Each year seafood lovers gather in the Comox Valley for the BC Shellfish Festival, the largest of its kind on the West Coast. Celebrating its 6th anniversary, this year’s festivities kicked off on Tuesday, June 12th with a screening of the documentary “Shellshocked” followed by the Mott’s Clamato Best Caesar in Town Competition on Thursday, which we had the pleasure of judging. Next on the festival calendar was a seafood extravaganza also known as the Chefs’ Dinner. We were kindly invited to take part in this wonderful celebration of locally produced shellfish.
As we raced down the highway, rocking out to Van Morrison dressed in our formal wear, our mouths watered in anticipation of eating freshly shucked oysters, clams, mussels and geoducks. With over 200 guests to be treated to a gourmet, six-course seafood feast by an all star chef line-up, this sold out dinner was the hottest ticket in town. Each chef collaborated with a BC shellfish grower and their product to bring their original seafood creations to the guests. Factor in a bottle of BC wine paired with each course, and you got a sense of the urgency we were feeling with a 120 kilometre drive separating us from this seafood gorge fest.
After getting lost along the way, we found ourselves walking through the charming grounds of the Filberg Heritage Lodge in the pouring rain, our high heels sinking into the wet grass. The scenic backdrop of Baynes Sound, the oyster growing capital of Canada, was an appropriate setting for the event. Large white tents shielded guests from the elements although the weather did not deter them from the raw bars featuring shellfish from different regions of BC, shucked and served by the farmers who grow them. Among the highlights were Keith Reid’s delightful designer Kusshi Oysters (Stellar Bay Shellfish), Rob Tryon’s Effingham Oysters and fresh geoduck sashimi.
As guests settled into their tables, we took the opportunity to sneak behind the scenes into the kitchen where chefs were scrambling to plate hundreds of dishes for the hungry diners. To avoid becoming collateral damage in the high intensity atmosphere, we retreated to the safety and comfort of our table. We were astonished to discover that we were sharing a table with local radio legend Terry David Mulligan, food columnist Eric Akis, and CBC’s social butterfly Fred Lee. Unable to sit still in our seats, we were feeling a little star struck and admittedly a little terrified sitting next to these industry heavyweights.
We definitely noticed an Asian theme with many of the chefs and their creations. Comox’s own Aaron Rail, executive chef of Avenue Bistro, opened with a delicate Chawanmushi (a steamed egg custard dish from Japan) with Poached Zen Oysters (Hollie Wood Oysters), Shaved Summer Vegetables & Herbs. Executive Chef Bill Jones of Deerholme Farm in Cowichan was also inspired by Japanese flavours preparing Dashi Cured Island Scallops with Local Seaweed Pasta, Mushroom Chutney & Chive & Wasabi Aioli. Served in its own shell, the subtle aroma of the dashi (simple fish stock) really came through in the scallops which were supple and sweet.
Other chefs embodied the distinctive Pacific Northwest influences in their dishes. Executive Chef Ronald St. Pierre of Courtenay’s Locals Restaurant served guests a BBQ Cedar Plank Halibut served on Grilled Corn Polenta with Wild Huckleberry Compote & Maple Glazed Sea Asparagus. We were pleasantly surprised at the tender sea asparagus which wasn’t as salty as we imagined. The tartness of the huckleberries paired nicely with the melt in your mouth halibut. Celebrity chef Ned Bell of Yew Restaurant in the Vancouver Four Seasons Hotel continued the Pacific Northwest theme by preparing his famous Clam Chowder with Spring Peas, Bladderwrack Seaweed, Smoked Sea Salt & Lemon Biscuits. Served in cute little Bernardin jars, this rich chowder had a wonderfully intense smokey flavour.
Our favourite course of the night went to Victoria’s Vista 18 executive chef Garrett Schack and his offering of Salt Spring Island Mussels & Red Pepper Ragout, Crispy Chorizo with Grilled Chive & Zucchini Bread. The sweetness of the plump mussels and the red pepper ragout contrasted the spicy chorizo sausage beautifully. We also came to the realization that pair of us would probably be leaving desperately needing a bigger dress size. That being said we saved the last reserves of our stomachs for the finale as Matt MacDonald, executive chef of Berwick in Comox, rounded out the evening with Almond Churros with Grand Marnier and Saffron Custard. This fried choux pastry combined magically with the fragrant saffron and bitter orange flavours of the custard…lip smackingly delicious!
While the Chefs’ Dinner succeeded in providing another premier shellfish event, the BC Shellfish Festival continued for another day open to the general public. The Festival in our eyes accomplished their goal of promoting BC’s locally grown, sustainably raised shellfish products and awareness. We came to the Festival with empty stomachs but we left with a renewed appreciation for the bounty of fresh seafood available to us in our own backyard, as well as the importance of maintaining the health of the marine habitat that supports it. We’d like to thank executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association, Roberta Stevenson and director of the festival, Matthew Wright for getting us involved in this year’s events. Also, we would like to extend our thanks to the people of Comox Valley for their welcoming hospitality. We encourage everyone to check out next year’s festival and if you’ve never tried shellfish before, at the very least, give it a try. If this year’s festival was any indication, you won’t be disappointed!