The Greens Forest

Vancouver Island’s slow food rebirth

Read our online exclusive recipes by three Vancouver Island chefs. cowichan valley—Black clouds tumble past the bald mountaintops of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, misting the rolling acres of Fairburn Farm below with cool, fine rain. Under cover of the old farmhouse’s white-painted veranda, a handful of guests — some British, some Italian, some plain old Canadian — nibble on locally made buffalo salami while the appetizer’s relations, a clutch of European river water buffalo, gaze quizzically from a pasture not 100 metres away, as far afield as head chef Mara Jernigan likes to go.

In the shadow of clear-cuts — the farm is surrounded by razed old- and second-growth forest and bare mountains barricading the valley on north and south — chefs like Jernigan and her best-known colleagues, Bill Jones and Sinclair Philip, have helped establish the island as one of the world’s premiere culinary destinations for the slow food movement.

It seems simple enough, really. Grow your own. Buy and sell locally. Food is better when it comes from down the road, not across the globe. But as the cosmopolitan cross-section of Jernigan’s lunch guests would indicate, its aficionados will travel far to experience it.

The movement’s increasing pull offers hope to an island economy previously reliant on a now-faltering forestry industry. Here, perhaps the cruellest of a litany of cruel realities brought on by North America’s inevitable post- industrial fade is turned on its ear. Industry long gone, and employment with it, a saviour has been much in need continent-wide. The anointed, an economy based on service and tourism, has been, in most places, a laughable oxymoron and a desolate failure.

The island is different. In the Cowichan Valley, verdant and lush, never cripplingly cold or unbearably hot, the same climate that nurtured trees from seedlings to towering behemoths now cradles a new kind of growth: such delicate species as morels, which grow wild and plentiful on the burnt hillsides, or even a robust herd of water buffalo, raised here at Fairburn and used to make the only genuine buffalo mozzarella in Canada.

What it could mean for the island’s battered economy remains to be seen. “It really is the best of times and the worst of times,” Jernigan sighs. Reinvention is hard won here: her modest achievements to date can often feel trampled by the heavy plodding of the island’s old-guard lifeblood, forestry.

It has been a long, painful stumble. Between 1981 and 2004, BC forestry jobs dropped from a peak of 117,000 to just over 80,000. On the island, where old-growth cedar and fir underwrote decades of prosperity, the pain was most severe, as generations of loggers drifted into retraining, unemployment, or worse.

In Duncan, once a depressed, hardscrabble welfare city riven by drug and alcohol addiction and their attendant social ills — “Drunken Duncan,” as it was not-so-affectionately known — the strains of a faltering timber industry were carved into residents’ faces. That pain still shows, in job losses in the forestry sector and its decimated organized labour community, which staged a months-long strike last summer before capitulating almost entirely to industry demands.

But things have changed here. From the enduringly touristy Malahat train run — one car, from Courtenay in the northwest to Victoria in the southeast, stopping everywhere in between — Duncan’s transformation is rapid and visible. A boom in retail and condominium construction, unthinkable just a few years ago, clots traffic in gridlock. Specialty cheese shops, bakeries, a wine store — all offering organic and/or local wares — rim the street across from the train station, where logging camp workers used to come and go on grim two-week rotations.

Several kilometres east, on the Strait of Georgia, a slim finger of ocean that pushes the island away from the mainland, sits the town of Cowichan Bay. A long-time logging port, where old-growth timber would embark for points all over the globe, the landing spit here lacks the bustle of years gone by. On a narrow main street that drops into town from a sharply sloped bluff, however, tourists pass in and out of the town’s culinary hot spots: True Grain Bread, Hilary’s Cheese & Deli, and any number of restaurants now in on the act with fresh, local organic fare.

Jernigan and company nominated the town for the distinction of Cittaslow — “slow city” — an Italian invention that provides a framework for towns that wish to protect slow ways of life: limited development, pedestrian-friendly streets, and, of course, a commitment to local, natural, sustainable eating. Born in Orvieto, Italy, in 1999 as a companion to the slow food movement, Cittaslow now counts dozens of towns in Italy and others in the UK, Spain, Poland, Germany, and Australia. Cowichan Bay would be Canada’s first.

In Fairburn, such forward-looking notions are clawed back with aching regularity. Jernigan arrived at the farm one day to find Jackson Road, the rough gravel path that links the farm to the Island Highway, completely treeless — the result of an impromptu clear-cut by an industry that lashes out like a cornered, injured animal to take whatever it can, whenever it can. That also means no more mushroom harvests — at least at close proximity, where Jernigan likes it. “They need the forest to grow,” she says with a shrug. She chafes at overly rosy portrayals of the Cowichan region as nirvana. “It sometimes feels like smoke and mirrors,” she says, with forests still disappearing and real estate developers salivating at the prospect of building chockablock retirement communities on the suddenly barren clear-cuts.

At the farm, the last Sunday lunch of the season blunts Jernigan’s occasional pessimism. Her cooking inspires hope: devoutly local and unfailingly delicious, it is served with unwavering passion and gravity by Federico, a student at Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences. He has travelled here, amid the spectral, lingering presence of long-dead old-growth timber, specifically to study Jernigan’s methods. He explains to a rapt audience that in Europe, the island is seen as a culinary nirvana of sustainable practice. The tourists nod knowingly; the locals are astounded — baby steps just now starting to leave a lasting imprint. The island can fairly hope.

Murray Whyte