Eating Well: Vancouver Island - #101

BURT WOLF: Vancouver Island, just off the Pacific coast of Canada. A supernatural environment, where the food is just as magnificent as the surroundings. We'll ride the British Columbia ferries and get their famous recipe for clam chowder. Learn the lesson of healthful weight loss from the Bungy Zone, and have tea with the Queen of Victoria. Join me, Burt Wolf, Eating Well, on Vancouver Island.


BURT WOLF: Vancouver Island is divided into two distinct areas by a backbone of mountains that run down the center of the land mass. The west side faces the open Pacific. It's rugged nature at its most spectacular. Deep fjords, high cliffs, a paradise for lovers of the outdoors. The Eastern plain slopes down from the mountains to the sheltered coasts, farmland, fishing, picturesque villages, modern cities and a unique opportunity to see the highly sophisticated culture of the first peoples. Warm air coming up from the South Pacific gives Vancouver Island a mild climate all year round. Victoria, the largest city on the island, is also the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The Parliament buildings are illuminated each night with thousands of tiny lights. The town's turn of the century architecture gives it a charm rarely found in a modern metropolis. Victoria has the oldest Chinatown in Canada... home to Fantan Alley, reputed to be the narrowest street in the country. The entrance to the area is marked by the Gates of Harmonious Interest. I assume that to mean a desire to harmoniously blend in interest and good flavor with an appreciation of good health. 

The history of the area is quite concise. Anthropologists tell us that the first native tribes arrived here about twenty thousand years ago, having travelled over the Bering Sea from Asia. But if you talk to the local native tribes, they tell you that they have been here since the beginning of time. They call themselves the First People. And they say that they were actually the folks that went across the other way and started life in Asia. I guess you pay your money and you take your choice. The first Europeans into the area were the Spanish. They sailed through in the 1500s, took a look at what was going on, and sailed home. The first Europeans to take up residence in the neighborhood were the English. And they arrived in the early 1800s.


The Hudson's Bay Company set up Fort Victoria to further its interests in fur trading, logging, mining and farming. In the eighteen fifties, gold was discovered and thousands of fortune seekers came up from the California gold fields to get a crack at what was happening here.

When the gold ran out, everybody settled down. Logging continued, but the new industry is nature. Everybody on the island works hard to preserve it, and people come from all over the world to take a look at it.


During the 1800s, the James Bay Bridge ran across Victoria's harbor. But in the early years of this century, the wooden structure was replaced with a stone causeway. The land behind it was reclaimed from the sea, and the Empress Hotel constructed on this central site. The elegant ivy-covered exterior is a recognizable landmark and an important part of Canada's architectural heritage. The magnificent glass dome above the Palm Court is in a perfect state of restoration and still sheds its light on the potted palms. The Bengal Room is a reminder of the days when India was part of the British Empire. Ceiling fans, bentwood furniture, tiger skins, and every day at lunch, a buffet with a dish of curry. Today it's a classic chicken curry prepared by Chef David Hammonds.

The word curry comes from an old southern Indian word that means sauce ... and that's what a curry was originally meant to be. It was a fairly liquid blend of spices with a few onions cooked into a light broth or stew and poured over a mild ingredient like rice. Curry was used as a flavoring agent, the way a Japanese or Chinese chef might use soy sauce, or an American putting ketchup on potatoes. The fiery hot curries that you sometimes find today were only developed during the 1600's when European explorers first brought hot chilies to the Caribbean from Europe and then eventually to India. If you've cooked a dish of curry and you find that the heat from the spices is too hot, an easy way to cool down that heat is to add a little yogurt. Just take the finished dish off the heat and mix in the yogurt. The yogurt should be at room temperature and low fat, or non-fat of course, taste as you go along, until you get the intensity of heat that you like. And if you get a mouthful of curry that's too hot for you from the spices, don't try to cool your mouth down by drinking water; the water will only spread out the heat. What you want to do is get a piece of bread, chew the bread and spread the bread around your mouth. Bread will absorb the heat.

