Well now, this post has been a long time coming. Having been sucked into the black hole that is house renovation, the Daily Spud has become closer to the monthly spud, while prospective posts have languished on the proverbial back burner. Now that I have acquired an actual back burner – along with the kitchen to go with it, and of which more anon – it’s time to fire things up again. First stop PEI – Prince Edward Island – which, through the good offices of the Canadian Tourism Commission, I had the great pleasure of visiting back in May.
I reckon that the Irish settlers who came to PEI in the 1700s and 1800s – all 10,000 or more of them, according to the Irish Settlers’ Memorial in PEI’s capital, Charlottetown – probably felt at home. Or at least as at home as you can feel when you’re several thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic.
Canada may be vast but Prince Edward Island – its smallest province, at 139 miles long, ranging from four to 40 miles wide, and with a population of around 145,000 – is a green slip of a thing hugging the eastern coast, one of the country’s four Atlantic provinces (often referred to collectively as the Maritimes) – and it sits closer to Ireland than to Canada’s Pacific coast. Though its winters are harsher and summers shorter than ours, its green, pastoral landscape and iron-rich red soils have earned it the moniker ‘The Million Acre Farm’ and it has proven, among other things, to be a mighty fine place to grow spuds – these days producing around a quarter of Canada’s total potato crop. That’s a whole lot of reasons to like the place right there.
Colonised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first by the French and then the British – who lotteried the land amongst friends of the Crown – more than half of the population claim either Scottish or Irish heritage. As I stroll through PEI’s capital, Charlottetown, on a mild May evening, I hear fiddles and accordians and the strains of ‘Galway Girl’ floating across the night air and remember that ceilidhs are big here. The island even enjoyed a brief stint as ‘New Ireland’ in 1780, when Irish-born Captain Walter Patterson, the island’s then governor, had the colony’s Legislative Assembly rename it thus, a change which was ultimately disallowed by the big wigs back in London. Though that name may not have stuck, there are plenty of placenames on the island that will have a familiar ring for Irish and Scots alike.
Like Ireland, too, PEI may be small, but it has plenty to shout about. Dubbed the birthplace of Canadian confederation, it celebrates the PEI Sesquicentennial this year – the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference which paved the way for confederation in 1867 – and this summer sees a raft of celebratory activities underway. PEI is also, of course, the setting for the children’s classic Anne of Green Gables, written by islander Lucy Maud Montgomery and published in 1908, and a great many visitors – many from Japan – travel to the island see the house and other locations that inspired the setting for the book.
Happy though I was to see the House of Green Gables, however, the truth – and you knew this – is that I really went to PEI, first and last, for the spuds (and there will be a great deal more to say about that in posts to follow, with visits to the PEI Potato Board and Elite Seed Farm, the Canadian Potato Museum and encounters with both potato fudge and potato vodka, among others).
Suffice to say, for now, that when I discovered that the radio station on the island was called Spud FM, I knew I was in the right place. Add to that copious helpings of the island’s lobster, oysters and mussels (and cheese, and beer) and it only got better. I quickly knew – perhaps as some of those settlers had done before me – that I would feel right at home on PEI.