Last fall, a friend from Ottawa, ON accused me of having entered her into a time warp on Vancouver Island, BC. She said islanders expected her to take off her shoes and her watch when she visits, and that we have no such concept as mañana—no word exists here for that kind of urgency.
“Everyone these days wants to know how to slow down, but they want to know how to slow down really quickly,” quips Scottish-born, Canadian-raised journalist Carl Honoré, who has plenty more to say on the subject of feeling overwhelmed by our disconnectedness to the everyday-athon of modern life.
I decided to try and help my friend decelerate as quickly as possible by taking a leisurely drive north of Victoria, over the Malahat, then along a series of meandering country roads past vineyards and wineries to Cowichan Bay, part of British Columbia’s “Wine Islands.” (The town draws its name from the island word Hul’q’umi’num’, which means “warm country” or “land warmed by the sun.” The European settlement of Cowichan Bay started in the 1850s as a Hudson’s Bay Company fort.)
Cowichan Bay had just been designated North America’s first Cittaslow community. Pronounced “CHITTA-slow” (“Citta,” Italian for “town,” and “slow” as in the “slow food” movement), Cittaslow is an international network of towns—recognizable by a snail logo—dedicated to putting quality of life and preservation of traditional values and uniqueness, first.
Anyone who has embraced the decades-old Italian Slow Movement philosophy knows it is not just another marketing tool, but an innovative way of thinking about civic planning and how we choose to live.
It took several years for the sleepy fishing village to achieve official Cittaslow status. Mara Jernigan, who runs the organic Fairburn Farm (also a cooking school and guesthouse in the Cowichan Valley), didn’t want her hometown to become “a cookie-cutter community where you find the same stuff you find anywhere else.” Jernigan, a renowned chef and slow-food activist, founded the annual celebration of local food called Feast of Fields. Her latest passion is finding examples of indigenous Canadian foods to submit to slow-food’s Ark of Taste project, the aim of which is to rediscover, catalogue and protect all the forgotten foods of the world.
Jernigan, and a handful of concerned others, knew that progress and development could quickly bulldoze over the history and the charm of this unique area. The group decided to commission a food map of local wild and cultivated foods; everything from highland cattle, herbs, hazelnuts, 60-plus varieties of mushrooms, grapes, blueberries, Welsh sheep, river buffalo, emus, alpaca and asparagus grows wild or can be raised here.
The group brought on board University of Victoria’s environmental studies professor Briony Penn, who also creates artistic maps that showcase regional attributes. Jernigan believes that in order to make a place meaningful, “a map has to show context, not just borders.”
“If you have a different kind of map, people can say, ‘Hey, isn’t that where the herons lay their eggs and hatch their young?’” Jernigan says.
The finished map, the first step towards Cowichan Bay achieving Cittaslow designation, now hangs in True Grain Bakery in the heart of town. (At True Grain Bakery you can also buy a limited edition, signed print of Penn’s food map.)
My friend glances at her watch as we park, but my stomach tells me it’s lunchtime and I’ve already decided where we are going to eat: at Hilary’s (be patient; if you click on this link, it is—purposely, I assume—slow), next door to the bakery. Both buildings have a Cannery Row aspect that makes you feel right at home if you happen to be wearing gumboots (which I often do.)
I never make the trip to Cowichan Bay without stopping to buy a selection of Hilary’s artisan cheeses: his goat’s brie, camembert, brush-rind tommes and cheddar curd. (You can also buy a limited edition, signed print of Penn’s food map.) My next stop is to pick up a baguette and an organic loaf made from rare heritage Red Fife wheat at the bakery—peek in a back-room window and see flour being milled onsite.
We take our coffee outside and do a mini photo-stroll through the village, past the organic clothing store, pottery and knick-knack shops, to The Udder Guy’s, an old-style homemade ice-cream parlour (yes, it’s yummier than Haagen-Dazs.) My friend photographs the floating homes out on the piers, a harbour seal wriggling its nose into the salt-smelling breeze and a blue heron—like a haiku with feathers, standing on one leg in the shallows—then puts her camera away. In the space of a few short hours, she’s begun to wonder, I can tell, what she’s been missing, what pleasures she’s been in too much of a hurry to appreciate that have nothing to do with the hands on a clock.