VANCOUVER ISLAND, B.C. -- Culinary tourism thrives on British Columbia's largest island where the treasure hunt begins on family-owned farms and wineries tucked along backroads dotted with B&Bs and country bistros.
A leisurely day spent exploring rural areas less than an hour's drive from Victoria guarantees you'll come back with a trunk full of wine, home-cured meats, vinegars, jams, chutneys and cheeses.
Urban foraging is thirsty work, and summer calls for something lighter than the Pinot and blackberry port. Cider, for instance, served cold and with a kick at two boutique ciderhouses that welcome visitors for tastings, tours, food pairings and walks through the orchards.
The apples aren't the usual Granny Smiths or Red Delicious eating types. Rather these are European varieties with names like Kingston Black and Chisel Jersey, long- cultivated for cider-making in France, Germany and England, and before Prohibition, in some parts of North America.
When pressed after the fall harvest and turned into juice fermented with yeast and aged three months to a year, the result is a summer refresher for grown-ups best sipped from a wine glass rather than from a box through a straw.
"When Americans refer to cider, it's apple juice," says Kristen Jordan CQ of Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse nestled among wineries, berry farms and vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula. "Canadians know it as alcoholic, but more like a Mike's Lemonade, sweet and in bottles sold in grocery stores."
Imagine instead a dry French Champagne or Italian Prosecco, the light, slightly fizzy wine the Venetians throw back in little tumblers outside the bars on hot summer evenings. Add a nose of anise and cinnamon, or a hint of burnt sugar and spice, and raise a glass to savoring a taste of Europe right here in the Pacific Northwest.
• Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse
A tour of Butchart Gardens could easily start or end a few miles away at Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, a 20-minute drive north from Victoria.
Kristen and Bruce Jordan bought 10 acres of land overlooking the Strait of Georgia four years ago, and planted three acres of apples on what was once a loganberry farm and sheep pasture.
Hand-pressing the juice in the fall, then letting it ferment in stainless-steel tanks or old rum and bourbon barrels, produces dry and sweet ciders with an alcohol content ranging from 6 percent for a sparkling English-style drink to 17 percent for a French-style dessert cider called Pommeau.
Apples grown on the island and on a family orchard in the Canadian Okanagan include "new world" varieties such as Pippins, grown for cider-making in North America before Prohibition, and "old world" apples cultivated mainly overseas.
"If you were to bite into one of these apples, you'd be spitting them out, but they make good cider," says Kristen Jordan, who became acquainted with drinking hard cider while a student in Wales.
She inherited her family's Okanagan orchard when she was a teenager, but took no interest in it until after she met her husband, who made cider as a hobby. After they married and began thinking about careers that would fit in with raising a family, "we took a look at what was staring us in the face."
She quit her job traveling to Ethiopia, Nepal and Eastern Europe advising on agricultural projects and food aid programs, and they both signed up for cider-making classes at Washington State University's Mount Vernon research center near Seattle.
The Jordans admit to a bit of an "If we build it, they will come" philosophy. But the market for craft ciders is growing. This year they will double production from 8,000 to 16,000 liters, and Bruce Jordan, 42, recently gave up law to devote full time to the business.
"This is really a little bit about going back to roots," says Kristen, 40. Once considered safer than water to drink, cider was once an important part of the rural economy in Europe and North American.
"Prohibition literally took the ax to cider-making in North America," she says. "One hundred and fifty years ago, it was a stable form of wealth. You could store cider, and everyone could grow an apple tree."
A visit to Sea Cider starts with a detour off Highway 17, the main road connecting Victoria with Swartz Bay, where ferries call from Vancouver.
A country road winds past farmstands and wineries and finally to Sea Cider and a white farmhouse with a water view. . Planted in front are 50 rows of apple trees, a different variety in each row, all certified organic. Visitors get a short tour of a lab and a small pressing, fermenting and bottling operation in the back, then relax on the deck or around wooden tables in the tasting room to sample ciders matched with local foods. Four types are available now with more to come this fall.
