VANCOUVER ISLAND, British Columbia
“So much is disappearing — the producers, the knowledge, the flavor. Nowadays so much tastes the same.” So says Sinclair Philip, the leading spokesman for sustainable agriculture in Canada, and an international voice. Many of us would agree with him, but few have done so much about it.
For Mr. Philip and his wife, Frederique, the action began in 1979 with the purchase of an old-fashioned hotel on a dead-end road in Sooke, a small fishing port on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada.
“We had a clear idea of our aim for Sooke Harbour House,” says Mrs. Philip. “We wanted to serve local, regional food and make guests feel as comfortable as we could. That’s still what we aim to do.”
Along with this simple concept came a wish to join and build up the local community, centered on a vibrant group of fishermen and divers that gathered anything from cod and halibut to geoduck clams, sea urchins and abalone.
At the start, the five-room hotel was a struggle. Mainstay of the operation was an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, much appreciated by local residents who filled the restaurant night after night in summer. In winter it was tough.
“Each year in October we would wonder if we would still be there the following March,” says Mrs. Philip. After a few years, the stocks of fish that supported the local economy were depleted. Today, only a handful of boats remain from the original 100 or more, fishing for shrimp, crab and a small amount of wild salmon.
Sooke Harbour House had to adjust to the changes. On a trip to France, Mr. Philip asked the advice of world-renowned Burgundian chef Bernard Loiseau. “He explained that the bread is in the bed,” grins Mr. Philip, and so it proved.
In 1986, the Philips took up the challenge of constructing 10 more bedrooms, and this proved the financial turning point. “The extra rooms added stability to the restaurant,” says Mrs. Philip. “With more customers guaranteed, we could look toward the future. We could, for instance, retain our staff all year and invest in our gardens.”
Almost all the fresh greens, herbs and flowers for Harbour House are grown on their two acres of gardens by five full-time gardeners, including the Philips’ daughter Nishka. Through the years, Mr. Philip has built up links with local producers. He encourages initiatives such as cultivation of a heritage wheat called Red Fife, which is baked into an earthy bread that goes perfectly with a platter of regional cow, sheep and goat cheeses. A delectable, creamy blue cheese called Blossom is made with milk from a single cow. When Blossom expires, so will her cheese.
The pork, lamb and poultry for the restaurant are grown on the island. “Every area is improving except fish,” Mr. Philip says. “For most of that we have to go to the capital, Victoria, 35 miles away.”
Tasting the results of the Philips’ insistence on the freshest of artisan foods can be a revelation. Indigenous flavorings, such as lemon eucalyptus oil and a variety of seaweeds, add unexpected depth to dishes. They are healthier, too. “Four supermarket carrots have the same nutritional value as just one 50 years ago,” says Mr. Philip. “We’re overstuffed and undernourished.”
Vancouver Island is the leading Canadian region for sustainable agriculture, thanks to the small community of producers in a limited agricultural area. “We all know each other, and whom we can trust.”
Mr. Philip’s renown is international. He is the Canadian representative for the Slow Food organization, earning him the nickname “his Slowliness.” “We call him grandfather,” says Peter Zambri, one of the younger generation of chefs on Vancouver Island who follow Mr. Philip’s ecological example.
I ask Mr. Philip about organic production, and his face clouds. “It’s not what everyone hopes; so much is now dominated by big companies.” And sustainability, which is so much discussed and so hard to define? “I think of it as a food system that provides a sustainable, healthful food system for tomorrow. Genuine sustainability is a philosophy, a way of life.”