the reason that other “old” cheese varieties I have tried in the past always tasted stale to me and had what I can only describe as a distasteful flavour.  However, lesson learned – never be afraid to try new things and discover how accepting your palette might be to new and different tastes.  Cows’ cheeses are indeed good.  So good, in fact, the cheeses have already won several prestigious awards in Canada and the US.  Manufactured at their Charlottetown Creamery, the 20-pound cheese wheels are shipped to distributors all over North America.  Look, or ask for, Cows cheeses in local specialty cheese shops, farm markets, or grocery deli counters in your area.  On PEI, Cows’ pre-packaged cheese can be found at local supermarkets, at the Farmers Market in Charlottetown and, of course, in the retail outlet of the Cows Creamery near Charlottetown, PEI.

I asked my tour guides what the primary intended uses of these cheeses would be since they only manufacture old cheese varieties – i.e., are they meant for snacking cheeses, cooking, etc.  They suggested that the cheeses can simply be eaten on their own or used in salads, soups, casseroles, on burgers, or in grilled cheese sandwiches so these are very versatile products.

As per my usual practice when I visit a local producer, I like to take their product and use it in a recipe.  I decided I’d put Cows cheeses to the real test and make “Mac ‘n Cheese” (recipe follows at end of this blog).  The reason I chose Mac ‘n Cheese is because the pasta (a rather tasteless food item on its own) would not compete in taste with the cheese.  This would allow the cheese to “star” without being masked by other strong flavours and I would find out if I liked Cows old cheddar.  What I did was use 1 cup each of Cows Creamery Extra Old Cheddar and Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar. Well!  Let’s just say, I can probably never be satisfied with Mac ‘n Cheese made with any other cheese in the future!  The result was a rich, full-bodied cheese-flavoured Mac ‘n Cheese experience.  As mentioned above, Cows cheeses are naturally colored which means they are a very pale neutral (yellowish) color so, if you are accustomed to seeing a rich orange-colored macaroni dish, this will not give you that.  However, I think you’ll find the robust, true cheese flavour will more than make up for any lack of deep color.

 

Creamery Butter

Cows Sea-Salted Creamery Butter

In the summer of 2011, Cows introduced their newest product — butter sold in ½-pound packages and available unsalted or sea-salted.  Just as with their ice cream and cheese products, their butter is of premium quality with 84% butter fat versus 80% found in regular butters.  I have tried the sea-salted and it is one fine butter…particularly spread on fresh buttermilk biscuits straight out of the oven!

Cows Creamery Butter can be purchased on PEI at the Cows Creamery in Charlottetown as well as at the Co-op on Walker Avenue.  Off-Island, it can be found at Pete’s Frootique in Halifax and Bedford, NS, as well as in various stores in Ontario and in the Vancouver, BC, area.

 

Novelty Items

 

Cows Whimsical T-Shirts

In 1985, Cows introduced a whimsical line of clothing for their staff to wear.  They soon discovered that customers wanted to buy the staff clothing!  As a result, Cows began selling T-shirts and sweatshirts that bore images based on puns related to cows or farming.  This line has expanded to include a whole line of souvenir items and clothing.

Cows’ logo and images are very unique and recognizable.  In fact, a few years ago, I was strolling down a very crowded street in Freeport, ME, when I came upon a couple sporting Cows T-shirts – you can identify these T-shirts in a crowd anywhere!

 

Cows Advertisement at the Charlottetown Airport

Visitors arriving on PEI by air can expect to find, as they step into the terminal at the Charlottetown Airport, a large statue of a black and white shiny cow advertising “Cows” products.  Particularly during peak tourism season, it is not uncommon to find people posing for photographs with the cow as the backdrop.  This is probably the most photographed cow on PEI (or anywhere, for that matter)!

Factory Tours

Cows opened their new creamery facility just outside Charlottetown in 2009.  They offer tours that start with a video in their theatre room, followed by a stop by the T-shirt printing shop where you can watch the Cows images being transferred on to clothing.  Your next stop on the tour will take you by the infamous ice cream making room where you can watch this delectable treat being made.  From there, you’ll see the large wheels of cheese undergoing the aging process.  The last stop on the tour would, no doubt, be a huge hit – the tasting room where you’ll sample the ice cream made on the premises.  Tour prices (as of March 2012) are:  Adults $6.00;  Children $4.00; and Children Under 2 years of age are admitted free.  The tours run May 15 – October 15 and are available off-season by appointment only.

