I want to tell you about a place with mountains wreathed in torn-paper strips of cloud, beaches every tone of blue and grey, and a particularly soulful shade of green that lines the road between there and there. But mostly, i want to tell you about the food in a part of Canada I once and sometimes still, call home.
I’ll begin in the middle, which is to say the middle of the east coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. I’ll begin with oysters, Fanny Bay oysters, to be exact. I know this silky briny delicacy so well because of my friends Glen and Jeanette, a magical duo if there ever was one, who produce social change, gardens, kayaking trips, film festivals, art, and of course food, out of their bare hands.
The martini glasses are chilling by the time I arrive on their doorstep, in late afternoon. I have taken a cab, a bus, a ferry, and a weird minivan shuttle, to get to their place. The last long, flat rays of sun bleach the outlines of faraway islands to pale blue. We nibble on cold local Sockeye salmon, crackers, and artisan cheese from the Comox Valley. Glen fills me in on the opening of a big-box Walmart store in a nearby town. Walmart, wealthiest corporation in North America, is infamous for its labour-busting practices, its music censorship, and its destruction of small businesses. Glen, a filmmaker, has been documenting protests and city hall meetings. Whatever he ends up doing with this footage, it will be quirky, intelligent, and beautiful, just like his last film, “Useless”, a film that traced his own route to social change via punk rock. Jeanette, trained in herbology, gives me advice on remedies for my mother, who’s been battling cancer once again, and suddenly the kitchen table is full of her reference books, the air full of her sweet concern. Glen quietly starts preparing fried Fanny Bay oysters as he always does when I visit.
Oyster farming is a huge operation in the area: if you look closely out onto the Straight of Georgia, where Fanny Bay is located, you can see the oyster rafts, big ungainly blue barrels, floating in the sea. It’s a growing industry providing employment in an area in need of jobs. But it’s controversial, too. Some consider it an eyesore; others are concerned about the rapid rate of industrialization.
Still, i can’t get enough of those oysters, They are salty and sweet in exactly the right proportions. They are voluptuous. They have attitude and style. At the right time of day and the right time of year, you can gather them yourself. You don’t even have to shuck them: you just roast them on your campfire, or over a barbecue grill, and they will open up of their own accord. A squirt of lemon, and they’re ready to eat, with a smoky flavour all their own.
Glen uses the recipe that they hand out at the fish store at Buckley Bay, a facsimile of which I have included below. Jeanette has me gather lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, green onions peas and dill from her garden edged with sunflowers. If it’s summer or fall, I offer to make pie. If it’s August, that pie will be full of blackberries picked from bushes that grow everywhere outside along paths and roads.
Dinner, featuring plump oysters fried in Breton cracker crumbs, masala-spiced cobs of corn, garden salad and white Australian wine, is eaten on the deck overlooking the bay and the mountains beyond. The tide comes in just as we finish eating. We go for a dusky swim as the water wearies of its early evening peach hue, decides to dress up for the evening and turns suddenly, and dramatically, to gold.
Fried Breaded Oysters
1 pint (16 oz) fresh shucked oysters
3/4 cup white flour
1 egg + 2tbsp. lemon juice whisked together
2 cups finely crushed Breton cracker crumbs (bread crumbs may be substituted)
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup cooking oil
Put drained oysters into a heat resistant bowl and cover them with boiling water. Stir the oysters gently to evenly distribute the water. Let stand about ten minutes. Drain the oysters and arrange on paper towels to dry.
Place flour, egg mixturem and crumbs each in separate bowls. First, dredge oysters in flour, shaking off excess. Next, dip in egg mixture, and finally, roll in cracker crumbs.
In a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat, melt the butter and the oil. Cook the coated oysters until they are brown, and turn over to finish (Don’t overcook : this should take 3-5 minutes).
Serve hot with lemon wedges and/or horseradish.