DUNCAN, B.C. — Blessed with a Mediterranean climate and entrepreneurial spirit, the Cowichan Valley is taking its place among British Columbia’s food capitals, billing itself as Canada’s Provence.
An hour north of Victoria, the valley is the sum of a collection of small communities tucked among fertile hills and bays that were known for their abundance well before Europeans settled the region.
“What really makes this place stand out is the diversity of the microclimates and what we produce in a relatively small area,” says Janet Docherty, owner of Merridale Ciderworks and president of the Tourism Cowichan Society.
“Wine, cider, spirits, meat, cheese, beer, seaweed, salt, fruit, market vegetables: it’s all based on the agriculture.”
Merridale makes traditional apple and fruit ciders that are sold throughout Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.
It was an early entrant into an industry that has flourished in recent years and has developed its cidery into an agri-tourism destination, complete with a cidery, distillery, bistro and bakery.
The quality of life, local appetite for fine food and tremendous access to inspiring ingredients has attracted chefs, artisanal cheese and charcuterie makers, bakers and sommeliers. All of that fuels the demand for locally grown products.
Tourism Cowichan is focusing its promotion first on people from Victoria and other parts of Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and then further afield to Alberta and Washington state, as well as appealing to the epicurean sensibilities of European travellers.
“I see a major connection to Victoria. It’s like San Francisco and the Napa Valley,” said Docherty, who is expanding Merridale’s presence into Victoria in the coming year.
“It’s so easy to make it a day trip, a weekend or even a week in the Cowichan Valley.”
For many, the Cowichan Valley is a place that people come to push traditions in new and interesting ways. For example, Westholme Tea Farm, Canada’s first tea plantation, is developing estate-grown tea offerings that combine the ancient traditions of tea with distinctive local elements.
“I think part of the uniqueness of the Cowichan Valley is that people came here because they wanted to be able to express a certain uniqueness about themselves,” said Amy Melmock, economic development manager for the Cowichan Valley Regional District.