By Trina McDonald
Rich agricultural land puts farming and food production at the economic and cultural centre of the Comox Valley. Encompassing the towns of Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland, along with smaller communities, gorgeous beaches, lakes, and nearby Mount Washington, the Valley provides plenty to do and lots to eat and drink.
Cumberland Brewing Company (Cumberland)
Cumberland Brewing Company opened on Dunsmuir Avenue, the main strip of the historic town, two years ago and has quickly grown. Owners Darren Adam and Caroline Tymchuk started Riders Pizza and the brewery in the same building, but the two businesses competed for a tight space so the pizza place moved next door. They’ve added a kitchen to the brewery, called the Cantina, which serves an eclectic world fusion menu. I like darker beers, so I can vouch for the Oatmeal Stout. But if you like it hoppy you will have to head to Cumberland and try one of the eight beers they have on tap because there are no plans for distribution. It’s about “deepening the tapestry that is the destination of Cumberland,” says Adam.
Natural Pastures Cheese Company (Courtenay)
The Natural Pastures shop in Courtenay is definitely worth a stop. (Spoiler alert: they will feed you cheese.) On Thursdays, the sweet-custardy ricotta—perfect for pancakes and fruit—is fresh, and, due to its short shelf life, only available in the area. It’s the favourite of operations manager Doug Smith, who started the company with his two brothers. The Valley dairy farmers recognized a gap in processing and got into the cheese-making business. All of the cow and buffalo milk used in over 20 different kinds of cheese and yogurt comes from Vancouver Island.
Shelter Point Distillery (Oyster River)
The Shelter Point Distillery makes for an impressive sight. A large building lined with oak barrels looks out over grain fields that sprawl towards the sea. Inside is just as spectacular, with large wood beams milled on the farm, an antique farm truck, more barrels, and the polished stills, including huge copper ones shipped from Scotland. Patrick Evans helms the operation and his family has farmed in the Valley since the 1930s. He purchased the farm in 2006 and saw the potential for a value-added product in the Island’s growing craft spirits industry. His whiskey—with grains grown, fermented, and distilled on site—is the crown jewel, but you have to get your timing right: it ages in barrels for a minimum of three years and the first batch, released last May, was sold out before Christmas.
Island Bison (Black Creek)
It’s difficult to imagine bison and water buffalo roaming Vancouver Island, but amid the forest and fields of Island Bison farm in Black Creek a number of these noble beasts thrive. Marc Vance says he didn’t know how to start a tractor when he, his wife, her parents, and their four children moved to the farm six years ago. The learning curve was steep, but the advantage of being new to farming was having their eyes open wide to see what the animals needed. Bison are not domesticated animals and Vance says keeping them happy is about leaving them alone with their families, with mud to wallow in and open pasture.
The water buffalo, on the other hand, come in for cuddles and human affection; some even let adventurous Homo sapiens jump on for a ride. Cows and pigs, along with the other animals, roam freely. It’s a welcoming place and the bison can inspire wonder and awe—just keep your distance, for your sake and theirs.