A Cittaslow tour of Cowichan Bay

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All-natural, locally produced ice cream in 82 flavours.  Locally-caught, sustainable fish and shellfish. Artisan breads made from ancient grains, heritage Red Fife wheat and Vancouver Island-grown grain. Cheese created with locally-produced milk.  Locally-produced wines and spirits.

It all sounds like a foodie’s dream, and in many ways in this day and age these things are not all that unattainable.  Many towns and villages – even cities – have farmers markets that offer ‘local’. But finding all those unique foodstuffs in a tiny village that stretches along only a few waterfront blocks? Not such a common thing, but it is one of the many that make Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island’s  east coast special and unique.

Waterfront houses in Cowichan Bay

History, culture and quality of life play a big role in the Cittaslow movement. We learned about the reason for the waterfront houses on stilts during our tour.

All of those factors, along with many more, are what have contributed to Cowichan Bay becoming North America’s first Cittaslow (Italian/English for ‘slow city’) community.  The movement, founded in 1999, is international in scope and is dedicated to improving the quality of life in small towns (members must have fewer than 50,000 residents) and slowing down the overall pace, and the flow of life and traffic through them.

The move toward Cittaslow certification in Cowichan Bay began 10 years ago at the village’s True Grain Bread,  a bustling, fragrant bakery that touts the benefits of heritage and ancient grains.  It took two years to get the designation, and this year marks the fifth year of that accomplishment.

Cowichan Bay proper has never really faced many of the modern day issues that a lot of towns deal with, but it appears that the 50-member strong Cittaslow community there is dedicated to ensuring that that remains the case. They actively promote continuing respect for a more unhurried approach to life in general through guided food and historical tours of the village and many other activities that encourage local consumption and an appreciation of the simpler things.

Cheese and bread tasting in Cowichan Bay

Local cheese, artisan bread, local spirits – one of the highlights of the Cittaslow tour.

We recently enjoyed a two-hour combined ‘foodie/historical’ tour with Cowichan Bay Cittaslow president Nick Versteeg, a veritable fount of knowledge on all things food-related, and Lew Penney, who gave us great insight into the historical aspect of the village. It was during that wander that we learned that Cittaslow Cowichan Bay is about more than ‘just food’ – a common misconception.

Nick and Lew explained that the movement in the village is dedicated, not just to keeping the pace of life reasonable, but to working with First Nations and industry to re-establish much that has been lost in the way of culture and sustainable living in the area.  As an example, the actual bay is no longer a source of harvestable marine life due to industrial activity, but one of the aims of the local Cittaslow folks is to reverse that trend.

“Cittaslow is about history, culture and quality of life,” says Nick. “It’s not just food-related.”

Artisan ice cream in Cowichan Bay

While the Cittaslow movement in Cowichan Bay isn’t just about food, it does play a big role. Here, Nick Versteeg accepts a cone from artisan ice cream maker Yves Musselle.

It was easy to understand as we proceeded along the waterfront how the historical and cultural aspects impact the end result of lifestyle. And it was easy to see, too, how the Cowichan Bay folks have embraced the Cittaslow concept.  Every stop we made on the food portion of the tour entailed more than just the usual food samples and initial greeting.  We had the opportunity to discuss with the merchants what their businesses were all about, how they had arrived at making ice cream, or selling fish, or establishing a thriving market for artisan bread – they took the time to engage with us.  They make the time to create unique and outstanding products. And, obviously, they have the time to enjoy life and the pretty village that serves as home to their businesses. Clearly, the ‘quality of life’ mantra has taken hold in this charismatic settlement, to the benefit of anyone who lives or visits there. And that can only be a good thing.

Cowichan Bay estuary

The estuary is a major concern for the Cowichan Bay Cittaslow members Photo:Shirley Culpin

Cittaslow Cowichan Bay runs regular tours of the village throughout the summer – it’s a great way to enjoy a couple of hours of the slow life and learn about the culture, history and great food opportunities that abound there.