City Palate

City Palate - The Flavour of Calgary's Food Scene since 1993

THE HARVEST ISSUE - September October Issue 2018

Finding “Eden” on Lasqueti Island

story and photos by Marti Smith

When my husband and I told friends we were travelling with our six-year-old to Lasqueti, a little off-grid island, population 350, 20 km north of Vancouver Island, nobody had heard of it, which is just how many locals like it.

Upon our arrival in July, we notice a weather-worn sign hanging like an artifact from a tree at the end of a driveway. Anywhere else, this sign might seem over-promising, but instead it invites us to uncover the real Lasqueti. We discover a forested refuge in the Salish Sea, where an eclectic – and often eccentric – cast of characters are tucked into the trees in hand-built cabins, and wild sheep ramble the mossy hills and meadows.

It’s not for everyone. To get around you have to travel by bike or hitchhike. Cell service is spotty, there’s no real grocery store and if you want to eat at a fancy restaurant, you’re out of luck. But, as we find out, there’s plenty of great food sprouting in local gardens and washing up in tidal pools, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, which we often seem to be, someone might even serve you a piece of homemade birthday cake with fresh whipped cream and figs plucked from a nearby tree. Intending to explore for only a few days, we packed food in a cooler accordingly, but we’re quickly bewitched to stay longer. So each morning we set out on a food-finding mission. Our limitations are that we can only go as far to find food as we can tr avel by bike with our young son. After settling into our Wi-Fi- and electricity-free cabin, surveying the composting toilet, solar shower and the note about boiling water for five minutes, we find ramshackle bikes by the woodpile, and the three of us set out on a pedaling adventure.

Hilly gravel roads meander past mysterious forests and views are free of power lines. Our gearless bicycles aren’t much better than the old dilapidated trucks that occasionally roll by, their drivers giving us the two-finger wave. These rides give new meaning to working for your supper. After about 5 km, we come to a worthy road stop, a farm stand with an array of green beans, minitomatoes and red chard. For me, nothing says the world is still good like the unattended vegetable stand, where the honour system is alive and well. At the False Bay cookie shack, my son deposits a few coins in a small locked box with instructions guiding us to leave money in exchange for cookies, in this case, a peanut butter chocolate “Bliss Ball” rolled in sesame seeds. I hope the simplicity and sweetness of the moment will long live inside him, not to mention give him energy for the 5 km ride back to Spring Bay.

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and been overwhelmed by such quality abundance that it’s hard to choose an item: bowtie or fusilli, gluten-free or ancient grain? Or which grass-fed sausage is ideal for the night’s meal: blue cheese and fig, or leek and potato? Here on Lasqueti, self-sufficiency inspires our creativity and leads to more encounters with locals than might be typical. We buy cheese and homemade yogurt from a neighbour heading off-island after she drops in for coffee. Through a friend-of-a-friend we buy a warm loaf of bread, which I hold to my breast like it’s a baby. After connecting with the local electrician and his family, we’re invited to pick apples and plums from their orchard and I make pie in a cast-iron pan.

Our neighbour Barb then invites us to a friend’s place, where we learn the generosity of Lasquetians is without end. We bike down a shady laneway to find a house nestled in a garden oasis. Vivian, a cheerful brunette and champion gardener who also makes her own wooden cutting boards, ushers us immediately to her garden and proceeds to happily dig up potatoes, saying, “Dig it up! Take as much as you need!” She hands me a trowel and then liberally loads our arms with yellow beans, beet greens and russet potatoes. As we gather the bounty it feels like one of those resonant Wordsworthian moments where we might hear “the ghostly language of the ancient earth.”

After reading about the women pearl divers of Japan who eat various types of seaweed and dive virtually naked throughout the year, until well past their 70th birthdays, I’m determined to harvest and experiment with seaweed beyond the little packaged snacks from the health food store. I brush up on some seaweed identification guides and ride around the bend to Boot Hill beach, along with my family, also known as my seaweed gathering team. We sniff the salt air, gaze at the ocean, and gather bits of sea lettuce and dulse. I feel pretty cool nibbling a bit of sandy seaweed plucked from a rock covered in barnacles. I eat it like chewing tobacco, imagining I’m a Nordic warrior gnawing dulse on my way to battle. “Gross!” my son exclaims when I offer him a sprig. My husband says simply, “No, thanks.” (Miffed by their lack of true grit, but undeterred, I later slip it into soups, and they are none the wiser.) “Don’t you want to be strong like the Vikings and avoid scurvy?” I ask our son.

“What’s scurvy, Mom?”

But he’s already lost interest and wanders down the beach to search for purple starfish. Back at the cabin, we spread the seaweed on trays, setting them on the back porch to let them dry in the sun and wind. To the satisfying sound of wood being chopped, with father teaching son, I tackle my next culinary prospect: oatmeal dulse croquettes, which end up tasting like divine sea-infused puffs. Through the grapevine we track down a freshly butchered rabbit from a woman who drives around in a truck that runs on home-brewed bio-diesel. My husband rides 5 km to an agreed meeting place, puts the bagged rabbit in his knapsack and pedals another 5 km, arriving home an hour later. I love this idea of creating something from almost nothing: a heel of garlic, a bit of onion, a few fresh carrots, the last teaspoon of smoked salt, along with herbs on hand in the cabin that could be a decade old – bay leaves, dried thyme and marjoram.

When we tell Sam we are having rabbit soup, he is immediately outraged: “I’m not eating rabbit!” He yells, his lip quivering, thinking perhaps of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit borough where Mrs. Rabbit hangs her onions by the fire and serves up blackberries and cream. So we pretend it was a joke and call it simply, “Lasqueti chicken.” He thinks it perfectly delicious, like all my chicken soups, and eats two bowls for dinner and one for breakfast. And what better to eat soup with, but hand-carved wooden spoons, like our paleolithic ancestors, an adventure which leads me to one of my most treasured spots on Lasqueti, the spoon carver’s cabin, though that is for another story.

So, we leave Lasqueti shedding a few tears as the ferry pulls away, but in better shape than when we arrived. My husband reflects on how he often would ride a 10 km round trip just to plug in his phone at the hotel to find the next day that someone has unplugged it before it was fully charged. Our son learned to wash his own clothes in a pot, the same one in which we’d cooked the rabbit. We share memories of warm bread, the life-extending potential of seaweed, and we’ll always have our wooden spoons.

Marti Smith is a freelance writer and folk singer living on Vancouver Island with her family on a houseboat.

Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.