Day 2: Duncan to Cowichan Bay
If you’re not taking Jernigan’s cooking class, spend the day touring the valley. Get the lay of the land and sample local products at the Duncan Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday in Duncan, the valley’s workaday hub. Stop in for a pint at the convivial Craig Street Brew Pub, whose Shawnigan Irish Ale is the best of several house-made beers.
Then follow the clanging of ships’ bells and the squawking of gulls to Cowichan Bay, the first town in North America to be recognized by Cittaslow, the Italy-based Slow Food organization. Seemingly every resident makes a daily pilgrimage to True Grain Bread & Mill, whose organic loaves you’ll smell from blocks away. You can assemble a great picnic lunch here and at Hilary’s Cheese & Deli, where the young, mushroomy goat’s-milk blue is the standout among nearly a dozen local varieties. Take it all down to a pier on the marina, where sleek yachts and rusty fishing vessels occupy neighboring berths. For dessert: a black-cherry cone at the Udder Guy’s Ice Cream Company.
The hazy, golden light of late afternoon is the ideal backdrop for a hike through the orchards of Merridale Ciderworks, seven miles south of Cowichan Bay. Rick Pipes and Janet Docherty make their cider from English and French heirloom apples and distill a fine Calvados-style brandy using a traditional copper still.
Before sundown, head back to Cowichan Bay for dinner at the Masthead, a maritime-style tavern filled with acres of worn wood, flickering oil lamps, and a winningly retro vibe (tableside Caesar salad service; a pianist playing “Theme from St. Elsewhere”). Sit out on the deck above the marina and order Whaletown oysters from Cortes Island and seared scallops from Qualicum Beach, just 60 miles north.
Alternatively, if Bill Jones is hosting one of his monthly themed dinners, book ahead at Deerholme Farm. Jones, a supremely talented chef, is also a passionate forager, and wild mushrooms are often the highlight of his tasting menus, served in his cozy farmhouse. Working with a single sous-chef, Jones puts a French and Asian spin on farm-to-table cooking: a recent meal included a Chinese-style duck with hoisin sauce made from Deerholme’s own squash, and a hen-and-egg dumpling soup infused with fresh ginseng and wasabi from the garden.