Foodie foraging foray’ on Vancouver Island: Gourmands pick seaweed and get private cooking lessons

 By Jane Mundy and Kate Zimmerman

 VANCOUVER – “Pack your bags,” says Jane. “Bring a cocktail dress, rubber boots, gardening gloves and a chef’s knife. Oh, and a raincoat, it’s summer and we’re going to Vancouver Island.”

 “Wait a second,” Kate replies. “Boots? Knives? I thought we were going to gourmet resorts, lolling in pools and taking spa treatments.”

 Jane explains that spa treatments might be on the agenda, but what we are really doing is packing for a foodie foraging foray. And some of it we two Vancouver-based gourmands might have to find and cook for ourselves.

 This will be quite a splurge, but not the usual pampering one in a spa.

 “Don’t worry if you have to do a little work,” Jane says. “The accommodations are to die for.”

 Jane does some reconnaissance solo at the new Miraloma hotel in Sidney, B.C., a few minutes from the ferry terminal in SchwartzBay. Miraloma overlooks Tsehum harbour’s no-wake zone. Not even the sound of a yacht engine disturbs the serenity.

 The elegant resort-style inn is a stone’s throw from Dock 503 restaurant, where Chef Simon Manvell prepares spot prawns with sea asparagus followed by silky smooth and locally smoked albacore tuna atop organic spinach leaves. You can count on Manvell to source the freshest possible ingredients. Jane reports she would come here for the perfectly grilled oysters alone.

 With promises of king-sized pillows and 200-thread-count pillowcases dancing in her head, we head for Sooke Harbour House. When we check into our luxurious rooms, Kate discovers hers is the size of a ballroom, complete with a stylized arbutus whose branches stretch above the headboard of her king-sized bed.

 It’s time to pull on the gumboots for our seaweed foray. We borrow a couple of pairs from the “Seaweed Lady.” Diane Bernard hand-cuts live seaweed from rocks in the waters around Whiffen Spit at the southwest tip of the island.

 Bernard’s Outer Coast Seaweeds is seaweed central for area chefs, including Sooke’s Edward Tucson. Seaweed, harvested just off Sooke’s coast, looms large, and Bernard conducts regular seaweed tours for interested parties.

 So while Bernard drapes us in seaweeds that look less like food than like something Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson might wear, she encourages us to eat from the salty buffet. Bernard tells us about the numerous health benefits of the seaweeds. She doesn’t just sell this stuff for food, but turns it into spa products. Kate samples a seaweed wrap in her room later and finds it heavenly.

 Before dinner, armed with glasses of champagne, we tour the garden. It’s a beautiful spot, but more important than that, it’s where many of the ingredients of our marvellous upcoming dinner grew up. From day lilies to begonia stems, the beauties in this plot are employed in sauces and foams and glazes, giving Tucson’s wildly inventive cuisine its distinctive edge. Sooke’s garden is so famous that gardeners offer regular tours and talks.

 The tasting menu spreads over four hours, each course perfectly paired with British Columbia wines. Among the highlights are smoked albacore tuna with lemongrass mousse and ginger scallion sauce with Nootka rose petal oil and beet cracker, and alaria seaweed with crusted crispy squid nestled among goosenecked barnacles scented with grand fir and mint chili glaze and Cobble Hill asparagus.

 Next day we head to Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa, a sleek lodge that nestles into the forested shoreline of MillBay like a shy woodland creature. Brentwood is one of five Canadian entries in the 2005 edition of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

 The main building, where its restaurants and lobby co-exist, are all honeyed wood post-and-beam and soaring floor-to-ceiling windows. The lodge looks like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have doodled. We scarf down delicious calamari in the Marine Pub before teetering down the hill for a foraging cruise.

 The foraging cruise is an afternoon’s glide in a glass-domed boat piloted by Matt Smiley, of Eco Cruising B.C., which takes passengers out among the buoys set out by hunters of prawn and crab.

 Our tour is information-packed, but brief because one of the newer Brentwood Bay Lodge options is having a private cooking show in the Arbutus Grille & Wine Bar by chef Alain Leger, accompanied by wine pairings.

 Dinner in the Arbutus Grille is another consummate West Coast experience: we tuck into an immense seafood platter loaded with crab, spot prawns, clams, oysters, scallop ceviche and salmon three ways, accompanied by a second platter brimming with accoutrements. Down the stairs we go to the villa’s kitchen, where Chef Christophe Letard is waiting to instruct us. Guests at his cooking classes can participate as much or as little as they like; we elect to go minimal by tweezing a few bones out of the arctic char, and then resume our well-warmed spots on the kitchen island’s stools.

 Jane Mundy is a Vancouver food writer and Kate Zimmerman is a North Shore News columnist.