Perhaps no other place in the world has fresher seafood than Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI). And nowhere are products from the sea better celebrated than at PEI’s annual International Shellfish Festival. It’s a place where chefs, farmers, fishermen, and seafood lovers of every stripe gather to eat, cook, compete, and learn about the bounty that comes from the waters around this watery paradise.
I came to the Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival to help judge the PEI Potato and Seafood Chowder Competition. Local and not-so-local professional chefs put their best spin on this classic dish using potatoes grown on the island and seafood taken from its waters.
Feasting and Frolicking
For the past several years, local celebrity chef and cookbook author Michael Smith of Canada Food Network fame has hosted the event. He’s funny and engaging, and really knows how to get the crowd involved. At the opening gala dinner event, “Feast and Frolic,” which draws more than 500 seafood aficionados and was completely sold out, Chef Michael had the appreciative crowd shucking oysters, making their own salad dressing, whipping up cocktails, and writing and singing verses to a catchy tune.
The event started with oyster tasting and judging by the audience to select The People’s Favorite oyster in the Oyster Grower of the Year competition. A dozen or so oyster growers from around the island shucked their oysters, which the enthusiastic crowd eagerly sucked up. It was surprising how different oysters from locations around the island tasted. Some were meatier; others were saltier; still others were sweet. The salinity of the waters around PEI can be quite high, which makes the oysters saltier than those found in the Pacific Northwest. I found a number of the PEI oysters simply too salty for my taste. Others had my taste buds singing halleluiah.
One of my favorites came from grower David Lewis who farms the bivalves around Salutation Bay. His oysters were medium sized, meaty, and oh-so-sweet. “Our location doesn’t get a lot of fresh water,” David told me. “Our oysters are constantly bathed in fresh seawater, which makes them sweeter.”
Alas, my favorite oysters didn’t win Oyster Grower of the Year honors, but he won my vote.
The sit down dinner began under the big tent with lobster chowder made with celery root broth, foraged sea asparagus, and PEI potatoes (the other important Island crop). The chowder featured a big piece of lobster that was perfectly cooked. The sea asparagus were nicely crunchy and briny and the potatoes were slightly sweet.
Next came a make-it-yourself salad with elected “cooks” from each table making up vinaigrette that included local olive oil from Liquid Gold, an olive oil producer in Nova Scotia. Our cook included lemon infused olive oil, honey, white balsamic, and herbs and it was delicious. Wait staff brought around big bowls of greens and veggies and we added clippings from the live greens that grew in the center of our table.
The entrée was named Blue Surf and Red Turf, a cabernet peppercorn PEI braised beef short rib, snow crab cluster, potato crab cake, accompanied by veggies and a dollop of tarragon butter along. A big buckets of Island blue mussels came along the side.
The mussels, which came first, were a huge hit, sweet and slightly briny, and our table made short work of them. Elected “bartenders” at each table made Caesars, the classic Canadian Bloody Mary, using Mott’s Clamato and local vodka. (Mott’s was one the Festival’s many corporate sponsors.)
The snow crab was easy to crack and moist and sweet and went down easy. The short rib was fork tender (I know because the waiter inadvertently took my knife) and infused with deep, beefy flavor. The potato crab cake had too much potato and it overwhelmed the crab. And the veggies, well, who eats veggies when there are mussels, crab, and short ribs to be had?
Dessert was a mixed berry sugar crusted nutmeg short cake made with local berries, including cherries, raspberries, currants, and strawberries (frozen from the Island’s summer crop). It came with a huge scoop of locally-produced Cows vanilla ice cream and was thoroughly satisfying.
Throughout the dinner, Chef Michael kept things lively and entertaining. The evening ended with “Rock Stars” elected from each table, getting up and singing a verse to a silly song tablemates had written. It was fun, though with 66 tables, this karaoke-style event went on a bit too long. All in all, folks left feeling satiated and entertained.
Seafood, Competitions and More
The next two days of the Shellfish Festival were filled with food, competitions, live music, book signings, and demonstrations. Friday saw buckets of rain, the remnants of a tropical storm off the Bahamas, and rivulets of water flowed through the blacktop floors of the tents, but it didn’t slow the crowds.
Backstage, I joined Chef Gordon Bailey from Lot 30, a popular restaurant in Charlottetown, a chef-instructor from the Canadian Culinary Institute on the Island, and a corporate Executive Chef from President’s Choice, a large food and grocery store brand in Canada, for the first round of chowder judging. Staff brought us nine large, numbered soup dishes filled with chowders made by local chefs with PEI potatoes and seafood. We rated each entry on flavor, texture, appearance, and overall appeal.
It was amazing how creative these chefs were in creating their chowder dishes. Some used mussels and clams in the shell, whole scallops, big pieces of lobster, with each piece of seafood distinctive. Others made more of a mash-up of seafood. Some chowders were thin; others were thick. Chefs decorated their entries with edible flowers, puff pastry, foraged sea vegetables, fresh roe, and more. It was a veritable explosion of chowder creativity.
After we tasted and slurped and sipped and savored, we tallied the results and turned them over to the competition master. The next day, we repeated the judging in heat number two with the addition of Alain Bossé, the Kilted Chef from Nova Scotia, added to our judging panel.
Out in the main tent, the fun continued with Chef Michael leading the crowd through a hilarious skit on “How to Produce a Cooking Show.” Michael put a willing audience member through her paces as the host of a new cooking show featuring PEI mussels. With bullhorn in hand, Michael stopped the poor “host” dozens of times to correct or redirect her efforts with the audience laughing heartily.
I regretfully had to leave all this frivolity to catch a flight home, but the festivities continued late into the night on Saturday and into Sunday with more music, food, awards, and fun. If you’re a shellfish lover, the PEI International Shellfish Festival is an event you definitely want to put on your September calendar for next year. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Check out our review of one of PEI’s best restaurants, Lot 30.
And want a taste of PEI’s amazing potato products? Take a look at some unusual PEI potato chip products.