Wild English, a dry sparkler made the way it's produced in Herefordshire, England, with wild yeast from the apple skins, pairs well with locally made bison sausage and strong cheeses, such as Stilton.
Kings & Spies, Sea Cider's only nonorganic cider, is an Italian-style sparkling drink crafted from a blend of apples grown in Victoria backyards. The proceeds support LifeCycles, a local organization that promotes food education.
Made with Snow apples first grown in the 1700s in Quebec, the Pommeau, a Canadian twist on a French aperitif, goes nicely with chards of dark chocolate flavored with salt and pepper.
The bottles themselves are keepers. Except for the Pommeau, the ciders are sold in traditional fliptop ginger beer flasks. The bottling machine is a German-made sparkling wine filler the Jordans bought secondhand from a microbrewery in Montana.
(Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, 2487 Mt. St. Michael Road, Saanichton, B.C. Web: www.seacider.ca. Phone: 250-544-4824. Hours: Wednesdays-Sundays and holiday Mondays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Prices: $8 for a flight of four ciders. Bottles, $12-$25. Locally made cheeses, meats and other snacks available.)
• Merridale Ciderworks
A 45-minute drive west and north of Victoria along the Trans Canada Highway leads to the Cowichan Valley, an undiscovered mini-Napa where a new generation of farmers has replaced dairy farms and potato fields with vineyards and tasting rooms.
The "wine route" signs lead to Merridale Ciderworks off a back road leading to Shawnigan Lake, a favorite spot for canoeing or kayaking.
Al Piggot pioneered cider-making on the island when he opened Merridale in 1990. Under new owners Janet Docherty, 47, a former commercial real-estate agent, and Rick Pipes, 49, a lawyer, who took over in 2000, it's grown from a small commercial operation into a tourist destination. There's a picnic area, a shop selling apple-infused honey, vinegars and jams; a tasting room flanked by a stone fireplace; and a bistro staffed by an English chef and French baker.
Maps lead visitors on self-guided walks through the orchards and ciderhouse. New this year is a brandihouse with a gleaming copper still from Germany where Pipes has started making blackberry and apple brandy.
Producing 130,000 liters of cider annually on 13 acres planted with a dozen varieties of apples, Merridale, like Sea Cider, supplies to island restaurants and pubs. Its eight ciders include a hearty crabapple Scrumpy (11 percent alcohol), named for an English cider made by farm workers who stole or "scrumped" apples from orchards.
"Baked apple pie with brown sugar" is how Darcy Black, in charge of group tours, describes a dessert cider called Winter Apple, a Pommeau-style dessert wine. She suggests serving it "drizzled on ice cream with dark chocolate or over cheesecake, or with Gorgonzola and candied walnuts."
It's worth the drive from Victoria just to have lunch or dinner on the deck at La Pommeraie Bistro, opened in 2005 with an apple-inspired menu designed with cider pairings in mind.
Among British chef Dave Woolfall's creations are a Scrumpy chicken potpie, a parsnip and apple soup, a caramelized onion and apple tart and pulled pork and apple crepes.
Show up here in the morning and you might catch Alain Boisseau working at the wood-fired outdoor oven. The baker once ran a popular local spot called Cafe des Artistes. Now he's at Merridale creating cider levain bread, a sourdough fed with Cyser, a sweet cider made with honey, and, of course, apple pie.
(Merridale Ciderworks, 1230 Merridale Road, Cobble Hill, B.C. Web: www.merridalecider.com. Phone: 800-998-9908. Ciderworks and tasting room open 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tastings are free. Bottles: $12-$40. Lunch, dinner, appetizers and flights ($8 for six samples) are available in La Pommeraire Bistro. Summer hours: Monday-Thursday, noon-4:30 p.m. (lunch until 3 p.m.).; Friday-Sunday, noon-8 p.m. (dinner starting at 5 p.m.).)
IF YOU GO:
TOURISM INFORMATION: For lodging and other tourism information on the Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Valley, see www.vancouverisland.travel or call Tourism Vancouver Island at 888-655-3483. For information on island wineries and farms, contact the Wine Islands Vintners Association, www.wineislands.ca.