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GOING WILD IN THE VALLEY
by Cherie Thiessen
For Travel Writers' Tales

The lush and fertile farmlands of Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley are not surprisingly the home of the popular "Slow Food" movement, a trend that stresses from farm to table and from foraging to feasting. My partner, David, and I jumped on the B.C. Ferries and headed over to tunnel into the beating heart of this movement, deep in the valley's hidden foodie oases.

I mean who doesn't want to sample a 6-course dinner where morels are stuffed with smoked salmon and stinging nettle, or bite into a wild greens waffle with black garlic aioli? Who turns down a chance to savour morel dumplings or morel lasagna with buffalo mozzarella and miner's lettuce?

We'd heard raves about Deerholme Farm's food guru, Bill Jones, and his passion for combining locally sourced products with global cooking styles and I had also read most of his 12 books, especially the ones on foraging and mushrooms so we knew he was one of the idea people behind the movement. We had also heard about Fairburn Farm, where the buffalo mozzarella for our Deerholme feast would come from. A 130-acre farm lovingly worked by Darrel and Anthea Archer and their family and home to a unique herd of River Water Buffalo that thrived in the valley's lush pastures without requiring any other grains or enhancements.


( Photo #1)

Anthea says the animals are gentle, produce delicious milk and cheese, and their meat has far less fat than the usual bovines. She also tells us this is the only herd of Spring Water Buffalo in North America! We book a night in her historic 19th Century farmhouse, conveniently located minutes away from secretive Deerholme Farm and it's monthly themed dinners for a select lucky few. (Be sure to get the map from Jones! The roads are narrow and poorly signed and even the locals can't be counted on to point out the way.) Not following our own advice and getting hopelessly lost ourselves, we arrive just after 5 for the 4-hour feast, joining 18 others who are being lured to the table by the aromas of tonight's themed dinner: ‘Wild Foods and Morels.'


(Photo #2)

"This is what I do for fun," says the chef, "I even find doing the dishes afterward calming and satisfying." In addition to the monthly dinners, he is also in demand for cooking classes, foraging forays, and presentations. He moved to his 5-acre farm in 2000, drawn by the community and by the Mediterranean climate that encouraged good growth.

We're impressed that Jones has taken a current restaurant trend, that of the ‘dinner party' experience, and combined it with an educational programme, interspersing each of the dishes with a short informative chat about the gathering, growing and cooking of the ingredients found in each plate of culinary art, and then handing around some of the ingredients he's using in it so that we can examine, smell, feel and taste it.


(Photo #3)

The stuffed morel mushrooms come with crunchy fiddleheads as a garnish. The next ‘appie' is wild onion waffle with spice grilled oyster mushrooms and black garlic aioli. We get to inhale the fermented garlic bulb that assistant Rob Young, passes around and can't believe the complexity and richness of its fragrance. David stops me from sinking my teeth into the display.


(Photo #4).

Exactly at 9 o'clock, having licked the sides of the last dish: rhubarb and wild rice pudding with maple jelly, grand fir shortbread crumble and truffle honey cream, we all stand up to give chef and assistant a rousing applause.


(Photo #5).

The next day, after a hearty breakfast featuring Anthea's own hen's eggs and her own buffalo cheese, her own rhubarb preserves and her own natural charm, we decide to check out the nearby Fairbridge Farm School, built in 1935, and ostensibly a school for underprivileged British children as young as 4. About 350 children were selected from welfare institutions, or given away by destitute parents, to be educated and brought up on the farm, where it was believed the children would have a better future. Who knew? The school closed in 1952.

We've been educated, well fed, well rested, and have explored a part of the island we'd never been to before, so when we return to the ferry for the trip home, we embrace the idea of roaming close to home.

____________________________________

IF YOU GO

• Where to stay. Fairburn Farm & Guesthouse. A 15-min. drive from Deerholme. www.fairburnfarm.bc.ca

• Travelling to the island. Schedules and routes. www.bcferries.com

• For info on Bill Jones's publications. www.touchwoodeditions.com.

PHOTOS by David Dossor

1. Some of Fairburn Farm's friendly River Buffalo come to say hello.
2. Chef Jones explains how the evening and dishes will progress to his 20+ guests.
3. We share our table with a Danish family and their son, David, really gets into the ‘hands on' component.
4. Master chef, Bill Jones, at work in the open kitchen
5. Exterior of our overnight stay, Fairburn Farmhouse.

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