Prince Edward Island is Canada’s food island
By Tod Stewart
Taste is an interesting thing. In some cases, you’re in or you’re out. I’ve eaten crickets, ants, strange sea creatures, small and large meaty bits, and other things I’d rather not think about trying again … at least while sober. But I can’t do cucumber. And I can’t do watermelon. However, I love cilantro. You probably think it tastes like soap. I know, I know, what the hell?
And so it is with bivalves. Specifically, oysters. I’m an “oyster boy.” Many of you are not. I get that. Eating an oyster is like, well, I dunno … eating something out of a sci-fi movie (where a horde of them would likely be eating you rather than vice versa). Still, if you’re going to scarf down a few of these things (please, “naked” or just with a shot of lemon or vodka or Bowmore scotch), make sure they are as fresh as possible. Like, right out of the Atlantic Ocean on the breeze-cooled shore of Prince Edward Island.
Presently, I’m a rather decent swim from any shore. In fact, I’m out on an oyster barge where my host is handing me a freshly shucked oyster that, until a few seconds ago, was slumbering peacefully (I can only assume) in the cool, briny waters of New London Bay. It was the annual PEI International Shellfish Festival that drew me here, and now, on the day before the start of the show, I’m getting a firsthand look at the business of fishing for not only oysters, but for mussels as well.
While the Festival is a showcase for some of the tasty aquatic beasties the island is known for — namely oysters, mussels and lobsters — there’s more to PEI’s bounty than just stuff from the sea. One of its most important edibles may be somewhat less exotic than seafood, and its habitat is the soil rather than the sea. Yep, the humble spud is every bit as important to the well-being of the islanders as anything coming out of the water.
“There’s an old saying in PEI,” informs Kendra Mills of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, “If the farmers do well, we do well.” She admits that the phrase may sound a bit old-fashioned, but there’s a lot of truth in the saying. The potato industry contributes more than $1.1 billion annually to the island’s economy and employs hundreds of local farmers.
“There are approximately 180 potato farms on PEI,” Mills reveals. “And almost every single one is a family farm. There is a very common misconception about ‘corporate farms’ and how that term gets misused to conjure up negative images of farming. It is true that many farms — of all nature — are set up as corporation for tax and accounting and other reasons, but make no mistake that they are very much family owned and managed. I actually come from a family farm. My grandfather, father and now brother are potato farmers. Our farm is set up as a corporation. However, it is my dad and brother who own it and run it. We are family farmers, like all of our neighbours on PEI … and most farms across our country!”
If the farmers do well, we do well.Kendra Mills
I asked Mills why Canada’s Food Island is also Canada’s Spud Island. What makes this such an ideal place to cultivate these tubers?
“PEI is the perfect place to grow potatoes. We are known for our red, iron-rich soil, which is probably the most famous reason. The iron oxidizes as it reaches air, and literally ‘rusts,’ so it’s very rich and unique. We also have a great climate, and being an island really contributes to that, with warm summers and cold winters that, for instance, break pest cycles. But we also have been growing potatoes the longest. Our first commercial crop dates back to the 1700s, and we have been honing our skills and [growing] methods ever since.”
Besides being able to harvest significant quantities (dependant, of course, on the hand Mother Nature deals in any given year), PEI potato farmers also have the luxury of growing an impressive number of unique varieties.
“There are dozens and dozens of potato varieties grown and harvested on PEI,” Mills confirms. “Our largest variety is Russet Burbank, which is predominantly grown [as a] processing potato, but that has other uses as well. There are whites, reds, yellows, minis and more. And now we are seeing more proprietary varieties that companies or farms are developing and breeding on their own, which is exciting. Potatoes that have different flavour profiles and uses, and grown with the convenience factor in mind to reach new customers.”
While Canada and the northern United States are the biggest markets for the island’s potatoes, they are actually shipped to more than 20 countries worldwide. And though the thought of a potato farmer may conjure visuals of a rustic, traditional, everything-by-hand sort of person, this is hardly the case today. Mills reports that when it comes to modern ways, her industry is as cutting edge as any.
“Technology plays a big role in the potato industry, and farming in general. It helps farmers be precise, reduce waste and be more efficient. Farming today is so much more efficient with land, water, soil, crop inputs, yields, research than ever before. In one generation, my family farm went from storing potatoes in my grandparent’s old farmhouse basement — a common practice 50 years ago — to my dad and brother being able to control a refrigerated storage facility with their smartphones. GPS technology is used every day on potato farms throughout the whole cropping process, and can even self-steer tractors to ensure precision. There are so many examples. There are hardly any industries nowadays that don’t make use of technology to advance their practices, and farming is no different!”
Of course, sitting down to a “potato-only” meal is probably unlikely (though not totally unthinkable). But rumour has it that meat and potatoes sometimes go together. So bring me meat!
To be honest, the fact that the Atlantic provinces in general — and PEI specifically — have a thriving beef industry hadn’t really occurred to me. In Ontario, we pretty much just hear Alberta, Alberta, Alberta when it comes to beef. However, a seminar led by Russ Mallard, President of Atlantic Beef Products Inc., during my visit to the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown brought me up to speed with regard to the uniqueness of PEI beef.
“Cattle produced in this region come from smaller family farms that use very traditional methods to raise the cattle,” Mallard revealed. “Cattle spend plenty of time on pasture, and synthetic growth hormones are rarely used in this region. The result is that the cattle are four to eight months older when harvested than cattle raised in high-volume feed lots elsewhere in North America. Many experts claim that, generally when it comes to flavour, the age of the cow when harvested has far more influence over the flavour than the breed.”
Mallard goes on to explain that Atlantic Beef Products Inc. (ABPI) is the only federally inspected beef-processing facility in Atlantic Canada and the largest such facility east of Ontario. It came into existence in 2004 to fill the gap left when the only federally inspected processing plant in the region closed. When this happened, local beef producers had to ship their cattle to Ontario or the United States for processing. This was too expensive to be sustainable. There was a strong desire to maintain a vibrant beef industry in Atlantic Canada and local beef producers pooled their resources, formed a cooperative and received financial support from Maritime provincial governments and the federal government to move forward. Since beginning operations in 2004, ABPI has worked to ensure not only that the beef it sells is top quality, but also that the animals it handles are raised in the most stress-free environment possible. In fact, this practice is crucial for meat quality.
Cattle ... come from smaller family farms that use traditional methods to raise the cattle.Russ Mallard
“At Atlantic Beef, we believe cattle that are raised on small family farms and are treated with respect and care at both the farm and the processing plant result in better-tasting, more tender beef,” Mallard reveals. “When arriving at the plant, we ensure cattle stay with the cattle that they are familiar with. Cattle arriving from longer distances have a chance to rest and feed. Wood shavings are used on the barn floor to make it more comfortable. This also has the additional benefit of making it possible to recycle the soiled shavings into compost for use in farmers’ fields.” In fact, ABPI is a Certified Humane Raised and Handled production facility.
Obviously those living in the Atlantic region of Canada are the lucky recipients of ABPI’s labours, but the beef Mallard’s company processes finds its way to discerning customers across Canada, and is particularly sought after by noted chefs like Mark McEwan of The McEwan Group and top-end restaurants like Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse and Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar.
It’s the final night of the PEI International Shellfish Festival. The bands on the main stage have kept the crowd on its feet, and the numerous food booths under the expansive tent have provided mountains of succulent seafood morsels over the course of the last few days. Though I’d never say “no” to anything coming out of her bountiful ocean waters, it’s been great to become more acquainted with a few of the other delectable offerings that help PEI maintain its status as “Canada’s Food Island.”
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