Over four days every September, crowds of shellfish lovers convene in a huge white tent on the Charlottetown waterfront. They’re looking for the best and freshest of Prince Edward Island seafood. The mood is festive and the air is infused with the salty tang of mussels, oysters and lobster. More than 10,000 visitors attend the annual PEI International Shellfish Festival where they soak up the briny atmosphere and slurp down shellfish, in all its delectable forms.
The PEI International Shellfish Festival has been running since 1995 and has grown steadily in scope and popularity. The event’s 25th annual celebration will be held September 17-20, 2020 and it promises to be the biggest and best yet. In fact, now is a good time to start planning a visit, since several of the Festival events sold out early in 2019! Here’s a rundown of the 2019 Festival, with some advice in advance so you don’t miss anything.
THE FOOD – Naturally, food figures largely in every Shellfish Festival experience. Prince Edward Island is Canada’s Food Island after all. The Festival provides multiple means to enjoy PEI’s shellfish, starting with the opening dinner, when, believe it or not, 450 lobster suppers are served, in the tent, on fine china by talented chefs from across the continent. Prior to sitting down to a sumptuous surf and turf meal of Island lobster and beef, guests are treated to chowder made with PEI potatoes of course, and – if that weren’t enough – unlimited sampling from the World’s Greatest Oyster Bar. Fancy a Pickle Point, a Shiny Sea, a Colville Bay, or one of about 20 other boutique PEI oyster brands? Even if you are not an oyster aficionado, you will soon come to understand the subtle differences in flavours from one harvest area to another. (Our advice on this one? Buy tickets early as the 2019 dinner was sold out in August.)
Then for the next three days, some of PEI’s finest seafood purveyors locate on site to serve up their signature shellfish dishes, ranging all the way from Deep-fried Lobster Tail to Steamed PEI Mussels with Craft Beer and Bacon. Experienced Festival goers are wise enough to save some room for “Buck a Shuck” oyster happy hours.
And those in the know hang around at judging time to taste a sample of the competing chowders.
In terms of culinary competitions, the 2019 PEI International Shellfish Festival had a definite international factor with chefs from around North America arriving in Charlottetown with the hope of creating the most delicious shellfish dish, and collecting the rich $10,000 prize in the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge. The group of 12 included last year’s winner Darren Rogers from Park Restaurant in Montreal; Matthew Sullivan from the esteemed MLSE Restaurant in Toronto; Robyn Almodovar from Palate Party in Wilton Manors, Florida; Juan Pedrosa, chef at the Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar in Boston; David Viana from Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, New Jersey; Alex Lira of Estadio in Charleston, South Carolina; Brian Thibodeau is currently Sous-chef at restaurants Park and Lavanderia in Montreal; Daniel Kim from the Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar in Vancouver; Alex Fitzgerald’s current location is Mallard Cottage in Newfoundland; and Christine Hazel, from North Shore Bar and Kitchen in Wildwood, New Jersey. Two chefs from PEI were competing in 2019: Jesse MacDonald of David’s Restaurant at the Rodd Crowbush Resort was winner of the provincial Best of Sea challenge for the second year in a row, and Nick Chindamo, chef at The Inn at Bay Fortune in Fortune PEI, who was just off a win at the 2019 Restaurants Canada Garland Chefs Competition.
In the end, in the final heat David Viana and Nick Chindamo went head to head with Chef Viana taking home the grand prize for 2019.
Once the big guys had wrapped up their heats, the little chefs took the stage to show off their skills in the Dairy Farmers of Canada Junior Chef competition. 2019 was the second year for the event, and 9-15 year-old-competitors were every bit as fierce and creative in their culinary creations. Lilly Coughlin came out on top in 2019, winning the award for her creation of Lobster Mobster.
While skilled oyster shuckers could be found in every corner of the Festival tent, the fastest were up on stage, shucking knives poised, ready to beat the clock as they pried open one dozen PEI oysters as fast as humanly possible. In addition to lightning speed, the competing shuckers are required to deliver a clean product with no grit, shell or blood in the final half shell. In 2019, Daniel Oatway won the Shiny Sea PEI competition and Mike Osborne won the Raspberry Point International shucking competition.
Canada’s Food Island is famous for more than top-quality shellfish of course; PEI potatoes are esteemed across the country. Local potato growers offer a prize to prove that PEI shellfish and potatoes can make a perfect marriage in a seafood chowder recipe. In 2019 Chef Erin Henry won the title for best PEI Potato Chowder with a recipe that combines potatoes, carrots and yellow beans with lobster, mussels and scallops – with lots of cream and butter of course!
Island mussel growers are proud of the skill it takes to produce the renowned Prince Edward Island mussel, and each year they face off to earn the prize in the Tie One On competition. Shane Bernard won that title in 2019.
A perfect beverage to pair with all that seafood goodness is the Canadian classic cocktail, the Caesar. Local bartenders go over the top to show off their creativity in mixing and garnishing the clamato and vodka drink. Madison James from the Merchantman Pub in Charlottetown won the Mott’s Clamato prize for Best Caesar – could it have anything to do with her stunning full-body lobster suit!
The Canadian Maritime region is known for its great depth of musical talent, and no event is complete without kitchen party-style entertainment. We start them early in the area, and the pre-teen stepdancers are real crowd pleasers. Feel like dancing yourself? Friday and Saturday’s schedules finish up the evenings with party bands, beverages and a lively dance floor.