On Prince Edward Island, the Ultimate Shuck
A 120-foot long lobster roll, and more fresh shellfish than anyone can eat at the PEI Shellfish Festival
By Paul Shoul
Seated in a small prop plane on the runway of Halifax Stansfield Airport in Nova Scotia, we cruised down the runway to begin our ½ hour flight to Prince Edward Island. As we climb the landscape unfolded. It reminded me of my home in Massachusetts….. but on steroids. Farm houses, barns, forests and lush green fields with grazing livestock stretch to the rocky shores of a sea dotted with lobster boats and oyster farms.
There is a rugged beauty quilted by the farmers and fisherman below chasing the warm summer months to make best use of the season to coax what they can from the earth and ocean. Everything looks a little brighter, more alive here.
Prince Edward Island is the smallest of three maritime provinces in Canada. It is renowned for its charming landscape of farms, pristine coastline and arguably the finest shellfish in the world.
The Shellfish Festival
This is the setting for the PEI International Shellfish Festival. It's a four-day gathering of thousands of fishermen, their families and friends, chefs, and food lovers from the region and the world to celebrate, compete, and consume vast amounts of mussels, oysters and lobsters.
Fifteen chefs from Canada, North America and Europe also come for the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, held at the festival. With a $10,000 grand prize on the line, this is a serious cooking competition, but chefs often have three things in common-- they work hard, play hard and like to eat and drink together.
They competed in three intense 45-minute rounds of elimination over the next three days in front of a live audience. All were incredibly supportive of each other in both defeat and victory. A super cool group of folks.
The day before the competition I set forth with them to tour potato, oyster and mussel farms across the island. Think 12 young Anthony Bourdains packed in a bus on a food tour. It was hilarious and delicious.
We toured Prince Edwards Aqua Farms who produce fabulous Island gold blue mussels, oysters, clams and quahogs. Then to the iron rich red soils of the Vernon Campbell's farm to dig fresh potatoes.
Finally, to a lunch of endless fresh raw oysters, lentil mussel stew, rich grilled cheese and oyster sandwiches, steamed mussels in both wine and cream, and thick slabs of pork belly at the Raspberry point oyster company. Wow.
The Feast and Frolic opening dinner at the festival was a sight to behold. Held in a huge tent at the Charlottetown Event Grounds, it began with the oyster grower of the year competition with all you can eat oysters freshly shucked by ten local growers.
In the main tent, dinner was served to over 540 people. Starting off with fish chowder, a small army of chefs from the Culinary Institute of Canada created a clam bake for each table. This was no small feat.
A bucket full of 10 whole cracked steamed lobsters were placed on each table in the center of wooden trays. Around it was a layer of steaming seaweed with heaps of potatoes, quahogs, corn, snow crabs and mussels. Washing it all down with a Cesar; a spicy clamato juice version of a Bloody Mary with celery salt around the rim, this dinner vaulted firmly into the top 10 list of my all time best meals ever.
After two rounds of cook off competition, the final battle took place on the last day of the festival, but only after a few more milestones of culinary greatness were accomplished.
The first order of business was to break the Guinness World Record for the longest lobster roll. Over 180 volunteers slathered 120 lbs of lobster meat and mayo, celery, onions and red peppers onto a gargantuan bun that had been escorted by the police into the arena earlier that day. It measured an astounding 120 feet long, crushing the title held by New Brunswick by over 14 feet. As this rivalry continues next year, they are going to need a bigger tent.
Second was Canada's Smartest Kitchen International Chowder Championship for which I had the honor of being one of five judges. $2000 dollars was on the line.
It was as hard to settle on the “best” from a group of “fantastic” offerings as it was to pace myself from eating all of them to the last drop. We judged according to texture, consistency, presentation, distribution of ingredients and flavor.
Judges All in Sync
Fortunately we were all in sync and unanimously chose the winner, Chef Devon Lattee. Unfortunately I was not as judicious with my restraint and after 14 bowls of chowder lapsed into a somewhat comical cholesterol coma napping in the corner.
The final round of the Garland Canada International chef challenge was also intense. Chef Andrew MacLeod of Bolete in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. and Chef Mark Andrews, of Bartlett Mitchell in London, England, battled for 45 focused minutes of culinary war in a haze of sweat, steam and smoke.
Both of their cooking skills were exemplary but at the end of what was a long judging decision, there could only be one winner. Andrew Macleod walked away with the honors of the day and a fat $10,000 check.
Next years Prince Edwards Island International Shellfish Festival is slated for Sept.14-17th 2017. It's already on my travel calendar.
Charlottetown Eat and Sleep:
I stayed at The Dundee Arms Inn. A traditional 1903 Queen Anne Rival mansion only a five-minute walk from downtown and the harbor. The staff is super nice, it has a very quaint dining room, a deck for lunch, cool bar with a fireplace and music on some nights that gets the whole crowd singing Irish songs.
Definitely go to Casa Mia Cafe. Great coffee, island made sausage, fresh eggs and "wow these are good" homefries from local potatoes. Tell Lee Anne I sent you.
Tim Hortons. If you want to see the real Charlottetown, or all Canada for that matter, you have to go to Tim’s. The only place open at 7:00 am, It was filled with hundreds of little hockey players and their families who had taken over a few of the streets for an annual street hockey contest. Canadians are cool and they are all at Timmy's.
Claddagh Oyster House:
This one of those places that works so well in so many ways. First floor is the dining room, refined and upscale with fantastic locally sourced food. I had the butter glazed Halibut on a bed of fingerling potatoes with fennel, red onion and pea shoots and roasted root vegetables.
Upstairs is where the action is. A spacious multilevel dark wood paneled room with pub dining and a bar filled with travelers and a few salty dog locals. They have a $1 oyster happy hour from 4pm-6pm, pour a great pint of Guinness and by 11pm the room is hopping with live music.
I am a pho freak. There is a slow growing immigrant community on PEI being greeted with open arms. Given the opportunity, I had to have the beef noodle soup I love so much. I ate at PHO Vietnam with high hopes, but they were not fulfilled until I had the broth at PHO HUNG, down the street. Deep complex beef flavor, not too salty with hint of cinnamon. Really great.
Taste of Town Food tour
A three-hour history and culinary walking tour that will give you a taste what the island has to offer. A great way to orient yourself to delve in further, or if you only have a short time in the city. Great guide and very fun and informative.
It concludes on the waterfront at the chip shack for their twice cooked hand cut island fries , fish and chips and a free hug by proprietor, Caron Prins, “The Queen of Fries”
Canadians love a good time and good joke. On my final day there I went to the annual 70 mile tag sale. How could I not? Bob Burhoe, a vender I met, offered his insight, “It is like life everywhere, folks like to meet and talk and laugh. Thats what its all about. If you ask for a dollar, they offer you 50 cents. Ask for a quarter, they'll give you a dime, if you say it is free, they want you to pay them to take it away”
I ran into Maureen Coulter , a writer for the local newspaper The Guardian and asked her why everyone that I met in Canada was so funny. She speculated that it originated from the working poor, and quoted “ If you can't laugh you are going to cry, so you might as well laugh as much as you can.”
Walking down the street in Charlottetown the next morning I walked by a bench with two men sitting in front of flower arrangement with a sign that read “adopt a corner” a civic program run by the city. He saw me reading it, looked up and said “ we've been sitting here three hours and no one has adopted us yet!”
How to get there
It is possible to get to PEI by ferry or to drive over the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick. This time I flew from Boston, MA on Air Canada.
This trip was made with assistance from Prince Edward Island Tourism, but the opinions are the author's own.
Photo Gallery from the 2016 PEI International Shellfish Festival
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.