It was a hot August afternoon when we arrived in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. We had been traveling by car and ferry for over six hours, and although we knew we were close, we thought we might have made a wrong turn when the country dirt road passed a sad stretch of logged tree stumps. But the directions told us to follow the road to the very end, so we continued on and finally saw the red and white farmhouse peeking through the trees.
A group of people were walking out of the house with towels, headed to the nearby watering hole to cool off. They had just finished an all-day cooking class with Mara Jernigan in the huge gourmet kitchen in the farmhouse. Mara is the chef and proprietor of Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse. She was once a culinary school instructor, and now champions the Slow Food movement, promoting local foods. She has a strong connection to the land, and uses primarily organic and seasonal foods in her farm meals. Mara is also one of the most down-to-earth and welcoming people we’ve met – she always seemed genuinely curious to know if we were enjoying ourselves and was happy to tell us about the farm, food, and living on the island.
An artichoke blossom in Mara’s garden.
Fairburn Farm is over a century old and models itself like an Italian agriturismo – a working farm that offers meals and overnight accommodations. We had read about it in a number of publications after Mara first came to the farm in 2005, including The Seattle Times, Gourmet, and Saveur magazines, which convinced us it would be a great stop during our week long vacation on the island.
Dinners are offered to overnight guests several nights a week. That evening, we sat on the large farmhouse porch, overlooking the rolling countryside and the huge garden. Mara’s son Julian, in chef’s whites, gathered last minute herbs from the garden as we sat down. A butter plate for each of us arrived accompanied by a single purple pea pod. Daniel, our server, said that they “promote” a different vegetable from the garden at each meal.
We opted for the four course meal that evening which included a delicious squash blossom from the garden stuffed with goat cheese and fried, then a sweet tomato soup, followed by roast duck, and then dessert. The meal was quite impressive, and our only regret was missing out on the cheese course which came with the seven course meal.
Goat cheese stuffed squash blossom; Mara’s rare breed San Clemente goat; heirloom chickens.
In the morning, we wandered downstairs to breakfast, where there was a small buffet with granola, yogurt, local blueberries, and juices. We started on this while they prepared our cheese frittata and cappuccini. Each morning, they offer farm gathered eggs in some form, along with vegetables from the garden (tomatoes, in this case), and toast served with homemade preserves (strawberry, today).
We spent our morning relaxing, reading, and exploring the farm. The farm’s owners, Darrel and Anthea, own the only herd of water buffalo in Canada, and Darrel was milking them in the barn. On another morning we watched the Natural Pastures Cheese Company truck pull up to transport the milk two hours north, to Courtenay, B.C., where they hand make limited quantities of buffalo mozzarella once a week.
Darrel is still growing the herd so that they can produce more milk. There is a small barn on the property with about a dozen baby buffalo inside. All were tagged with their name on their ear, except one who was tagless – that one was only four days old!
When they’re done milking, the buffalo are herded with a motorbike to one of the fields for grazing. It was fun to watch them on the move. When animals with such large horns moved so fast it was a little scary, but in fact they are quite docile creatures. Darrel said that they’re mostly wary of people until they get to know you and adopt you into their family. He decided to import the purebred animals in 2000 when he found that they were gentle yet hardy and adaptable to the British Columbia climate.
A baby water buffalo.
Mara has some animals of her own on the farm. She has a flock of beautiful heirloom chickens, along with a herd of sheep, and a small goat, who all graze in the apple orchard. There is a lovely walk through the woods and around the property that deposits you right into the orchard outside the farmhouse, where the chickens meander toward you looking for handouts.
The heat of the day was setting in, but it was time for the meal we’d particularly been looking forward to: Sunday lunch on the farm. Only ten of these six-course meals are offered each year. You don’t need to be an overnight guest to dine, however. We shared a table with the winemaker from Averill Creek and his wife, another woman from the area who herself was starting to grow wine grapes, her friend, and a couple from LA who were traveling around British Columbia on their motorcycle to celebrate his retirement.
The first course featured mozzarella from the farm’s buffalo milk served with sweet tomatoes and local balsamic vinegar. Amazing! I was quite sad that there was only one beautiful slice of the cheese to savor. Another highlight was the crab lasagne, a delicate dish of handmade pasta gently folded around Dungeness crab.
We also enjoyed halibut and local lamb before finishing the meal with a cheese course and then dessert. We were pleased to try the cheeses that we had missed the night before, including ones made up the road in Cowichan Bay (“Cow Bay” according to the locals at our table) at Hilary’s Cheese Company, along with several tasty cheeses from just across the water on Salt Spring Island. Dessert was an ideal summer ending: blueberry pudding cake with softly whipped cream.
Lasagna with Dungeness crab, lemon verbena veloute and fresh fava beans; Sunday lunch at Fairburn; one of Mara’s chickens.
The farm is great for foodies for all sorts of reasons. If you’re staying nearby and want to get a taste, come for a Sunday lunch. Or you can stay overnight and have a few meals. Some plan their vacation around the Saturday cooking classes or the week-long cooking boot camps, which book up months in advance. And a lucky few even go to Italy with Mara in the fall to experience Italy’s Slow Food.
And the farmhouse accommodates a range of travelers. Of course, they host a number of couples traveling alone, but the farmhouse has some rooms that work well for families, and even a 2½ bedroom cottage with kitchen for families with young kids or couples traveling together. While we were there, a couple was staying there with their young daughter. They’ve been coming for years to the farm, since she loves gathering eggs and watching the buffalo getting milked. We watched the little girl’s eyes light up one afternoon as Mara handed her a pie at the kitchen door and told her it would be great for breakfast the next day. The cottage is rented for one-week stretches during the summer, and weekends only during the off-season (since there is a family who lives there on weekdays during the school year).
Cowichan Bay is the tiny town just down the road, which, as you’d expect, is right on the bay. It’s a great stop for lunch at Hilary’s Cheese Company, or True Grain Bread, which makes the best bread on the island (they’re connected by a door, and Hilary’s also uses True Grain for their sandwiches). Then get dessert a couple doors down at The Udder Guy’s, where they make all-natural ice cream. Take your cone out back where you can sit and watch the fishing boats.
There are plenty of foodie day trips, too, since this is Vancouver Island’s wine country. One of the wineries, Venturi Schultze, also makes balsamic vinegar in the traditional way, and it’s worth it to book an appointment for a tour of the small facilities. There’s even a cidery called Merridale, where you can sample their eight different hard apple ciders. Their bistro is a good place for either lunch or a casual weekend dinner.
Mostly, though, we just hung around the farm itself, since the porch chairs are really inviting for kicking back for a few hours, reading and drinking in the beautiful countryside. We were sad to leave. As we were checking out, we asked Mara where we could find that incredible buffalo mozzarella. She said that a few of the Thrifty’s on the island carry it, along with the Community Farm Store in Duncan. She mentioned that she was putting together some photos of the cheese for a magazine which was writing up a list of the top 100 things to eat before you die. I think I’d agree.
We spent the rest of the week on a quest for this mozzarella. The supply is so limited that a few of the stores we went to said they can keep it on hand for a couple days at most, and sometimes no more than a few hours. Sadly, it turns out that Natural Pastures didn’t make any cheese that week! So we were forced to head home empty handed, but with resolve to return again.
To view more photos from our trip, go to our Vancouver Island album.
3310 Jackson Road
Duncan, B.C., V9L 6N7