2000s Archive

The Little Easy

Originally Published July 2003
Begin with a one-room cabin. Add a sack of local potatoes, mussels fresh from the water, and a basket of just-picked berries. Welcome to the good life on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

It all started with a sack of potatoes.

A decade ago, we were camping—my husband, our two daughters, and I—on Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritimes. We were enchanted by the wide, unspoiled beaches, the rust-colored cliffs, and the eagles, seals, and seabirds we spotted on our hikes. But we were sick of the food. At “family” restaurants and snack bars, the menus were always the same: fried chicken fingers, fried fish, fries. Figuring there had to be a better way, we bought a bag of Irish Cobbler potatoes from a roadside stand and roasted them in our campfire.

Now, I’m not saying that P.E.I. (as the island is known) grows the best potatoes in the world, but I am saying that if you are camping, and ravenous from a day at the beach, and you cook up a bunch of local spuds, you have the beginnings of a great meal. Add some mussels grown in a nearby bay, and a dessert made with wild blueberries that you picked yourself at the ocean’s edge, and life starts seeming very good. So good, in fact, that we have made Prince Edward Island our summer-vacation destination ever since. So good that we have bought land there and built a one-room cabin on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It was the experience of buying the potatoes that made us realize we were smitten with the place. We got them from Rose Cheverie, who, with her soft-spoken ways, brings the word gentlewoman to mind. Her son, Fred, a junior-high science teacher, grows the potatoes. We know all this because we visit with Rose and Fred every summer now. Life on P.E.I. is like that: You go out for potatoes, and you come back with a new friend. When we return each summer, local merchants ask us how long we’ll be “home.” This is what keeps us coming back.

I’ve often told friends that P.E.I. is “like Vermont, with ocean,” but it is closer to the truth to say it’s like my husband’s native Wisconsin, with ocean. Gently rolling hills are dotted with prosperous-looking farms, and dairy cows and beef cattle graze almost to the water’s edge. Two-lane roads cut through verdant fields, and traffic backs up behind tractors pulling bales of hay. Neat lines of laundry flap in breezes so stiff that early settlers planted row upon row of spruce trees as windbreaks. Even Cavendish, the most touristy section of the island—where Green Gables, the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables saga, brings in more than a quarter of a million visitors annually—looks understated and quaint to an old Jersey-shore hand like myself.

It’s also the kind of place where you make your own fun: walking on a beach, camping at national and provincial parks, paddling a sea kayak, cycling along the ancient railroad bed that has become the island-long Confederation Trail bike path. It’s a popular spot for birders, for deep-sea and fly fishermen, and for devotees of Celtic music. But because we like to cook and eat, we spend a lot of our time looking for dinner.

Acquiring meals on P.E.I. has taken us out on boats and into barns, landed us in fields of potatoes and berries, and plunged us knee-deep in clam-digging muck. One day last year, for example, we went in search of spareribs. Our neighbor, George Roach, had a yen for barbecued ribs, and, having heard good things about a market near Montague—one of the last remaining slaughterhouses on the island—we set out to find some.

Inside the well-scrubbed premises of the L&S Meat Market, we found a gleaming glass case of meats—pork chops, beef tongue, liver, kidney, fresh bacon, poultry, and (success!) spareribs. The clerk behind the counter cheerfully discussed the finer points of a traditional island meal (salt fish, potatoes, fresh bacon, mashed turnip, and green tomato chow) as she wrapped our purchase. Since we were in the neighborhood, we started down the road to the U-pick at Nabuurs Gardens, in Lower Montague. But on the way we spied a hand-lettered sign for a lobster pound; we soon found ourselves outside a shed—“Honk Your Horn for Service”—and in the company of Stella Vuozzo, whose sons are lobster fishermen. They sell not only lobsters but also homemade jam and quart-size Mason jars of chopped bar clams (huge clams harvested by hand) that Mrs. Vuozzo processes herself. We bought several jars, and a few days later I made one of the most spectacular pasta sauces I have ever been able to take credit for.

Then it was on to the berries and a stop at Island Baking & Milling, just north of Culloden. Steve Knechtel runs his eccentric operation out of a converted schoolhouse; steady customers can retrieve their orders from the rusting school bus parked outside. Among his specialties is Vollkornbrot, a whole-grain rye that we love to eat with salmon smoked by Kim Dormaar, of Medallion Smoked Salmon, in Ebenezer, a tiny hamlet farther west. Visiting Dormaar the previous day, we had purchased not only salmon but smoked scallops and eel. On our way home from the bakery, we stopped at Colville Bay Oyster Co., in Souris West, where a strapping high school student in waders retrieved some oysters from the water for us: $6 a dozen. They had a flat top shell, a deeply cupped bottom, and a lovely blue-green tinge.

So there was our meal: smoked fish and raw oysters for appetizers, ribs for the main course, and fresh strawberries for dessert. The oysters were a few hours out of the ocean, the berries just a few hours out of the field, and the ribs had been pig within the past four days. Even the island-grown rye in the Vollkornbrot had been milled earlier that morning. We had a salad made from Fred Cheverie’s potatoes, seasoned with summer savory we’d purchased in South Pinette from a laid-back young farmer named Kevin Ryan. We had the pleasure of knowing the name of—and having met—every provider of every course. Sure, it took the better part of the day to get dinner, but what a dinner. And what a day.

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