Chef Hammonds starts his curry by taking a four to five pound chicken and cutting it into parts. The legs, thighs, breasts and other meaty parts go into making the curry. The other pieces are saved to make chicken soup. "A penny saved is a penny earned." And most professional cooks try to use everything they can. A little clarified butter or vegetable oil goes into a saute pan, some chopped garlic, some chopped fresh ginger and the chicken parts. You can cook the chicken with the skin on and remove the skin later to avoid the extra fat and cholesterol, or you can take the skin off before you start cooking. It doesn't really make very much difference, as long as you don't eat the skin. Next, a few tablespoons of curry powder, a bay leaf, a tablespoon or so of cumin, coriander and turmeric. A half cup of chopped onion, some chopped celery, some chopped carrot, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and a chopped tomato. Some chopped fruit, lemon juice, a cup of chicken stock. A little fresh pepper and into a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for twenty minutes. When it’s finished cooking, a cup of rice is put onto a serving plate made into a circle, a few pieces of chicken go on to the center, and the sauce on top. 

The Empress Hotel is also famous for its afternoon tea service. Dutch traders working out of the Chinese city of Canton were the first people to send tea back to Europe. They sent it to Holland where it became very fashionable in the 1600's. The Cantonese word for tea was char, and there were women in England who earned a living by making tea and they were known as charladies. When the English shifted their business from the city of Canton to Amoy, they began to use the Amoy dialect. And the word for char in Amoy was tea, and that's how the word tea got into the English language.

As Britain's industrial middle class got richer and richer, they began to invent new social forms to display their sudden wealth. They developed "The Club", and made lunch a big and important meal for businessmen. That resulted in dinner time being pushed back to a later point in the day, usually between 8:00 and 9:00 PM. And that became a real problem for Lady Anne, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. She just couldn't wait that long for dinner. And so she began to have a little tea in the afternoon and then a little sandwich to go along with that tea, and a little cookie and a little cake and a scone and a tart and some butter and jam and Devonshire cream. The Duchess could really down it. At first she would have these little snacks in the privacy of her boudoir, but then her friends came to join her and afternoon tea got started. I guess the greatest honor you could have in connection with tea, would be to have it with the Queen. Your Majesty, do you still have afternoon tea?

QUEEN: Afternoon tea, well actually we have morning tea, afternoon tea, evening tea, bedtime tea, high tea and fortunately we have forty-seven washrooms too. (LAUGHS)

BURT WOLF: (LAUGHS) Do you have a favorite food that you have with your tea?

QUEEN: Well my goodness gracious, I do actually. We don't have it on the table today but fortunately I have some in my hand ... sausages, do you have sausages with tea sometimes in America?

BURT WOLF: No I haven't actually. I'm on a low fat diet.

QUEEN: Well these are low fat, low cholesterol actually, made with crushed crumpets.


QUEEN: Oh yes, in fact what we call them are Heritage sausages, and they've been in the family for generations, you see. The only problem is they get fuzz balls. So one has to carry one's fuzz ball remover along with them.

BURT WOLF: Do you use a tea cozy when you make tea?

QUEEN: A tea cozy is absolutely essential. Did you not notice the tea cozy here?


QUEEN: This is not actually the coronation crown. (LAUGHS) Looks like it though doesn't it? No, that's the tea, and there's the tea cozy...


QUEEN: ... on top of it. And of course, then you can always use it as a hat, if it's chilly.

BURT WOLF: Have you ever tasted any of the fast food in your country?

QUEEN: Royalty doesn't rush, Burt. Possibly some time in the future we will, at this point, we are interested in it though, I understand there a lot of preservatives and anything to keep one going, I say ...

BURT WOLF: If you don't mind, Your Majesty, I'd like to ask a few questions about the family.

QUEEN: Of course.

BURT WOLF: How are things doing with Prince Charles and Princess Diana?

QUEEN: Well they are going their separate ways. He lives in the country, she lives in the city, mind you they ... they occasionally have a candlelit dinner, caviar that sort of thing, and champagne, he has it on Tuesdays, she has it on Thursdays. Did you know by the way that Diana's having an affair?