 

PEI has no shortage of good quality locally-produced food products available.  The great thing about Cows Creamery products (apart from their obvious high quality) is that they are produced right here on Prince Edward Island.  As a home kitchen chef and food blogger, I have a lot of time and respect for companies, such as Cows, that use local products in their manufacturing and, in turn, support local producers.  As anyone who knows me well will attest, I like to use the freshest ingredients possible and premium-quality products in my cooking and baking.  It doesn’t get any fresher than buying from local producers and manufacturers.

My Island Bistro Kitchen's Macaroni and Cheese

By Barbara99 Published: March 21, 2012

  • Yield: 4-5 Servings
  • Prep: 25 mins
  • Cook: 30 mins
  • Ready In: 55 mins

A rich, flavorful macaroni and cheese dish using Cows Creamery Cheese

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. In large pot, bring water to boil. Add salt, oil, liquid bouillon, garlic, and macaroni. I like to add some garlic and chicken bouillon to the water so it will flavor the pasta when it is cooking. This provides a subtle taste without overpowering or competing with the cheese which would be the case if the ingredients were added into the cheese sauce. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent macaroni from sticking to pot. Drain in colander. Return macaroni to pot.
  2. Melt butter in saucepan. Add milk. Combine flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and dry mustard. Whisk into milk and butter mixture. Cook over medium heat until mixture starts to thicken.
  3. Add cheeses and stir until melted and blended.
  4. Pour cheese sauce over macaroni and stir until well combined. Turn into a greased 2-quart casserole or divide into greased ramekin dishes for individual servings. Bake, uncovered, in 350F oven for 20-30 minutes.
  5. Serve with a fresh green salad and homemade biscuits.

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“Pickled Cabbage” – A Plain Old-Fashioned PEI Winter Meal

Pickled Cabbage/Sauerkraut
Pickled Cabbage/Sauerkraut

Growing up, pickled cabbage was often on the menu in winter at our house.  Some might know this dish by its more sophisticated name of “sauerkraut.”

Making pickled cabbage was always a labour intensive (and messy) exercise.  The cabbages had to be chopped into chunks, cores removed, then placed, layer by layer, with coarse salt into a large earthenware crock.  Each layer would be tamped down with a stick that had a block on one end that was fitted with blades.  This did two things.  First, it chopped the cabbage up into bite-sized pieces and, second, it drew the water out of the cabbage which, when combined with the salt, made a pickling brine.  As soon as juice from the salt and cabbage appeared, in went more cabbage and salt.  This process continued until the crock was full.  Then, a large plate was placed on the top of the cabbage and pressed down with a heavy weight (like a large brick or two).  This squeezed the cabbage mixture and forced the water in the cabbage to be drawn out so the brine would form and then the fermentation process would start.  The crock would be placed behind the wood stove in my grandmother’s kitchen.  The heat would facilitate the fermentation process that would last several days.  The “brew” would be checked every day to see if small bubbles appeared around the top of the crock which would signify that the mixture was “working” (fermenting).

After the fermentation period was completed, the cabbage would be frozen.  To cook the cabbage, a piece of pork (with bone in) would be put in a large pot of water and a hefty amount of the pickled cabbage added.  My grandmother would simmer this on her wood stove for probably a couple of hours or more because cabbage takes a long time to cook.  The tantalizing smell of the pickled cabbage cooking would permeate throughout the house and whet the appetite on a cold, frosty winter day!

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different commercial varieties of sauerkraut but none of them ever compared to the pure homemade variety of pickled cabbage I grew up with.  I took the notion this winter to make a batch of my own pickled cabbage but that met with little enthusiasm around me.  One day at my local supermarket, I happened to notice a brand of pickled cabbage (cum “sauerkraut”) that I had never seen before.  Since I didn’t get much (read “any”) encouragement to make my own, I decided to try a package of Lewis Mountain Sauerkraut that was made in New Brunswick.  I knew as soon as it started to cook that it smelled just like what I used to remember our homemade pickled cabbage smelling like!

Lewis Mountain Sauerkraut

It was tradition in my family to serve blue potatoes boiled in their jackets to accompany the pickled cabbage.  I don’t know why blue potatoes but that was what “went with pickled cabbage” at home.  I couldn’t find any “blues” so I served boiled red potatoes.  I was so pleased with the Lewis Mountain pickled cabbage (they call it “sauerkraut”).  It tasted just like what I grew up with.  It’s an all natural product – no additives, no preservatives and I believe that’s what gives it its true, authentic flavour.

