September 2009

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Spudj at the farmers’ market

It’s cold and rainy and way too early in the morning. Which is why the first thing I do at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market is follow the smell of freshly roasted coffee coming from the Caledonia House booth, the only real coffee roaster on the island. Everyone seems to have the same idea; the line is 12-deep. I am so jonesing for something muddy and dark and hot that I consider offering to buy the latte of someone ahead of me in line if they’ll get me one too. But that would just be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

Once I get my coffee (ah, Jesus, the first sip is both lovely and calming), I’m able to relax a bit as I stroll down the busy lanes of the indoor market. The smells are luscious but confusing. There are pasty looking pierogis, cooked in an ancient electric skillet, at Grandma Jaworski’s, as well as spinach and chick pea chowder at Eat Well Foods. Home-fried potatoes are sizzling in a skillet alongside a Dutch oven of corned beef hash. A young girl in a tie-dye shirt is handing out samples of banana bread while two little girls, no more than four or five, sit in the middle of the aisle sharing a plate of rice and stir-fried vegetables.

Paul Offer at his farmers' market booth in Charlottetown. Photos by David Lansing.

Paul Offer at his farmers' market booth in Charlottetown. Photos by David Lansing.

The busiest guy at the market must be Paul Offer of The Doctor’s Inn. Dancing around in a tartan kilt, he hustles to weigh a bag of giant peaches for one patron while grabbing a jar of home-canned bread & butter pickles for another. On an L-shaped table are jars of peach conserve, pickled beets, rhubarb marmalade, black currant jam, and cranberry sauce with Cointreau, all for about $5 each.

A couple of booths over is a middle-aged woman with rosy cheeks holding a bushel basket of what looks like baked potatoes. The small spuds, wrapped in gold foil, are dressed with sour cream, chives, and a big pat of butter.

Does this look like candy to you?

Does this look like candy to you?

Except these aren’t really spuds—they’re spudj, a type of fudge made from potatoes by Mary Capper.

“It’s potatoes, chocolate, and sugar,” Mary says, offering me a taste. “I use Russets because they have the best starchy quality.”

So how does it taste? Pretty much like fudge, I guess, something I’ve never been overly fond of (I don’t like the way the intense sugar makes you want to grind your teeth from the sweetness).

I ask Mary if she’d developed the recipe herself and she says, “No, it’s been around forever. It’s just that no one else is doing it.”

What I want to tell her–but don’t–is that there’s probably a good reason for that. Don’t you think?

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Ten pints of Guinness

You don’t want to go toe-to-toe drinking Guinness with Liam Dolan. After all, in addition to owning the Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown, he’s also the proud proprietor of the Olde Dublin Pub where, last night, he stood me to a pint or two…or three.

A customer samples oysters under the gaze of Liam Dolan, owner of the Olde Dublin Pub. Photo by Heather Taweel.

A customer samples oysters under the gaze of Liam Dolan, owner of the Olde Dublin Pub. Photo by Heather Taweel.

The only thing the Irish—even Canadian Irish—like as much as their Guinness is a good story. So when I commented on how well the Irish seemed to hold their booze, he told me this tale:

One day Liam was tending bar at the Olde Dublin Pub when a Texan walked into the pub and said, “I hear you Irish are a bunch of hard drinkers. I’ll give $500 American dollars to anybody in here who can drink ten pints of Guinness back-to-back.”

“Well,” said Liam, “I would have taken him up on the bet but I was workin’. But nobody else showed any interest. In fact, Paddy, who I thought for sure would take up the bet, actually left. Very disappointing.

“But fifteen minutes later, Paddy was back. He tapped the Texan on the shoulder and asked him if the bet still stood.”

The Texan said yes and asked me to line up ten pints of Guinness, which I did. Immediately ol’ Paddy tore into all ten pint glasses drinking them all back-to-back. Everyone in the pub cheered as the Texan sat there absolutely stunned. He pulled out five one-hundred dollar bills and says, “If ya don’t mind me askin’, where did you go for that fifteen minutes you were gone?”

Paddy pockets the bills and says, “Oh…I had to go to the pub down the street to see if I could do it first.”

By the way, I got a couple of comments yesterday regarding my inquiry into who came first to PEI—the Irish or the potato.

Said Fred, “I suspect that the hardy potato went with the French or British to PEI, where almost immediately the Irish followed and made an industry of it.”

I think Fred is right. According to the Prince Edward Island Book of Everything, “No one can put an exact date on when the potato was first introduced but it was sometime after the French were deported from the colony in 1758 and before 1771, the year that the governor of the colony reported the crop to be a ‘phenomenal success.’”

A book by Brendan O’Grady on immigration to PEI says that the first Irish settlements came over in 1763—after the potato was well established on the island—and that “it’s a myth that the Islander’s Irish settlers were largely refugees from the Great Potato Famine.”

In fact, says O’Grady, by 1850, the Irish comprised about a quarter of the Island’s population. “And almost all of them had come pre-famine.”

