B.C.’s Culinary Landscape Has Been Shaped by the Fruits of Sea and Soil

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“To understand B.C. at all, you have to look at the ocean. The indigenous cuisine was all ocean- and river-based,” says Lenore Newman, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who recently crossed the country in search of “Canadian” cuisine while researching her new book Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. Traversing the Salish Sea — southern B.C.’s network of coastal waterways — First Nations’ peoples had access to an astonishing array of foodstuffs; most prominent, of course, being the five types of local wild salmon.

“The wild salmon is really the British Columbia identity, full stop,” says Ned Bell, executive chef for the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program. “The eagle catches the salmon; the bear picks it up or hunts it; that decomposing carcass fuels the trees and the ecosystems of the longest continuous coastline in the world. The First Nations realized this thousands of years ago.”

Robert Clark, former executive chef at Kambolis Group’s C Restaurant and Raincity Grill, runs sustainable-seafood outlet The Fish Counter in Vancouver. “When I got here in 1992, every restaurant in the city had salmon on the menu, but it was farmed Atlantic salmon,” he says. “What has evolved in the chef community, and now at the retail level, is that we have gone back to significantly appreciating our wild B.C. salmon. People want to know the species, because the sockeye from the Fraser doesn’t taste like the salmon from the Skeena or the Nass.”

But B.C.’s bounty extends far beyond the salmon. “We, as chefs, realize we have an ocean that produces sustainable seafood, the Okanagan that produces wonderful wine and the Fraser Valley that produces great produce,” says Vikram Vij, chef and CEO of Vij’s Group of Companies. “I think the most important ingredient is the pride of our own backyard.” “I feel, as a chef, I have some of the best produce — whether it’s cherries and peaches in the Okanagan, corn in Chilliwack or blueberries and cranberries in the Fraser Valley,” agrees Bell.

Chef, author and renowned forager Bill Jones owns Deerholme Farm in the Cowichan Valley and runs culinary-consulting company Magnetic North Cuisine. “The blackberry is an iconic fruit throughout B.C., but particularly on the coast,” he says. “Not a lot of the blackberries picked are native. The Himalayan blackberry was introduced; it grows everywhere as an invasive weed. It has amazing flavour and it loves this climate.” And what fruit doesn’t? “The Okanagan fruit belt is truly amazing for orchards and fruit: peaches, nectarines, apples, cherries. That’s an area that’s in transition; a lot of those orchards are being torn out because that’s the biggest wine region now,” says Jones. Also, “particularly on the coastal side of B.C., the lamb is very famous. Salt Spring Island lamb has a great reputation; it’s very mild — completely different than New Zealand [lamb]. One of the things that sets the coast apart is that there’s a lot of great grass.” Lush grass also produces rich dairy products. “We have beautiful milk here; we have some great local dairy products,” says Vij. “If your cows are well pastured and grazed, everything else will follow. Elementary things such as eggs, breads, milk and cheese, they form the backbone of a great cuisine; it’s not the mushrooms and the truffles.” Those ingredients are employed in recipes from many cultures. “Today our cuisine is Creole; I think even in early days that was really clear,” says Newman. Finnish, Norwegian and British immigrants arrived fairly early, “but right from the start, there was a lot of Asian influence.”

However, it took a long time for that culinary diversity to become evident in Vancouver’s restaurants. “When I first came to Vancouver in 1973, there were very few freestanding restaurants. There were hotel restaurants that most Vancouverites would go to for special occasions, weddings, Christmas. What few there were were either French bistro-style or Italian,” says chef John Bishop of the iconic Bishop’s.

“Quite shockingly, the menus didn’t feature any locally sourced ingredients at all,” he says. “I [worked] at The Little Yellow House; there was never any thought to promote or pursue locally sourced ingredients. We’d serve Icelandic scampi, Dover sole; even some of the oysters were imported. We imported mushrooms from Europe. If you did develop a clientele, you would never, never change your menu.”

“It was Greek, a little bit of Italian and French,” recalls caterer and author Susan Mendelson of The Lazy Gourmet. “I was there, really, on that cusp,” she says, referring to her beginnings in the mid-1970s, baking sweet treats for the intermission crowds at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. She names a few iconic restaurants of the period: Lili La Puce (French), Orestes (Greek) and Umberto’s (Italian).

The hippie movement was one of the forces that changed Vancouver dining habits, Mendelson says. “There was a big emphasis on eating healthy food and eating vegetarian. The Greek [influence] has really stayed — Mediterranean food has had a whole new life. Another thing is the Japanese influence; what was created on the West Coast was an Asian fusion that was way ahead of the rest of the country.”

The opening of Granville Island in 1979 kick-started a market-shopping culture and by the time Bishop’s opened in 1985, “I had been reading stories of people like Alice Waters down in Berkeley with Chez Panisse, and Jonathan Waxman. They were recognizing the value of associating and pairing up with local goat-cheese makers and so on. That certainly influenced my decision to pursue a more locally sourced menu,” says Bishop. “The real catalyst for me was meeting a local farm couple who said ‘We’ll get the seed catalogue out and you tell us what you want us to grow’,” he recalls. “Another part of the early equation was that the chef community was made up largely of European-trained chefs. Now, most of the young chefs here are trained in Canada. They are less traditional and more prepared to break the rules, and also you’ve got this fusion connection, with a lot of Asian cooks using their own influence, whether it’s Indian, Japanese or Chinese.” Vij opened his first restaurant in 1994. Even then, he says, “it was European-focused, with very French-, Italian- and Swiss-trained chefs. The classic old-world style: long white aprons, bow ties, black pants.”

Things finally started to change “with the influx of Asians from China, Malaysia, Singapore, India — Somalis, Punjabis from England. [They] were well educated, so they wanted to eat out and even though they liked European food, they also liked the cuisine from their homes. This started a lot of Asian restaurants with more spicing and different flavours — rather than rouladen with spätzle on the side.”

No longer are B.C. kitchens looking to Europe, or even to California, for their inspirations, but rather across the Pacific Rim. And Vancouver diners don’t just want Chinese or Indian food, says Vij; they want the cuisine of a particular province. They also want it executed with local ingredients. “The chefs in the Okanagan Valley and on Vancouver Island are very united in supporting local,” says Clark. “Solid vegetarian restaurants [are]getting a grasp; it’s the natural evolution for food. More people are spending more effort and thinking about it before they make food choices.”

Foraged food and small-batch artisanal producers now represent an important part of the restaurant food chain. “We have extraordinary mushrooms and foraging in Tofino; unbelievable wild foods that are jewels are to be found all over this province; it’s teeming with extraordinary things,” says Bell. The world that I live in as a chef is evolving back to wild foods and that really speaks to me because that focuses around plants.”

Jones sees cultivated truffles and sea vegetables as one of the most important local commodities. “We’re in one of the best places in the world for wild mushrooms. There are probably about 40-plus different varieties. Our aquaculture is considered to be one of the best uses of the ocean these days,” he adds. “Historically, [seaweed] was a First-Nations’ product. They dried it over wood smoke; it’s very nutritious. We use it to create vegan gelatins. It’s something you’re going to see more of.”

Volume 49, Number 11 
Written by Sarah B. Hood 

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