Food Feature: Drinking Canada dry
In quest of legendary libations on Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island is separated from the rugged coast of mainland Nova Scotia by a broad expanse of ocean known as the Northumberland Straight — nearly 14 miles of chilly, dark blue Atlantic saltwater. The straight has a distinction that's somewhat unusual among bodies of water. It harbors its very own ghost.
For decades now, mariners have reported periodically sighting a translucent ship, its decks ablaze with raging fire, somewhere out in the deep waters of the Northumberland. Crews of rescue vessels claim the fire ship vanishes in the mist just as they reach it. This strange phenomenon — witnessed as recently as the 1980s — has been immortalized in song and story. Skeptics, however, dismiss the "ghost ship" as the work of overactive imaginations, perhaps fueled by excessive indulgence in traditionally strong Canadian alcohol.
Canada's reputation for powerful brews was very much in my thirsty thoughts as I set out over the Northumberland. Although I didn't observe the ghost ship during my 75-minute crossing, I often felt like I was sailing on one. The immense white ferryboat was shockingly quiet. No horns had sounded when it arrived at the mainland, nor were there any signal bells or loudspeaker announcements through the entire unloading/reloading process, during which two fleets of cars and trucks — one on shore, one below deck — swapped places. In fact, other than the gentle murmur of the ship's engine, the only sound was the plaintive squawk of a lone cormorant, a strange aquatic bird — half seagull, half pelican — native to the region.
About the only loud noise throughout the crossing was my shriek of laughter at the souvenirs on sale, all embossed with the logo of Northumberland Ferries, LTD. I kept imagining the exasperated looks I might get back home during football season, wearing that pink "NFL Ferries" hat.
Signs posted at the boarding dock had warned that transporting bees to Prince Edward Island was strictly forbidden (presumably tarantulas and rattlesnakes are still legal), but upon arrival I noticed another sign advising travelers: "All vehicles transporting swine must report to the Weigh Station." The only Canadian bacon on me was in my stomach, so I immediately set out for my final destination, the nearby island hamlet of Charlottetown.
Charlottetown was founded in 1763, with the specific intent of creating a serene place where — because it was iced over and inaccessible for half the year — nothing much would ever happen. The city fathers' calculations proved wrong in that regard, however, when the quiet little village played host to one of the most significant events in the history of the continent.
In 1864, while the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee battled valiantly for the dissolution of the American union, representatives of all the British North American provinces gathered in Charlottetown for a week-long drunk. Under the influence of the region's legendary high-strength alcohol, the delegates bonded. They emerged with hangovers and, as a happy souvenir of les bontemps, a document called the Charlottetown Accord that joined their provinces together as a new nation. Perhaps you've heard of it. They called it Canada.
Today Charlottetown remains a modest little city, its skyline refreshingly free of skyscrapers, smog and other modern annoyances. Although it's quite distant from the U.S., I didn't see much difference in the cars on its streets. Pretty much everyone drove late-model Chevrolets. The rare exceptions were the occasional VWs, all of which were diesel-powered and made cute little rattling sounds as if they were wind-up toys. The most "exotic" vehicle I spotted there was a VW Vanagon in a double-cab pickup configuration never imported to the States.
Along with those German cars came a proportionate amount of German beer — mostly Beck's, some Dortmunder — brewed at a strength equivalent to what I'd had back in Atlanta. I fared better with a bottle of McEwan's, which packed a walloping 8 percent alcohol and tasted like a mixed drink; but it wasn't a local product. The most prevalent beers in Charlottetown's pubs were Molson products, so thin and oily-tasting they were sold in petrol cans for good reason. Significantly, home brewing supply shops stood on many street corners. Even the grocery stores sold malt and hops.
A different shop that caught my eye was the Anne of Green Gables Store. Its staff all dressed like characters from L.M. Montgomery's novels (which are set on Prince Edward Island) and a soundtrack CD from a PBS film adaptation played repeatedly on the P.A. The shelves were lined with dolls, posters, books and knick-knacks. However, what the shop was selling the most briskly was a raspberry cordial, the island's official soft drink, which it advertised with a quotation from Anne herself ("I love bright red drinks!").
Seeking a bubbly amber drink, I wandered around the corner from Anne of Green Gables and found Cafe Diem. Ahh, so this is where it wound up after it left Atlanta's Highland Avenue! Prince Edward's Diem is a cyber cafe, where teenagers hunch studiously over glowing PC screens between sips of fragrant java. My quest, however, came to its end at another cafe, located much deeper inland.
Where my search ended was, ironically, an American-themed joint, a microbrew pub called the Lone Star Cafe. Here the Murphy's Brewing Co. produces an interesting array of craft beers on the premises, using huge copper kettles that stand just outside the Lone Star's batwing saloon doors. Although their Sir John A.'s Honey Wheat was a bit bland, their Cole's Cream Ale too thin and their amber Harvest Gold too dry and light, things improved dramatically with their rich and rusty Iron Horse and their crisp Island Red. This was the "bright red drink" that I loved.
The best, though, was Murph's Irish Stout — dry and dark, slightly grainy in the aftertaste. It was good to the last drop and I downed pint after pint as I pondered the absurdity of sitting here, miles off the coast of Canada, listening to Nashville music in a cowboy saloon with pictures of Willie Nelson staring from the walls.
Hours later, as the strong but not unpleasant aftertaste of that stout lingered in my mouth, I rode the ferry back across the Northumberland at sunset, staring out to sea and thinking that maybe, just maybe, a certain patch of glare over there on the horizon looked vaguely like a burning ship.