10 things you need to eat (and drink) in the Comox Valley
Bob Kronbauer – Vancouver is Awesome
July 4, 2016
Heading to the Comox Valley to write about the 10th annual BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival was one of the most pleasantly surprising assignments I’ve ever been given. I had a peripheral knowledge that the area was known for its shellfish production (oysters in particular), but I had no idea the food and drink scene was so vibrant as to warrant the area being a tourism destination based around it. People come to the clustered towns of Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland to eat and drink some of the best locally sourced dishes and alcoholic beverages in British Columbia. I’m happy to share the best ones I took in during my stay.
1. Halibut at Locals
Locals Restaurant is run by a husband and wife team who pride themselves in sourcing local, sustainable ingredients for their dishes. Located in a 1938 heritage property called the Old House in Courtenay (adjacent to the Old House Hotel & Spa) the experience of dining there couldn’t be rivalled, which is partly why I put this dish as number 1 on this list. The other reasons are clear in the photo below; fresh Vancouver Island halibut with locally harvested sea asparagus, other local vegetables, and squid ink pasta. I dream of this type of dish.
2. Cumberland Brewing’s E.S.B.
Beer tourism is a real thing, and the growlers I bring back from my road trips around our province are proof of it! The tiny operation at the Cumberland Brewing Company (or the “CBC” as they’re known locally) produce a decent range of beers (my favourite being their E.S.B.), they have an outdoor dining room that opens at noon and they do a weekly cask night where their brewmaster brings experimental magic to the locals and tourists alike. They also support a local fundraising effort called the Cumberland Community Forest which is trying to raise enough money to protect a stand of local forest that’s going to be logged. When you’re done at the CBC walk up the street to the Cumberland Museum to learn all about the history of the area and Vancouver Island’s infamous labour organizer Albert “Ginger” Goodwin.
3. Forbidden Brewing’s Pilsner
Located in a strip mall in Courtenay, what the outside appearance of Forbidden lacks it more than makes up for as you walk in the doors, with artwork from locals adorning the walls and a fine pilsner pouring from their taps. At a time when most craft breweries can’t keep up with the demand for their product not many of them take the time to produce this type of beer; it takes longer to brew than most other varieties and is therefore known to hog up valuable tank space. These folks are doing it right and are definitely worth a visit.
4. Gladstone Brewing’s IPA
Last but not least on the craft beer section of this list (you may have scrolled past this section if you’re not into beer tourism, and that’s okay) is Gladstone. Sharing their space with a pizza kitchen, they deliver a classic IPA that goes down well.
5. Fanny Bay Oysters
Fanny Bay has been operating since the 1980’s and to my knowledge is the biggest name in oysters on the island. I had dinner with the Guinness World Record’s oyster shucking holder Shucker Paddy and he told me that people ask for Fanny Bay oysters by name at his restaurant in Toronto, and that they ship internationally because they’re known for their quality.
You can buy them whole, shucked or smoked from their seafood shop that’s located just up the street from their processing plant. They also just opened up an oyster bar on Cambie near BC Place in Vancouver, bringing a little bit of the Comox Valley goodness to our city.
6. Seafood enchilada at the Blackfin Pub
Snapper, salmon, shrimp and (loads of) cheese are a few ingredients I never would have thought to put together, never mind be raving about. But this dish at the Blackfin Pub is a MUST TRY when you’re in Comox, not because it’s odd but because it is somehow – almost magically – a perfect balance of a mexican dish and local seafood. I paired it here with another fine Vancouver Island pilsner, from Hoyne Brewing, which they have on tap.
7. Smoked tuna sandwich made with all local ingredients
The Comox Valley Farmers Market is a dream come true if you’re looking for all local ingredients for a sandwich (or any meal really). I stopped by the Estevan Tuna Co booth and bought some smoked canned tuna, Eat More Sprouts for their deli sprouts, Natural Pastures for their buffalo milk mozzarella (!) and Willovic Farm Bakery for their last loaf of sourdough.
Take it back to your hotel, do some quick slicing and voilà!
8. Coffee liqueur made from honey
Another discovery I made at the farmers market was the creations from Wayward Spirits, a Courtenay distillery that crafts vodka and other alcoholic treats out of honey. Mead spirits! I picked up their Depth Charge which is a refreshing take on coffee liqueur; containing local espresso, their mead alcohol and cocoa nibs it’s not nearly as sweet as what you may be used to in this type of spirit. Put an ounce in your coffee and, if you feel inclined, sweeten to taste.
9. Geoduck and/or sea cucumber
Both of these (outwardly repulsive!) sea creatures are harvested near the Comox Valley and I can hardly recommend eating them as I didn’t find them on any menus there, but if you’re there during the festival (next summer) they’re sure to be served up at the main event, the Comox by the Sea Celebration. It’s an interactive family-friendly event where some of BC’s top chefs prepare dishes for the public. The setting is at an oceanside park with views of the grounds where a lot of the products are harvested, and while I was there I saw Vancouver’s own Quang Dang and the legendary Tojo preparing dishes for the masses!
On your way out of town pick up some live crabs to bring back to the city. I grabbed 2 of these guys from Fanny Bay Oysters’ shop, at a price you won’t see often in the big city.
11. Don’t forget to look up
This feature was focused on food and drink but I also recommend exploring the natural beauty as well as the industry of the Comox Valley. You’re surrounded by the culture of shellfish, aquaculture and its people, and the oceanfront nature that exists here is as big of a draw as anything. Explore it all!