So now we know: First the spud, then the Irish. Followed shortly thereafter by the Guinness, no doubt.

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The oysters and mussels from Prince Edward Island, along with prodigious amounts of herring and mackerel and snow crab and some two dozen other species of fish and shellfood, are shipped all over the world, but the island’s soft-shell cleams, or longnecks as they’re also called, don’t travel real well. Mostly because they’re so fragile (which explains why they’re called soft-shells).

So the only thing to do is dig them for yourself, which is what I figured I’d do yesterday. I borrowed a shovel and pail from Liam Dolan, a most expert mudder (a mudder being anyone who digs in the coastal mud for shellfish). Now all I needed to do was figure out where in the heck to go clamming.

Now if you ask Liam, who in addition to being an excellent mudder is the proprietor of the Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown, where the very best beach is to dig soft-shell clams, he won’t tell you because, after all, that’s where he goes.

But if you compliment him on his seafood chowder which, in the past, has taken first place in the PEI Shellfish Festival chowder competition, which I am here to judge, and then slyly ask him where the second-best beach is, he might suggest that, if you’re serious about it, “You go give the south shore a try.”

Which sounds helpful until you realize that the south shore runs for a good hundred miles. Then he’ll give you an Irish-tinged laugh (which came first to PEI, the Irish or the potato? It’s hard to say), offer to buy you a Guinness and a bowl of soft-shells at the Claddagh Oyster House. Which is exactly what I did yesterday afternoon after spending a very cold, wet morning walking up one windy stretch of beach after another without finding a single clam.

Oyster shucker at Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown, PEI.

Oyster shucker at Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown, PEI.

Andrew Chase, the Toronto chef, joined me at Claddagh and after enjoying our first fragrant bowl of soft-shells, we ordered a second. And then a third. At which point our waitress sadly informed us that we’d cleaned them out. “You boys ate everything we had.”

No worries. There were still plenty of PEI mussels to be had. And after that, there was always the 100-count box of Raspberry Point oysters sitting on ice in the bathtub of Andrew’s hotel room.

The perfect Sunday dinner.

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After I posted yesterday’s blog about Tauck’s list of the top 10 ice cream shops in the world (in which I quickly dismissed the Alaska entry), I got an e-mail from a good friend and fabulous writer, Ed Readicker-Henderson, who also happens to be an Alaskaphile (for some odd reason he adores sleet and ice). He abraded my notion that the Frozen North couldn’t possibly make great ice cream, adding, for my edification, that “Alaska has the highest per-capita consumption of ice cream of any state in the country.”

Okay. That’s fine. Except I don’t believe him. It just doesn’t sound logical unless he’s including Inuits eating frozen snow in his statistics of ice cream consumption. Saying Alaskans eat more ice cream than anyone else is like saying Mormons drink more tequila than anyone on the planet. Who’s going to believe that? So let’s move on.

We were discussing whether COWS, based on Prince Edward Island, actually makes the best ice cream in the world as determined by 250 luxury tourism directors. And I say, no, based on my having tasted the ice cream at 7 of the 10 spots on their list. So here’s the “Lansing’s Top Three Ice Cream Spots in the World” (remember I’m playing by Tauck’s rules and going from their top 10 list, even though I disagree with it).

Be careful what you step in at COWS ice cream on PEI.

Be careful what you step in at COWS ice cream on PEI.

Number Three: As I said, COWS is pretty damn fine. They get points for using super premium ingredients, like local cream with a very high butterfat content (about 16%) from PEI farmers, pure natural vanilla, and fresh PEI berries. It’s a very, very dense ice cream and not everybody likes that, but it results in a product that slowly melts in your mouth—like a good piece of chocolate.

Downside: I’m not crazy about their Disney-inspired flavors, like Cowrispy Crunch or Wowie Cowie. They make it sound like ice cream for pre-schoolers. I just have a hard time going up to the counter and ordering a big sloppy scoop of Gooey Mooey. I worry it’s going to come with a wipey.

Waiting for a $6 cup of ice cream at Berthillon in Paris. Photo by David Lansing.

Waiting for a $6 cup of ice cream at Berthillon in Paris. Photo by David Lansing.

Number Two: Is it the setting—the oh-so-charming Ile Saint Louis in the middle of Paris—or the ice cream at Glacier Berthillon? Perhaps a little of both. You stand in line for 20 or 30 minutes waiting to pay over $6 for two small scoops of ice cream and think to yourself, “This is crazy. It can’t possibly be worth it.” And then you finally get to the head of the line and order the pale green pistachio and—after just one taste—realize they’ve ruined it for life. You’ll never be able to eat that glowing-green commercial crap everyone else makes ever again. Because this is the way pistachio ice cream is supposed to taste—dense and nutty and redolent of the most sublime taste of real pistachios. In other words, nothing at all like the faux-pistachio flavoring most ice cream makers use.

Downside: They close in August! Only the contrarian French would close an ice cream shop in August.

