It’s late afternoon on the banks of the Cowichan River in southern Vancouver Island. Behind me are the berry plots of Affinity Guesthouse, bordered by a field where its first crop of quinoa was cultivated last year.
With the rest of the country experiencing wintery woes, I’m in a hoodie and it’s 12°C. This is, after all, what the Cowichan aboriginal people call the Warm Land, where the Mediterranean-esque climate keeps orchards and wineries open year round. The Cowichan Valley region and its small-plot farmers keep productive almost 12 months a year, producing a staggering diversity of local food not thought possible this far north.
The microclimate and residents’ long-term—and generally unheralded—stewardship of the land and lifestyle was thrust on the international stage last July when the seaside town of Cowichan Bay was named North America’s first Cittaslow community.
About the Cittaslow Movement
Pronounced cheetah-slow, the designation literally means “Slow City.” Founded in Italy in 1999, the Cittaslow movement is a network of international communities committed to preserving local culture and cuisine.
Its prospective members are measured against more than 40 social, cultural and environmental assessment points, and Cittaslow Cowichan scored 93 per cent—one of the highest totals in the 19-nation network, with the area’s artisanal foods and sustainable quality of life cited as exceptional.
The surrounding land and water have always been bountiful to the residents—historically, the area’s First Nations gathered berries and edible plants, hunted deer and elk and harvested salmon from rivers. The first Europeans were quick to harness the long growing season, and the valley was being extensively farmed by the turn of the century.
Slow Food in Cowichan Bay
With rolling, sun-drenched acreages set into tall stands of Douglas fir trees, today’s Cowichan Valley is an ideal cradle for a fast-growing food scene that now boasts exotica like emus, alongside organic bakeries and award-winning wineries.
Bradford Boisvert, chef and proprietor of Amusé Bistro, is one of Cittaslow Cowichan’s many supporters.
“The biggest thing for me is the ingredients… the ingredients we can source here are second to none,” he says. “We grow food right on our grounds, so we can just go out and cut what we need. You can’t get any better food than that—coming out of the ground to the plate within minutes.”
There’s also the added local source of the sea. “Some of the seafood that we get right from Cowichan Bay—the local octopus and spot prawns—is just fantastic,” Boisvert says.
That diversity lets a spectrum of food producers run wild.
“We have a little bit of everything,” says Hilary Abbott, an artisan cheese maker at Hilary’s Cheese. “And we’re all trying to work with the local bounty… basically doing our best to get back to what the world has been able to create for millennia. It’s only in the last 100 years in North America that we’ve abandoned, pretty much en masse, the idea of small local processing.”
As Canada’s first Cittaslow community—recently joined in North America by Wolfville, N.S., Naramata, B.C. and Sonoma Valley, California—Cowichan Bay seems destined to become one of the continent’s most uniquely food-focused destinations.
And there’s certainly hope that slow food will be part of preserving Cowichan’s pastoral environment—as Dwight Milford of Affinity says, “the thinking elsewhere is that if you build it, they will come. But for us, it’s that we’re not going to build it, and they will come.”
For a day of eating locally in Cowichan Bay, check out these slow food restaurants:
True Grain Bread features scrumptious baked goods made with organic flour that’s milled on site.
Affinity Guesthouse whips up local breakfast for guests—the blueberry scones are a must.
Stop into Drumroaster Coffee Stop for freshly roasted small-batch coffee.
Plunk down on the sunny patio of Hilary’s Cheese and sample from the handmade soups and locally produced artisan cheeses.
Merridale Cidery boasts fine ciders and seasonal bistro lunches in a lovely valley orchard.
You'll find creative fair-trade chocolates flavoured with local organic ingredients at Organic Fair.
One of Cowichan Valley’s most scenic vineyards, Averill Creek Vineyard features spring-to-summer tastings.
Amuse Bistro serves up elegant and sophisticated garden dining in French bistro style.
Head to Fairburn Farm's beautiful heritage property for an unforgettable dinner.
Middle Photo (Hilary's Cheese): Tom Ryan, Courtesy of Tourism BC
Bottom Photo (True Grain Bread): Andrea Johnson, Courtesy of Tourism BC