Tofino’s Clayoquot Oyster Festival is scaled back this year as organizers reflect on last year’s norovirus outbreak.

Tofino’s Clayoquot Oyster Festival scaled back for 2017

Organizers optimistic about years to come

DREW PENNER

Special to the Westerly

Despite last year’s local celebration of oysters having led to the infection of over 100 people with norovirus, ground zero for the 400 people who caught the vomiting-bug across Canada, a few local restaurants are carrying on the two-decade tradition in a scaled-back festival that will kick off on Nov. 16.

And, while some participants in this year’s miniaturized program admit little has changed to guard against shellfish consumption risks, they say they hope the events can help educate the public on the realities of oyster cultivation.

“It was just a big gathering of the community,” said Bobby Lax, one of the organizers of the Clayoquot Oyster Festival, referring to the dozen or so restaurants that would take part. “We’ve just decided that this year would be kind of like a bridge year.”

Gone are the vivacious costumes of the Mermaid’s Ball, as well as the frenetic voting on which local culinary artist has the best oyster preparation techniques. The minds behind the fest are taking a breather to rebuild, and some of the chefs who’ve decided to offer up oysters this year’s productions, say they hope to see municipal and legislative changes brought in to safeguard an industry so close to Tofino’s economic heart.

Paul Moran, executive chef for 1909 Kitchen at Tofino Resort and Marina, has only been in town eight months so far, but having spent the past four summers working on Haida Gwaii, he’s familiar with the West Coast food scene.

“The whole concept is just to collaborate with our oyster producers,” he said of the set menu and champagne tasting TRM is hosting Nov. 18. “Not only are these people our suppliers, they’re also our partners.”

Kathy and Victor McLaggan of the Out Landish Shellfish Guild, as well as a representative from Calgary-based Pacific Wine and Spirits, will be on hand to enlighten guests about the realities behind the production of Marina Top Drawer oysters and Tatinger champagne.

Over five courses, featuring scallops, oysters and cod, attendees will be brought face to face with the oceans bounty, even if none of the oysters originate from the Tofino area.

“What Kathy and Victor are doing is working with nature,” he said, of the Out Landish cultivation methods in the Quadra and Cortes islands area, which he saw first-hand during a chefs’ retreat earlier this year. “There’s very little manipulation. The only thing they ever do is move around some rocks and put down a few bars to keep them from getting washed away in the storm.”

Guests will even get to learn how to sabre a bottle of champagne.

“It’s a really fun party trick,” he said, suggesting people should start learning now ahead of New Years festivities. “It’s a great way to get practiced up.”

Diners are encouraged to wear their best whites and pearls to the $59 event.

While Oyster Fest organizers say norovirus could have been introduced by an attendee, and BC Centre for Disease Control researchers suggest ocean currents may have contaminated oyster farms on both the East and West coast of Vancouver Island with sewage, Moran believes government red tape contributed.

“I think it’s the processing plants,” he said, explaining that instead of getting to inspect their own oysters, producers have to send shellfish off to a third-party intermediary before consumers can slurp back the bivalve meat—an extra layer where contamination could occur. “It doesn’t matter how much care and attention the oysters are harvested in and what they do to be within food safe regulations…They’re still relying on the processing plants to bag and tag their oysters.”

He’d like to see politicians prioritize the food system, allowing shellfish producers to have more control over their product.

Executive Chef Warren Barr says the previous incarnation of Oyster Fest provided a real wake up call.

“Unfortunately, after last year’s festival, we know a number of people had fallen ill and the results of that greatly affected the participants, the hospitality providers, and was a devastating blow to the Salish oyster industry,” he said, adding norovirus is just one of many health issues related to global food production that have come to light in the past decade. “The oyster industry has responded with even more strict standards and frequency of sampling and testing.”

But, the local hospitality industry must remain vigilant about hygiene procedures, Barr stresses, underlining the importance of Tofino’s planned sewage treatment facility, which is meant to stop the flow of nearly-raw sewage into the ocean.

“We most certainly take the health of our guests very seriously and ensure we are purchasing from quality suppliers to reduce any potential risks,” he said.

“We are optimistic that the Clayoquot Oyster Festival will carry on and continue to be a drawing card for culinary aficionados for many years to come.”

For event details, visit: http://www.oystergala.com/events.

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