Because my physique is such that, until my middle-age stomach took over, I was regularly asked if I played football, I've always enjoyed the eating habits of large men. Take Andrew Chase, a Toronto chef and cookbook author who towers at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Andrew likes impeccably fresh seafood, as do I. He's the sort of guy who would (and did) ask me if I wanted to go in on a 100-count box of Raspberry Point oysters to take back to our Charlotte- town hotel on Prince Edward Island in case we, you know, got hungry later.
Yes, it was that kind of trip. PEI, billed by the local tourism board as the "Gentle Island" for its soft green hills, has cool Canadian adventures -- from biking to beachcombing. But given the choice between hiking on sandstone cliffs or stuffing myself with the best shellfish this side of Maine (the 200-miles-east side) and possibly the planet, I had no choice. The colder the water, the sweeter the meat -- and it gets dang cold up here.
Chilled to the bone, Andrew and I stand on an oyster barge over the muddy tidal-basin floor off Prince Edward Island National Park. The man who runs Raspberry Point's oyster farm, James Power, is dredging up fat malpeques, the queen of Atlantic oysters, faster than we can eat them. With the sea breeze cutting our faces like knives, we grab the icy oysters as they move up a conveyor belt on the barge, quickly prying them open and slurping them down, marveling in their salty, clean taste and sweet finish. How many can we eat out in the bay before our hands get so cold we won't be able to even feel the slippery mollusks? Enough that James good-naturedly reminds us, at one point, that it took him up to seven years to groom these little sweeties.
"Consider leaving a few for the spudheads," he says, referring to local islanders who grow the other famous food here: potatoes. The spudheads produce something like 28 billion pounds' worth of potatoes a year, or about 115 pounds of spuds for every Canuck, at last count. The varieties of potatoes sound more enticing than apples, with names like Baby Blues, Netted Jems, Irish Cobblers, Island Sunshines ... I could go on.
You can see why Andrew and I consider PEI an epicurean Arcadia. The abundance of potatoes and shellfish are intertwined. PEI has had such abundant lobster harvests, for example, that at one point years ago most of the lobsters were used as fertilizer for growing potatoes.
In turn, potatoes are important to the diet of PEI mudders -- a mudder, of course, being a local who digs in the mud for oysters or soft-shell clams. Those clams might be even better eating, as far as I'm concerned, than PEI oysters, which are fine eating indeed.
Oysters and mussels, along with prodigious amounts of herring and mackerel and snow crab and some two dozen other species of fish and shellfish, are shipped from Prince Edward Island all over the world. But PEI soft-shell clams, also called "steamers" or "longnecks," don't travel real well; they're fragile, which explains why they're called soft-shells. So the only thing to do is go dig them yourself, which is what Andrew and I figure we'll do after our oyster outing. We've got shovels and we've got pails. All we need to do is figure out where in the heck we should go clamming.
Now if you ask Liam Dolan, a most expert mudder and the proprietor of the Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown, to tell you where the very best beach is for digging soft-shell clams -- he won't tell you because that's where he goes. But if you compliment him on his chef's seafood chowder, which just happened to take first place in last year's PEI Shellfish Festival chowder competition, and then slyly ask him where the second-best beach is, he might suggest, if you're a serious mudder, that you "go give the south shore a try."
That 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 potatoes? It's hard to say), offer to buy you a Guinness and invite you -- if it happens to be September -- to the very same shellfish festival where his chowder won acclaim last year. It's all on the up and up, he'll assure you.
The festival is where Andrew and I go the next day. We wander around beneath a circus tent while downing big bowls of fragrant mussels and platefuls of steamed soft-shell clams. We buy a dozen clams each, then another dozen and finally a third, at which point the mudder behind the booth, Linda Duncan, sadly informs us we've cleaned her out. "You boys ate everything I had."
No worries. There are still plenty of island mussels to be eaten. And if they run out of those? There's always the box of 100 Raspberry Point oysters sitting on ice in the hotel bathtub.