QUEEN: Oh yes, and everyone's invited, so please come.

BURT WOLF: (LAUGHS) And I hope that invitation extends to tea and snacks. One of the most popular snacks at afternoon tea is the traditional British summer pudding. It was a called a summer pudding because it was originally made with fruits that were only available in the summer. The word pudding probably comes from an old French word boudin, which means sausage, and in the beginning puddings were made from primarily the same ingredients as sausage is, meat and grain. At some point however, they evolved into the sweet fluffy things that are rice pudding and bread pudding. And the English farmers took everything one step further when they developed the summer pudding. They're made from bread and fruits; they're really light, easy to make and they have a great presentation. Today we're going to make a summer pudding with strawberries. Strawberries were so common in North America that when the first European colonists arrived here, they said you couldn't put your foot down without stepping on one. When you're picking out your strawberries, either in the field or the supermarket, look for ones that have a uniform red color, and leave the green stem caps attached until just before you're going to use them. Then wash them, trim off the stems and put them right to use. They're very delicate and you should be eating them the day you buy them.

Empress Hotel pastry chef Stefan Kraft starts his summer pudding by putting a cup of strawberries into a sauce pan. Plus two cups of raspberries and a cup of blueberries. A simple syrup was made by heating three cups of water and one cup of sugar until the sugar dissolves. That syrup is poured into the fruit and heated to a simmer. Then the fruit is strained from the liquid. Six leaves of gelatin are added to the warm liquid and twenty slices of bread are trimmed of their crust and sliced in half. A bowl is lined with plastic wrap, the slices of bread are dipped into the liquid from the fruit and fanned into the bowl as a lining. The fruit goes in, a top of bread, the plastic wrap is folded over, and the bowl goes into the refrigerator for eight hours. After that chilling experience, the pudding is unmolded onto a tray. Glazed with a little melted strawberry jam. The silver tray is garnished with a vanilla sauce, strawberry pureé, whipped cream and slices of strawberries.

The Canadian province of British Columbia contains some of the most awesome geography on Earth, covering over three and fifty thousand square miles, dozens of major mountain ranges and seventeen thousand miles of shoreline... including the majestic water-filled trenches that create the inside passage from Washington State to Alaska. Like any island group, transportation between the land masses is critical for development. The native tribes solved the problem with the construction of extraordinary canoes that were used to travel over large bodies of water all along the Northwest coast. When European settlers arrived here, they soon began the development of the ferry system. By the early 1900's, the decks had been cleared to accommodate wagon traffic. Ferries soon came in all shapes and sizes and covered every foot of navigable coastline. Today the British Columbia ferries represent a fleet that is bigger than most navies. 

Many of the stories from the Northwest contain three basic elements -- European, native tribal and Chinese. And the story of the B.C. Ferries is no exception. When you take a look at what's going on in the kitchens of these ferries, you're looking at a Chinese story. At some point in the beginning of this business, somebody decided that the cooks in the kitchen should be Chinese. It was felt that they had the training and experience to handle the enormous pressure that they would be facing at sea. Hundreds and hundreds of people getting on and off the ship every couple of hours, all interested in good food. At one point, people felt that these hiring practices were discriminatory, and they complained to the government. So the Canadian Manpower Commission took a look at what was going on and they decided no, anybody could work in the kitchen, as long as they spoke Cantonese. It was like asking a secretary to type a certain number of words per minute. No discrimination at all. One of the results of this is that two menus developed. One for the general public that was basically European, and another one in the back for the Cantonese cooks.

And each menu had its signature dish. Up front the most beloved was the B.C. Ferry Clam Chowder. During the 1600's when French fishermen came ashore on the Northeast coast of Canada, they followed a time honored tradition of taking a portion of their catch, throwing it into a big cauldron and cooking up a communal stew. Those stews were called chowders. And the seafaring men loved clam chowder the best. They took that preference with them as they moved across Canada. Clams are actually an excellent source of dietary fiber, iron and low fat protein. 

