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In British Columbia’s capital city, the farm-to-table dining scene oscillates from high-end modern bistros to down-to-earth restaurants.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
Mitchell Morse unlatches the gate, and his three Nigerian dwarf goats — Cashew, Walnut, and Nutmeg — trot toward fresh grass, bleating gleefully. They go straight for the crisp leaves that have fallen from the trees above, reveling in a new batch, having finished off the leaves within their pen. The trio’s other favorite pastime: heckling cyclists on the popular trail that runs alongside the property.
Mitchell’s Fickle Fig Farm Market, located on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, is the perfect encapsulation of the current farm-to-table movement in and around Victoria, British Columbia’s seaside capital. The roadside enterprise, just across the street from the Victoria International Airport, sells produce that Mitchell grows at an off-site farm, the baked goods he rises before dawn to prepare, and a menu of sandwiches, soups, and pizza.
“I had this in my head for 12 years before I opened in 2015,” Mitchell says. “I asked myself, ‘What would I be happy doing for the rest of my life?’ This has been inside of me for so long.”
His boundless energy has yielded a slew of other aspects to this growing business. Fickle Fig also serves as a year-round farmers market for other producers, the perfect financial bridge in the off-season when other farmers markets are shut down. Mitchell is also building a brewery, using hops he is growing, and raising rabbits, pigs, and cows.
This close relationship between farm and food — and beverage purveyor — I learn, is as common in Victoria as it is in and around Seattle. And it makes sense: Just like Seattle restaurants and producers draw on the rich agricultural landscape of places like the Skagit Valley and eastern Washington, Victoria’s farm-to-table scene benefits from the agricultural areas of the Saanich Peninsula, and the Cowichan Valley, to the city’s north.
Most visitors, whether they arrive via the Victoria Clipper — a 45-minute float/plane trip with Kenmore Air from downtown Seattle — or some other means, including via cruise ship, see and do the same things: They visit The Butchart Gardens, have tea at the iconic Fairmont Empress hotel, and stroll the waterfront. But my four-day visit finds that the city’s dining scene is worth a visit on its own merits. And each place I visit tells a part of the story of the area’s farm-to-table focus.
I make a stop for lunch at a similarly focused restaurant, vineyard, and 10-acre farm called Roost, where Dallas Bohl and his family have carved out a locavore’s destination in the pastoral landscape of North Saanich. The café and bakery are bustling on a sunny winter weekday, with customers ordering brick oven–baked pizzas and pies to go. The enterprising family grows grapes and blueberries for its winery, dabbles in giant pumpkin competitions, and sows and mills wheat for its breads and pizza dough, among a bevy of other hobbies.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”24898″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”24908″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”24911″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”24906″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]A stop at the peninsula’s best-known business, Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, is a must. The orchard and cidery face Haro Strait and Mount Baker; If James and Sidney islands weren’t in the way, you might gaze at San Juan Island while sipping these exceptional ciders. I work my way through a tasting flight that samples seven year-round and seasonal ciders, all made from 50 varieties of apples grown on the 10-acre plot here, as well as sourced in the Okanagan Valley and throughout the local community. The sustainability-minded business distributes its ciders in the Seattle area and throughout western Canada.
Before heading back to Victoria, one more libation destination is in order: Victoria Distillers, with its waterfront perch in Sidney, the town that receives the Washington State ferries that link the San Juan Islands and Anacortes.
Here, distiller Peter Hunt leads me on a tour that includes a peek at the bottling line, which is running the distillery’s cobalt-hued Empress Gin, made with seven botanicals and naturally tinted with butterfly pea flowers. In the adjacent lounge area, Peter pours a gin and tonic; the addition of the quinine-laced water turns the beverage a striking purple.
I make my way back to Victoria as the sun slips behind the purple Olympic Mountains, casting the sky in amber. I check into The Magnolia Hotel & Spa downtown, where my room has a fireplace and a view of the harbor — and is ideally situated for three days of dining throughout central Victoria.
