On Galiano Island, chef Jesse McCleery has discovered a garden of delights. Sometimes, they show up at his back door, a gift from a stranger bearing a basket of local quince or a bucket of walnuts. Other times, he finds them himself as he explores the island, stumbling across a patch of wild mushrooms, perhaps, or a long-forgotten orchard ripe for the picking.
McCleery then turns these natural delights into culinary art at Pilgrimme, the restaurant he and his partner Leanne Lalonde own and operate on this warm, welcoming island.
“Galiano is so interesting with its microclimate and what can grow,” says McCleery, who is constantly inspired by the island’s natural bounty. “There are quite a few farms and backyard growers, and so many people we’ve met here grow an amazing array of things.” Among that array are a remarkable and sometimes unexpected variety of fruits and vegetables, from asparagus, broccoli and eggplant to figs, plums and quince.
Eroded sandstone formation, Galiano Island
The second largest of the Southern Gulf Islands, Galiano is a 55-minute ferry ride from Tsawwassen. Stretching 27.5 kilometres long, but only six kilometres wide, the island’s slender shape means the Salish Sea is always just a short stroll away. Countless trails wind through the untamed forests that cover most of the island, many of them emerging on wave-swept beaches that offer glimpses of the resident orcas swimming in the emerald-green waters offshore.
Pod of orca’s off Galiano Island
“Galiano attracts a lot of people wanting a change and wanting to get out of the city,” says McCleery. “I like the fact that it’s somewhere quiet where I can go for walks and focus on cooking.”
Only 1,044 people live here, but they surely dine well. Aside from Pilgrimme, the island has a surprising number of bakeries, pubs, food trucks, bistros and cafes. But it is Pilgrimme that is currently attracting foodies from all over the world. When enRoute magazine named it one of Canada’s best new restaurants of 2015, its fate as a culinary destination was sealed.
Initially, Galiano was meant to be just a short detour for McCleery. The Winnipeg-born chef had been cooking at a resort in the Great Bear Rainforest when the owners suddenly shut the operation down. This happened just a few months before he was to begin a six-month internship cooking at Noma, the celebrated two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen that has reinvented Nordic food. So, to bide his time before leaving for Denmark, McCleery took a catering gig on Galiano Island. “I fell in love with it,” he says.
When he returned from Europe, as chance would have it, a decades-old restaurant on Galiano had just closed, its space waiting for him to take it over.
Housed in a wooden cabin surrounded by cedar and Douglas fir, Pilgrimme is tiny—it has only 25 seats and is open for dinner just four days a week in the winter (six days a week in the summer). The warm glow of paper lanterns beckons guests up a path through the trees. Inside, driftwood sculptures, woodsy paintings and a mellow playlist welcome diners to rustic tables set with local potter Kasumi Lampitoc’s hand-thrown plates.
On those plates, McCleery serves dishes that are hauntingly beautiful masterpieces of texture and flavour. Inspired partly by the lessons he learned while working at Noma, he ferments, pickles, preserves, grills, smokes, chars and finds myriad ways to transform the humblest of ingredients—local kale, turnips, seaweed, nettles, potatoes, hazelnuts, salmon roe, octopus, tuna, duck eggs and edible lichens—into food that is as much a spiritual experience as it is a gustatory one.
Pilgrimme delectables; Photo credit: Rush Jagoe
The menu changes regularly, but typical dining highlights might include Galiano potatoes in kelp oil with smoked and pickled bull kelp, salmon roe and a charred buttermilk; hay baked and smoked rutabaga with fermented heritage barley grits and pear; or, for dessert, steamed bran and parsnip cake drizzled in caramel honey with quince and dulse.
Remarkably, more than 90 per cent of his produce comes from the island, and a fair amount of the proteins, too, including the duck eggs, seafood and lamb. He preserves what he can for winter and brings the rest from Vancouver Island or mainland BC.
“Our menu is driven by what’s available each week,” he says. “The whole menu is inspired by the island.”
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