Blue Water Café’s periwinkles with saffron aioli, Tim Pawsey photo

UPDATED, Jan 17, 2013. It’s a long way from British Columbia to Cornwall, in the South West of England. But, beyond the stunning scenery—which is in some ways quite reminiscent of Canada’s west coast—there are some other similarities. That beautiful part of the world is where, growing up, I learned to appreciate some of our more unusual and all too often often ignored seafood species.

That thought crossed my mind as we worked our way through a tasting of Frank Pabst’s remarkable Unsung Heroes menu, which runs at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café through February.

Mullion Cove, Tim Pawsey photo

Just a few miles from Mullion Cove (where a couple of years ago we feasted on Cornish crab), after we’d climbed down a cliffside trail to a secret cove and fired up a (hopefully) trusty inboard, my dad introduced me to the joys of early morning mackerel spinning. We’d venture out a few hundred yards and throw out the spinners and chug gently along, usually to be well rewarded. Once we’d pulled in a half dozen, it was really only a matter of an hour from ocean to grill—often with a few fresh picked mushrooms to go along.

Oysters were not as plentiful (compared to the wealth we enjoy in BC) but mussels and winkles (steamed, coaxed out their shells with a needle—they’re a lot smaller than BC’s—and eaten with buttered bread) were a regular treat. So were large shrimp, caught in a special net with a flat edge that rested on the sand—yielding an early lesson in the perils of by-catch, though only the wriggly, jumping crustacea were taken.

It’s nine years since Blue Water Café chef Frank Pabst decided to take up the cause of promoting lesser-known but sustainable seafood species—especially when west coast salmon are out of season.

Blue Water Café’s Frank Pabst, Tracy Kusiewicz photo

Encouraging people to try something new is all part of the challenge, says the chef, who adds the secret is to package the ‘unsung’ components with other, more familiar ingredients.

“The intention is not to mask the flavours but just to disguise them slightly, so that you still get the essence of each species—but packaged in a way that makes them more approachable,” he explains. Case in point?  His landmark 2008 Gold Medal Plates win, whose scallop and sea urchin mousse wowed not only the judges but the hundreds in attendance.

“They were surprised how much they liked it,” he laughs.

apple schnapps pickled herring, smoked potato sponge, Tim Pawsey photo

What’s worth tasting? Just about everything… Go for the spot prawn, oyster and scallop ceviche, perked up with serano chili (great with Peter  Lehmann Eden Valley Riesling); nibble on those periwinkles with the seductive saffron aioli; the pickled herring with smoked potato sponge … and don’t miss Pabst’s crostiniwrapped sardine with pine nut gremolata and cardoon salad with candied grapefruit rind and olives, that’s truly transformed.***

However, it occurs to us that by now many of these marine species should no longer be as ‘unsung’ as they still are. Surely, with the diaspora we enjoy, are sardines that hard to get your head (or taste buds) around? Anybody who’s tasted Sun Sui Wah’s cold appetizer platter knows that jellyfish is delicious.

While even Pabst admits sea cucumber and herring roe can be a bit of a stretch for some folks, should it really be such a challenge in a city so adventuresome and flavourfully diverse as Vancouver to get people to eat sardines? Or periwinkles—a sea snail by any other name?

After all, we can think of at least one much celebrated part of the culinary world where they rush out and scoop up land snails as soon as the rain stops…

They eat escargots, don’t they?


*** These are popular items from previous years, many of which will be on the 2013 menu.

Blue Water Café’s Unsung Heroes menu runs through February, with 10 percent of all proceeds donated to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise seafood program. Reservations: 604-688-8078.

Unsung trio: octopus with chickpeas and red pepper; sardine in blanket, pine nut gremolata, cardoon; mackerel, baba ghanoush, preserved beech mushrooms, Tim Pawsey photo