Sweet Surprise Gluten Free Bakery and Cafe – Courtenay, BC
There’s something interesting about the transformation of a wonderful community into a tourist destination. It’s not always easy, neither does the community always survive the shift – quiet, innovative and imaginative local businesses that are built on kindness, quality, and care for one’s neighbour, the land, and the spirit of the area often find themselves drinking from the firehose that tourism brings. A crush of people from somewhere else descend at once, all wanting an authentic experience and a piece of their time here to take home, and they want it now, and distilled into five minutes of interaction with folks who they may in fact never see again. That can bring out the worst in people – both the tourist demanding attention like a spoiled child, and the exasperated townspeople who’ve just about had enough of the visitors, notwithstanding the money they bring. Which makes it all the more wonderful to come across those that have made the shift, that continue living their passion and delivering the highest quality with grace and friendliness to whomever comes in the door.
There’s a small group of connected towns about 100 km north of Nanaimo, BC – Royston, Courtenay, and Comox – that are just on the cusp of figuring out how to do this. Yeah, you might occasionally get sworn at if you have Alberta plates on your car, and there aren’t nearly enough signs yet to guide you towards the local attractions, but in the middle of all this change are some really outstanding, world-class people with businesses that – mark my words – are the foundation that’s turning these towns into world-class destinations.
On top of all the other factors to plan and justify a vacation someplace, the celiac traveler has to add one more – basic but absolutely fundamental. Where am I going to eat? We’ve all been there – scouring the travel websites, googling “Gluten-free restaurants in Boston”, wondering if rural Italy understands gluten, calling ahead to see if the Wendy’s on Highway 1 through Golden does their fries in a dedicated fryer, and, (sighing), packing extra loaves of GF bread and cold cuts in a cooler as the fallback, while the rest of the world eats their way through their vacations without a care in the world.
There IS such a place that emphatically answers this question in Courtenay, BC, though – Sweet Surprise Gluten Free Bakery and Cafe. Yes, the name’s sensibly self-explanatory – but let me emphasize this: Everything that Heidi Lochmatter and Alex Lochmatter do out of an impossibly small kitchen and quaint little bistro out front at the corner of Cliffe Avenue and 5th Street is not only completely gluten free – it’s so indescribably delicious and imaginative and memory-making that after a mere 24 months in business, these ladies are planting the flag: Celiacs deserve destination vacations, and Courtenay’s ready to play host.
This mother-daughter duo’s reputation already precedes them. The Royston Coffee Roastery features pastries from Sweet Surprise. Restaurants in town have standing orders for their amazing array of breads, rolls, and desserts. Their walls are already covered with grateful testimonials from brides whose GF wedding cakes were the piece-de-resistance topping a fabulous day. And the steady stream of regulars through the front door speaks for itself – having gotten their start at one of BC’s most extensive and well-known farmer’s markets in the Comox Valley, the Lochmatters now have a base of operations on which this business will absolutely thrive.
So what’s there to eat? Depends on the day. (No limited, asterisked afterthoughts on a GF menu here). There’s a rotating bread schedule – featuring not just one, but several completely different loaves every day.
Need to secure a loaf in advance? They do that too – you can book a mock rye (made with teff, which ferments perfectly to match that taste) to pick up on Thursday, or an asiago and roasted garlic foccacia on Wednesday. Fresh donuts – the pillowy, yeasty, fantastic kind – you can get every Saturday. Plain rolls, cheese rolls and baguettes you can get every day – and on those rolls, they’ll make you a sandwich to go. Not just some plain-jane ham and cheese, but something that declares this GF sandwich is a gourmet event – smoked cheddar, arugula, savory spreads of a secret family recipe, and cured charcuterie that are expertly nestled in a bun that’s springy, yeasty, chewy, and perfect. And the bagels! The bagels – fat, fabulous, chewy, stretchy bagels. Several flavours, absolutely to die for – and they stay that way for more than a day.
Need dessert? (Stupid question – doesn’t everyone need dessert?). What have you got? Cinnamon buns! Real cinnamon buns, with that golden, sticky bottom, and for good measure – chunks of local apples poached in an apple cider vinegar reduction, just enough so that they spring back when you bite them – not a hint of mush here! Individual rhubarb pies – crowned with a sugared pastry star. Impossibly vertical cupcakes, topped with chocolate-dipped fruit. Raspberry-Blueberry cheesecakes – the baked, European kind. And continuing in the symphony of local berries – full-on fancy dessert tortes, expertly iced and meticulously garnished. Not to mention the dizzying array of nutty, chocolatey, fruity, raisiney, bars – dense, dark, delicious, and complete with altogether appropriate addiction warnings.
You might think that one would tend to closely guard the secrets to their success. (How the heck do they make those bagels so “bagely”?) Not so. As just another testament to the passion they bring to this business, Heidi and Alex have written not one, but two cookbooks – which you can pick up in the store, and with which they’ll include a bag of their own blend of GF flour. These are not only filled with recipes that will become staples in your GF kitchen – they’re absorbing and fascinating reads, revealing the kind of restlessness you find in great artists – “Yeah, yeah, it’s good, it’s good, but let’s do MORE, what’s next? What’s next?” I dropped in Friday to pick up a couple loaves of sourdough ordered on Wednesday – and Heidi pulled out of the oven a pan of the latest – paleo buns, made with no grain whatsoever: pumpkin seed flour, defatted flax seed, coconut oil, and (I shoulda taken notes) a couple other ingredients. “Feel these! Feel how springy they are! We’re really proud of these!”
I felt them. And very proud they should be.
Our GF community is just getting to the place where we are starting to see that life can be made just as delicious as the gluten-eating world has it. We’re making recipes, venturing back into our kitchens, sharing tips, really tasting things, and eventually, becoming discriminating gourmets in our own right. How refreshing it is to come across a place like Sweet Surprise, where the Lochmatters are pouring the kind of innovative passion that breeds Michelin stars into making truly remarkable food that happens to be specifically and unashamedly gluten-free.
So – if you’re planning a trip to the coast, (and even if you weren’t): Westjet flies directly into Comox, which is a scant 10 minutes up the road from Courtenay. You could, therefore, make it a day trip. Lots to see out there – a distillery that makes astonishingly good spirits entirely from honey, an incredible summer music festival, a world-famous oyster fishery, waterfalls, natural parks, a lavender farm, kayaking amidst salmon-hunting seals… no need to rewrite the Vancouver Island travel website. But there’s also an emerging little cafe where gluten free is done perfectly. And that, folks, is worth the trip.