My dining experiences in Victoria are a representative sample of the city’s farm-to-table dining scene, which oscillates from high-end modern bistros to down-to-earth restaurants. I also dabble in Victoria’s brunch culture — the city was named Brunch Capital of Canada by Food Network in 2017, and it shows with scores of outstanding options for the weekend midday meal. For a city of little more than 80,000 people, there’s quite a concentration of quality restaurant options, and many tout their commitment to sourcing from the area’s farms, ranches, and fisheries.
My first dinner in town is a multi-course extravaganza at Saveur, where seasonal ingredients are crafted into of-the-moment tasting menus, and where exposed brick and crystal chandeliers bring this spot fully on-trend. Chef-owner Robert Cassels plates dishes that are abstracted art pieces, like sea scallops perched on a twist of noodles made from bull kelp. Dessert is a study in circles, wherein parsnips are incorporated into airy profiteroles, and the plate is decorated with round dollops of caramel sauce.
[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Later in the trip, I find myself with a coveted reservation at Little Jumbo, which had a two-hour wait when I arrived at 8 p.m. The upscale gastropub would feel at home in Portland or Seattle, with a menu of cocktails that changes every six weeks and trades descriptions of flavors for playful prose. Savory dishes include fried Brussels sprouts with candied bacon and carrot-truffle puree, roasted bone marrow with a baguette and cured egg yolk, and a burger with double-smoked bacon and onion jam.
Choosing one or two brunches in Victoria can be an overwhelming task. I stop at Agrius, a restaurant downtown that uses organic ingredients from local farms whenever possible and bakes its bread every day in a wood-fired oven. I’m so smitten with my decadent hash of perogis, poached eggs, hollandaise, lardon, and brisket, that I return another day to sample the pastries at the restaurant’s sibling Fol Epi, a busy organic bakery and coffee shop that shares the same space.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”24900″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”24909″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”24907″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”24902″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]Another brunch finds me at Fishhook, one of the city’s newer restaurants. Owner Kunal Ghose was a contestant on Top Chef Canada, but he first made a name for himself with the sustainability-minded Red Fish Blue Fish, a waterfront fish-and-chips walk-up. His new restaurant serves bright dishes, often inflected with Indian flavors and occasionally topped with a few slices of his housemade salmon belly bacon.
My downtown base is a 25-minute stroll along the waterfront to a Victoria institution: Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, a bustling pub that seats 300 people. I leave the waterfront icons of the Fairmont Empress and the British Columbia Parliament building, the two most recognizable buildings on the skyline, and head to West Victoria.
At Spinnakers, I find an impressive farm-to-table restaurant masquerading as a run-of-the-mill brewpub. The menu holds familiar dishes like pizzas, salads, and fish and chips, sure, but chef Ali Ryan’s ardent commitment to local sourcing puts this place on another level. Ali runs the kitchen, keeps bees on the property, and sources so much of her ingredients locally that farmers can bank on this large account as a guaranteed — and significant — source of income. The enterprise also sports a highly respected beer-brewing operation, along with a malt vinegar brewery. I pair a pulled-pork pizza with charred leeks and a white, Alabama-style barbecue sauce with a perfectly balanced Gose Reposado, an aged sour beer spiked with Vancouver Island Salt Co. sea salt.
That night, I eat at Nourish Kitchen & Café, a restaurant and coffee shop tucked inside an 1889 heritage house in the James Bay neighborhood near downtown. There’s a lovely down-to-earth rusticity here, from the mismatched plates to the emphasis on cooking from scratch using whole foods, making preserves and kefir, and running an on-site garden. I opt for a linguine dish made of rutabaga and laced with charred broccoli, roasted carrots, cashew cream, pickled shallots, and cured egg yolk.
Before I leave town, I stop at Silk Road Tea; after all, Victoria is known for its high-tea culture, one of the many obvious British influences on the town. Silk Road is the city’s preeminent tea shop, with dozens of loose-leaf teas of exceptional quality, sold in bulk, in the city’s historic Chinatown neighborhood. I choose a tea called Seamist, made with a blend of fragrant peppermint and a delicate touch of lemongrass and seaweed.
I brew it later, after I’m home. The peppermint carries the delicate umami of the seaweed through my sinuses, reminding me of my walks by the Victoria waterfront and of the fresh puffs of salty air gliding off the inner harbor.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row]