Dylan Tilston plucks the head off of a live prawn, cracks the shell that covers the belly and spine, squeezes the tail to remove the remaining meat and then pitches it into his mouth. "That's the way you eat 'em," says the self-proclaimed foodie. "Try it."
I did. My technique wasn't nearly as smooth as Tilston's, who studied culinary arts at George Brown College in Toronto before trekking to the "End of the Road," the term often used to describe Tofino. I jostle with the tiny prawn, which twitches its antennae as my forefingers and thumb clutch onto its head. Its eyes are black. It's nearly dead already when I rip off its head and toss it into Clayoquot Sound, the mesmerizingly beautiful and soulful waters that flow eastward from Tofino and the Pacific Ocean.
Clumsily, I open it up and eat it raw as Tilston and boat captain Paul Karbouzian suggested. The morsel is full of pure flavour. The British Columbia spot prawn has spawned festivals in its honour and diners across the province are delighted when restaurants annually dream up dishes featuring the delicacy. In Tofino, the spot prawn comes into shore by the boatload, pleasing chefs and connoisseurs.
"The quality of the product here is incredible and people know it, they care about keeping it that way," says Warren Barr, the executive chef at the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn. On his menu, he makes what is surely the most artful use of spot prawns in Canada. He plates it with a circle of smashed peas, and tops it with powdered lemongrass that looks like feta cheese, edible flowers and, brilliantly, dots of white chocolate. It's one of the most interesting and delicious dishes I've had in the province.
And while that dish was the best I tried during a recent visit to Tofino, it was far from the only highlight. When I first visited Tofino in 2003, there were few restaurants besides the opulent Pointe. Now, the city is teeming with choice establishments, including Wolf in the Fog, the year-old hot spot run by former Wick Inn chef Nicholas Nutting. SoBo remains a standout and the original Tacofino food truck does heavy business daily. For a village with a population of only 2,000 people, Tofino eats exceptionally well.
"One of the important things that has kept the quality so high is there are no chain stores allowed in town. The community has been very active in keeping them out," says Daan Delen of Ocean Outfitters, which leads whale-watching tours and chartered fishing trips of the region. "There's one popular place in town that serves fried food. It's the Wildside Grill and even though you'll get your French fries, you still know that the fish they're serving you is caught that day. They're run by local people who care about the community."
That community love for food explodes into euphoria on May 8. The two-week Feast Tofino festival features 17 events, several of which include visiting chefs from Vancouver. Among the culinary stars attending is David Hawksworth, who is scheduled to team with Nutting for a night of fine dining at Wolf in the Fog on May 22.
"Even though Tofino is a laid-back place, people really care about good food and they know what it takes to make good food. Plus, there's a real culture of collaboration here among chefs and restaurant owners," says Ashley Adams, owner of Feast Tofino. "The festival is a way of bringing people together and making food the centre of a celebration of Tofino culture."
While the spot prawn will likely be the most visible sea favourite during the festival, it's far from the only sweet find in this village just outside of Pacific Rim National Park. The Clayoquot Climax, a rare oyster found only in the waters near Tofino, is heralded by both Tilston and Karbouzian as the best oyster they've ever enjoyed. Tilston's employer, the Fish Store and Oyster Bar, is the only place that retails this particular variety farmed in Lemmens Inlet. Gooseneck barnacles, the hard-to-source delicacy that has become popular in Europe and Asia, can be found here, although it hasn't made it onto menus yet. Dungeness crab pots float from the town docks. Wild Pacific salmon, halibut, black cod (or sablefish) and steelhead trout are among the catches that can be found in stores.
Tilston, a former Torontonian who has settled easily into life on British Columbia's west coast, seems as though he can't believe his luck to have ventured into this food-lover's haven. "There isn't anywhere in the world where you can get product like this," he says as our WardoWest fishing boat speeds through waters dotted with islands thick with century-old trees populated with eagles' nests and needles that catch the wind. "There is product here that gets shipped all over the world, but if you're in Tofino, you can have it right here, right now. Straight from the sea."
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