Chef Raymond Taylor of the Empress Hotel has adapted the traditional B.C. Ferries clam chowder recipe for easy home cooking.

A little butter is melted in a big saucepan, and in goes a half cup of cubed bacon, a chopped onion, a tablespoon of fresh thyme. A couple of stalks of chopped celery, a couple of chopped carrots, a chopped green pepper, quarter of cup of flour is mixed in, that acts as a thickening agent. Two tablespoons of tomato paste, a cup of hot clam broth, stir, another cup of hot clam broth, more stirring; that thickens everything up. Then four more cups of broth, two cubed potatoes, two cups of canned clams that have been chopped, and a cut up tomato. That simmers for fifteen minutes and it's ready to serve. The kitchen staff still have many Chinese chefs and though there is no longer a great deal of behind the scenes Chinese cooking going on, the dishes are remembered and recreated at home. Today Chef So So Wong demonstrates her stir-frying technique with an old B.C. Ferries favorite, shrimp, scallops and snow peas. A little vegetable oil goes into a wok, a little garlic, shrimp, scallops, snow peas, carrots, onions, baby corn, some sesame oil and some oyster sauce. Noodles are cooked in simmering chicken stock, drained and put onto a serving plate. The stir-fried shrimp and scallops go on top. A garnish of sliced scallions and a carrot cut to look like flowers. The Chef's name may So So, but there's nothing so-so about her cooking. And there's nothing so-so about what's going on at Murchies.

They've been called picky, obsessive, and over fastidious, but they're not bitter; they don't mind the daily grind and they're famous for pouring out their hearts. They are the Murchies, and for over a hundred years their family has been importing, blending and brewing coffee and tea in British Columbia. The Murchie's shop in Victoria has become a landmark and a hotbed of gastronomic activity. They offer over fifty different varieties of tea and the coffee bar will brew up just about anything you can think of. People pop in for cakes, pastries, tarts, turnovers and homemade candies. Especially their vintage chocolate cherries. Each year the pastry chef picks out the best cherries of the harvest, and puts them into a jar to marinate. After a few years they are removed and coated with chocolate. The number of years of marination determines the selling price. I bought a 1986 cherry for $1.50, and they loved it. The prince of pastry behind all this creativity is Daniel Vokey. Born in Quebec and trained in France, he is building a national reputation for his skill. He recently won a major competition for an unusual, but very simple cake combining a traditional Scottish shortbread with a delicious pureé of prunes. One of the largest immigrant populations to arrive in Canada were the Scottish and their traditional approach to cooking has had quite an influence on the Canadian kitchen. A perfect example is their shortbread. Scottish shortbread is a cross somewhere between a cake and a cookie. The word short in this context -- short bread, shortening bread, shortcake -- is used to describe a process of cutting butter or lard into flour in order to end up with a crust that is more flaky and brittle rather than soft and smooth. Daniel takes a heat proof jar filled with three cups of pitted prunes, adds the zest of two oranges, and a cup of water. The jar goes into a pot of water and is simmered for forty minutes. You can also handle that process by putting the prunes into a plastic container and heating them in a microwave. The prunes are then pureéd in a food processor. A disc of shortbread goes into a ring mold and a layer of the prune mixture gets spread out on top. Four layers of shortbread are alternated with the prune mixture, ending up with a layer of shortbread on the top. That gets set to rest for three or four days. Next, pitted prunes are sliced almost in half and laid out in a disc shape on a sheet of plastic wrap. The second sheet of plastic goes on top and the prunes are pounded flat. The shortbread tart goes on the prunes, the edges are trimmed, it's flipped, garnished and ready to serve.

