the vancouver sun, July 2019
On the Southeast coast of Vancouver Island, wind carves through fields of lavender and the sun bakes grassy parcels of farmland. The Saanich Peninsula’s pastoral beauty could be easily mistaken for the French or Spanish countryside, and it’s been affectionately called the Provence of British Columbia.
The area has been a staple for the island’s best restaurants to source fresh, organic ingredients, but now more of the area’s farms and distilleries are opening their doors to tourists, too.
“People want to know where their food and beverages come from now, and with its fertile land and climate, the Saanich Peninsula is becoming the epicentre for farm-to-table experiences on the island,” says West Coast Brewery Tours owner Elton Walker.
Perched atop a hill on a 10-acre apple farm is Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse. Inside a rustic, farmhouse-style building styled after the architecture in the owners’ hometown of Wales, crisp organic cider with beguiling names like Kings & Spies and Bramble Bubbly froths from the taps. I order a flight paired with a locally-sourced charcuterie board and savour the tart and creamy mix from a patio picnic table while drinking in yawning views of the inlet and James Island in the distance.
Back on the road, we fly past narrow dirt lanes and fields where sheep and cows graze under wisps of cloud stretched like taffy across the blue sky. Only 20 minutes outside Victoria, the bucolic scene seems hours away from city life.
“It’s one of the few areas in the greater Victoria area that feels unchanged to me,” says Chris Klassen, chef at Victoria’s award-winning restaurant The Courtney Room, who grew up in Saanich. “It’s still farm country.” The restaurant works with the peninsula’s organic farms to source fresh produce and herbs used in everything from salads to cocktails.
We pull into Roost Farm Bakery & Vineyard Bistro to taste ingredients plucked straight from the surrounding land. The smell of butter and warm bread wafts into the parking lot. Ensconced in a sprawling vineyard and 10 acres of farmland, Roost serves fresh-from-the-oven baked goods, as well as wood-fired pizzas.
Fueled with blueberry scones made with berries and wheat grown on site, we’re off to Victoria Distillers.
The second distillery to open in British Columbia, Victoria Distillers began as a small operation, graduating to its sleek, waterfront space in 2016. Crafting handmade spirits in copper pot stills, they’re best known for their iconic Empress Gin, a smooth, indigo-hued spirit made with butterfly pea flower that works a colour-changing, alchemic magic in whatever it’s mixed with. After a tour into the belly of the distillery, winding our way between burnished stills and black and white photographs of the business’s early days, we’re served mint gimlets with cured meats and local cheese at the polished front-of-house bar.
If craft beer is more to your taste, make the quick jaunt over to Category 12 Brewing, a small-batch brewery helmed by Michael Kuzyk and his energetic, curly-haired wife Karen, who gives us a tour of the brewery. Armed with a doctorate degree in microbiology and chemistry from the University of Victoria, Michael brings an exact science to the art of brewing, serving seasonal releases, fruit-infused sours, and wheat-forward IPAS. Perennial beers come with cheeky names like Compressed Data and Transmutation that give a nod to science.
The Kuzyks aren’t the only ones in the peninsula who approach their craft with an unwavering passion and obsessive attention to detail. Lindsay Dault and her husband Jason moved to the island from the mainland in 2016 to realize their dream of owning a honey farm. Urban Bee Honey Farm is set on 11 acres of farmland that teems with a cornucopia of wildlife and bright flowers, as well as pollinating gardens visitors can wander through after a honey tasting. The honey bar is stocked with 20 different varieties that visitors can taste, including some grown around the peninsula and named after their neighbourhood.
“If you want something fresh, local, and farm-raised, Saanich is the place to come,” says Dault. In the café, sip on honey kombucha bottled on site, or fair-trade coffee with a freshly-baked croissant smothered in amber-coloured blueberry honey and butter.
Back in Victoria that evening sitting at The Courtney Room’s marble-clad bar, I order a French 250, the restaurant’s take on a French 75. Bright, confetti-like bubbles mingle with Empress Gin from Victoria Distillers, lemon, and wild honey. It’s as if I can taste the peninsula’s sunny, green hills with each sip.