Number One: There are so many gelateria in Florence that the city itself should probably get this award. Some of my favorites include Bar Vivoli, near Santa Croce, which can be a little touristy but still makes a fabulous olive-green homemade pistachio gelato, and Gelatamo, famous for their pistacchio di bronte. I find pistachio to be the perfect ice crean flavor because only the best shops use real pistachios, which are quite expensive, instead of artificial flavoring. And the best pistachios of all are Bronte pistachios from Sicily (which is why Gelatamo’s pistacchio di bronte is such a rare treat).

But unfortunately Vivoli and Gelatamo are not on Tauck’s top 10 list, nor is Gelateria de’ Neri, another favorite from Florence. Which leaves us with Perchè no!, which is on their list. And it’s a marvelous gelateria. Everything here is produzione propria, which means “house made,” and they use only the finest ingredients: Bronte pistachios, ricotta cheese, local chestnut honey. When you order a seasonal fruit flavor, like pera, it is made from local pears and so tastes of pears instead of pear flavoring. For a real treat try a semifreddi (meaning “half cold”), like mousse di cioccolato, which has the texture of an exquisitely made frozen mousse. Unbelievable.

Downside: A purist might say that gelato is closer to ice milk than ice cream since, according to the FDA, a frozen product made with less than 10% butterfat can’t be called ice cream—and gelato is never made with that much butterfat (the Italians think too much fat makes it difficult to taste the fresh ingredients like pistachios and pears, and they’re probably right).

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My idea of the perfect dessert is two fingers of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva, a colossal, smoky, sweet single-malt that, ridiculously, is banned from the U.S. because it is aged in old Cuban rum casks (how this helps bring the Castro boys to their knees is beyond me). To me, shoveling up crème brûlée or digging into a big wedge of chocolate truffle cake after a good meal is just overkill. Like watching a porno movie after you’ve had great sex.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like sweets, like chocolate or ice cream, I do. Just not as a dessert. To me, the best time to lap up a little luscious glace is in the middle of the afternoon when your blood sugar is low and you feel like you need a nap. Sort of like the way I felt yesterday while walking around Cavendish, a rather frumpy little town on the northern shore of Prince Edward Island that is known for three things: a godawful amusement park (aren’t they all?); the setting for those horrendous Anne of Green Gables books; and the birthplace of COWS ice cream.

Feeling rather cranky from dodging the busloads of twenty-something Japanese women searching desperately for the cheesy Avonlea Village (“Travel back in time 100 years as the characters from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables leap out of the pages and take you on an adventure that will be the highlight of your vacation”–who writes this crap?), I was contemplating throwing myself into the frigid Atlantic when I stumbled upon a black and white cow with pink nose and udder along the boardwalk.

Not a real cow, of course, but a fiberglass cow (to go along with the fiberglass potato I spotted at the potato museum the day before). The faux bovine was standing in front of a little ice cream shop appropriately named COWS. Even though it was only in the mid-60s and everyone had a jacket on, there was a line going out the door. I got a scoop of Moo York Cheesecake in a freshly-made waffle cone and no longer thought about how much fun it would be to collect every single copy of Anne of Green Gables on the island and burn them in a bonfire. This was damn good ice cream. Good enough that even though I was sated, I begged the young girl wearing a Hannah MOOntana t-shirt behind the counter to give me a taste of both the Wowie Cowie and Moo Crunch flavors. And they were…yummy!

“This is damn fine stuff,” I said.

Without looking up she said, “Best in the world.”

Excuse me?

“They say it’s the best in the world,” she said.

Who says?

She shrugged and pointed to a sign on the wall that said “COWS SELECTED AS BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WORLD.”

Evidently this PEI treat had been known as “Canada’s Best Ice Cream” (according to Reader’s Digest, of all people) until last summer when Tauck World Discovery, in celebration of National Ice Cream Month, ranked it number one on their “World’s Top Ten Places for Ice Cream.”

Now, this begs two questions: First of all, who or what is Tauck World Discovery? Secondly, is it really the best? In the whole world?

The answer to the first question is simple enough. Tauck is a luxury travel business, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, that puts together things like cruises down the Danube and cultural tours of Rome (including private visits to the Vatican). And supposedly they determined that COWS makes the best ice cream in the world by compiling a list “based on input from its global network of nearly 250 Tauck Directors….”

After compiling the ice cream preferences of these 250 ice cream gadflies, they came up with “The World’s Top 10 Places for Ice Cream” and evidently COWS topped the list.

Now I have seen the Tauck’s list. And I have been to all but three of their picks (missing out on Freddo’s in Buenos Aires, just down the street from where Eva Paron is buried; Las Iguanas , near an active volcano in Costa Rica; and some place in Alaska—why would anyone open an ice cream shop in Alaska?). And while I think that COWS is good—even better than good—it’s definitely not my number one pick even if we go by Tauck’s Top Ten list (although one has to question how they could leave out Vivoli, in Florence, known for their Zuppa Inglese, a gelato flavor based on the British desert, triffle, with a custardy richness and the sweetness of Madeira?).

So who does make the best ice cream in the world?

We’ll discuss that tomorrow.

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