Daniel is a great pastry chef, but he is also famous for his chocolate molding technique. He can reproduce almost anything in chocolate, and the process is quite simple. He cooks a rubber like molding material by making a mixture of corn syrup, sugar and water. And brings it to a boil. Then granulated gelatin is added; what you end up with is Super Jello. A one- inch layer of the jello is poured into a pie pan and allowed to harden; that takes about ten minutes in the freezer. Then the form you want to reproduce goes in. Today it's a banana. Super Jello goes in to cover the form, and that's allowed to harden. Then a cut is made into the jello and the banana is carefully removed. White chocolate that has had yellow food covering added to it is piped into the space where the banana once was. Ten minutes later the chocolate is set. The banana is removed, trimmed, touched up and added to a basket of fruits, all of which have been made of chocolate using this method. Amazing.

For anyone who enjoys fishing, Vancouver Island is the promised land. Trout and steelhead in the fresh water; tuna, cod, crabs, clams, oysters and shrimp in the sea. And everywhere, salmon returning to their spawning grounds. The result of all this seafood is a seasoned and knowledgeable bunch of guides who can conduct you directly to the catch. 

Dan Simmons owns Black Gold Charters and runs a thirty two foot boat out of Header Bay Marina, which is in a small inlet near Victoria. Dan calls his service Black Gold because he saved the money to buy the boat when he was working in the oil fields back in Alberta. He loves fishing and he loves Vancouver Island. He told me that his wife was only off the island once, and she doesn't want to do it again. She says that it just doesn't make sense to leave paradise. As we headed out to open water, we passed some exceptionally beautiful scenery. A young deer was feeding along the bank and totally ignored the boat as we maneuvered near the shore to get a closer look. I explained to Dan that my real reason for going out was to pay a visit to the sea lions that have taken up a permanent residence next to Race Rocks Lighthouse. The lighthouse sits in the Strait of Juan De Fuca between the southern tip of Vancouver Island and Washington State; that's the shore of the United States in the distance. It's almost impossible for Dan to be out here and not put down a line. The depth sounder indicated that a school of fish was passing below and that was just irresistible. As we came close to the rocks, the sea lions in front took to the water. And as we turned the corner we got very close to one of the bulls.

BURT ON BOAT: How you doing?

Obviously not the appropriate greeting. And in retaliation for our intrusion, he ate the fish that was meant for me! what a spoilsport! I was forced to return to the dock, empty-hooked, reduced to describing the size of fish that I had cooked. Good ol’ Dan, he took pity on me and allowed me to take on the salmon that he had caught earlier in the day.

It got started as a ritual for young men in the Vanuatu tribes of the South Pacific... a little something for them to do as they passed into manhood. It became a sport in the early 80's when members of The Extremely Dangerous Sports Club jumped off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. It's called bungy jumping. And you can buy yourself a jump or a viewing spot here in the BungyZone above the Nanymo River on Vancouver Island. They have the first and the only bridge constructed solely for bungy jumping. It opened for business in August of 1990, and some twenty thousand thrill seekers have already taken the leap of a lifetime. High-tech rubber bands are attached to your feet to absorb the impact of the drop. A video camera is strapped to your chest to record the event from your own unique point of view. If you have a friend who would like to share the experience with you, you can jump as a twosome. The instructor gives you a few last minute pointers and you're off. You feel the joy of weightlessness. You're lighter than Tommy Lasorda. You experience the sensation that Oprah and many more of us have only dreamed of. 


And there's a great lesson to be learned about weight loss from the Bungy Zone -- what goes down quickly soon comes back up. And that's called the rebound effect. Fine for bungy, but really unhealthy for weight loss. You want to limit your objective to one or two pounds a week. That's healthy; anything more than that can be a problem. Leave that quick drop for the Bungy Zone.

So what have we learned on this sublime island about good food and good health?

If hot spices are burning the inside of your mouth, use a piece of bread to absorb the heat. Chew the bread and spread it over the inside of your mouth. When you're preparing a chicken, you can cook it with the skin on or off, but try not to eat the skin, it's a major source of saturated fat. Clams: they’re an excellent source of dietary fiber, iron and low fat protein. Just make sure they're cooked before you eat them. When it comes to weight loss, what goes down quickly, usually comes right back up. Weight loss programs should be limited to about one pound per week.

That's Eating Well on Vancouver Island, please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well. I'm Burt Wolf.