I love a road trip.
Even in winter, there's nothing like filling up the tank, sailing across the Strait of Georgia, and hitting the open road for parts lesser known. But as kilometres of Inland Island Highway rolled away under my tires on the weekend, I couldn't help wondering what I would find in the Comox Valley.
February isn't the best time of year to visit farm country, never mind eat the fruits of all that labour. It's still winter after all . . . so there is no fruit.
Yet there I was, headed to Courtenay and Comox to preview the month-long promotion, Dine Around the Comox Valley, which "celebrates local bounty" and runs from today until March 17.
As it turns out, there's plenty to enjoy in this valley at any time of the year. The wide coastal plain has a long growing season, is laced with rivers and protected by the Beaufort Mountains. And, of course, you can't forget its access to seafood - the city of Courtenay embraces the Courtenay River Estuary, while the town of Comox practically spills into the strait.
No wonder the local First Nations called the area "Komoux," or "Land of Plenty."
This is the fourth year for Dine Around, and this year 22 Comox Valley restaurants will partake in the annual event by creating three-course prix fixe meals, each available to diners for $17, $27 or $37.
For our preview, we did it differently: four courses at four different restaurants, beginning at Avenue Bistro in Comox. Executive chef Aaron Rail moved to the valley from Victoria five years ago because he liked the ratio of good ingredients to eateries.
"There are more than 400 farms and just a couple dozen restaurants," he said. It provides quite a palette for a chef to work with, even at this time of year. "This is the best time of year for local oysters, crab, shrimp. We have local chicken and pork . . . there's venison, beef, bison; and we can get sprouts, microgreens, and nuts. . . ." The list of winter ingredients is surprisingly long.
We started with fresh-shucked Comox oysters; one house-smoked and drizzled with maple vinegar, the other served simply with the house mignonette.
A silky parsnip-apple soup was spiked with crispy fried onions and drizzled with a hint of truffle oil, and "Winter's Last Kiss" salad was a refreshing mix of frisée and citrus fruits, with a sweet touch of local yogurt.
Each course was paired with wines from B.C., including a light Gewurztraminer from the valley alongside the salad.
At Locals Restaurant (where the entire concept is based on ingredients from the surrounding valley) we sampled more starters, including an elegant salad of organic spinach stacked with microgreens, hot chili-roasted pecans, blood orange and sherry vinaigrette. A chicken and vegetable roll was a standout, full of fresh flavours thanks to ginger, garlic and Asian five spice in a rice paper wrapper.
We moved on to main courses at Martine's Bistro, including a hearty cassoulet made with duck confit and braised pork belly; a tender bacon-wrapped filet mignon; sesame-crusted tuna; and chicken curry fettucine.
We finished with dessert at The Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar in Courtenay, a duo that included crème brulée and a luscious bread pudding.
A Dine Around trip can be rounded out with a visit to one of Canada's only whiskey distilleries, Shelter Point Distillery, or a local winery; and with several hotels and bed and breakfasts offering special accommodation rates, Dine Around the Comox Valley makes a great excuse for a getaway.
For more information about the restaurants and accommodations participating in this year's Dine Around Comox Valley, visit comoxvalleydinearound.com. Follow on Twitter @vivisitorcentre #DineAroundCV or on Facebook at fb.com/vivisitorcentre for profiles on participating locations.
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Looking for some delicious plans closer to home this weekend? Edible Canada on Granville Island introduces the first-ever Street Eats & Beats Under the Bridge on Feb. 22 and 23.
The evening food and drink festival under Granville Bridge - part of the island's Winterruption festival - will feature a line up of Vancouver's popular food trucks, beverages from Granville Island Brewery and Sumac Ridge Wines, and music by top local DJs and performers. Both evenings run from 6 p.m. to midnight, tickets are $30. Get info and tickets at festivalunderthebridge.eventbrite. com.