Raw, uncooked Pickled Cabbage (Sauerkraut)

I know some serve sauerkraut with sausages and in a myriad of other ways.  However, in my books, it is never better than when simply boiled as a vegetable flavoured with pork and served with boiled potatoes dressed with butter and seasoned with pepper.  The cabbage does lose its color when pickled and then again when boiled so don’t look for it to have that ‘spring green’ color of fresh cabbage.  However, the wonderful naturally pickled taste makes up for the loss of color.  My guess is that, if you didn’t grow up with this as menu item, it is probably something that would require an acquired taste.

It’s hard to make an attractive plate with pickled cabbage served only with boiled potatoes.  However, my goal was not to create a designer repas with this dish but rather to enjoy a traditional, plain, wholesome Maritime winter meal.

Pickled Cabbage Served with Boiled Red Potatoes

I’m thrilled to have found a Maritime producer that makes pickled cabbage that tastes just as I remember it as it gave me my pickled cabbage “fix” that I was craving this winter without me having to do all the work to make it!

“Sweetheart and Roses” Valentine Tea

So, it’s Valentine’s Day – the day of all things sweet.  This year, I decided to host an afternoon tea to commemorate the special day.  As I soon discovered after just a wee bit of research, there is more than one kind of afternoon tea.  There are Cream Teas where tea, scones, jam, and cream are served.  There are Light Teas where you are likely to find sweets served along with tea and scones.  Then, there are Savory Teas where you might find such tasty temptations as tiny sandwiches (crusts removed, of course), small quiches, or appetizers on the menu….and you get the idea.  Teas can be relatively simplistic or they can be lavishly elaborate.

To my knowledge, on PEI in winter, we don’t have any hotels or restaurants that offer a traditional full-scale formal afternoon tea.  In the summer season, the Dalvay-By-The-Sea Hotel on PEI’s North Shore, Mrs. Profitt’s Tea Room in the Orient Hotel in Victoria-By-The-Sea on the Island’s South Shore, and the Blue Winds Tea Room in Clinton, near New London, offer tea service.  I’m not sure why this niche has largely escaped the Island but, from my afternoon tea experiences elsewhere while travelling – most notably at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, at different hotels in London, England, and on several cruise ships, it’s a very charming and relaxing way to while away an afternoon.

For my “Sweetheart and Roses Valentine’s Tea”, I chose a pink theme (still a little tired of all the red from Christmas!) and I sort of crossed a Light Tea with a Savory Tea.  The appointed hour was 4:30pm.

Valentine’s Afternoon Tea

On the Menu:  Currant scones and tea biscuits with raspberry jam, small quiches followed by a selection of dainty sweets that included French macaroons, melting moments, shortbread, squares, decorated sugar cookies, and Linzer cookies.  For dessert, I served a vanilla layer cake covered in buttercream icing swirled in a rose design.  For my tea selection, I chose Stash English Breakfast.  While that may sound odd to have a “breakfast” tea in the afternoon, it is my favourite kind of tea so that’s what I went with.  I set the table with a white Irish linen tablecloth and my finest China (including lots of tiered and pedestal plates) and we were off to enjoy our Valentine’s Day Afternoon Tea.

“Sweetheart and Roses Valentine’s Tea”

Valentine’s Day is all about spending time with the people who mean the most to you.  It’s less important the big bouquets of red roses, the Valentine-themed boxes of chocolates, or teddy bears carrying hearts or any of a myriad of other commercial and material gifts than it is spending time together.  So, whatever your Valentine’s Day carries for you, I wish you the time well spent and enjoyed with your favourite people.  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Afternoon Tea on a Cold Winter Day

There is just something especially comforting about a warm cup of tea accompanied by fresh currant scones straight out of the oven.  And, of course, it’s made all the better when the tea is served in a china cup and saucer!  Is there anything more relaxing after a busy day than to sit down late in the afternoon and recharge the batteries while enjoying a cup of tea in front of the fireplace!

Afternoon Tea with Currant Scones

Smelts – A Prince Edward Island Winter Meal

Growing up in PEI, it was customary in our home to always have at least one “feed” of smelts  sometime during the winter.

Smelts are a winter catch and, therefore, a winter meal in many households on PEI.  Sport fishers set up camp on the frozen waterways around the Island.  By setting up camp, I mean they haul little buildings, locally referred to as “smelt shacks” out onto the ice.  It is from the ‘comfort’ of these tiny rustic shelters that they fish for smelts, typically using spears or nets, to catch the tiny fish below the ice surface.  These fish are tiny, in general, measuring about 5 ”- 7” long. Continue reading Smelts – A Prince Edward Island Winter Meal