“Look at all the things we produce here!” says a market vendor as he points to a panorama of seafood, meats, fruits, greens, cheeses and wines. While Tall Ships sail past the famous Pier 21, through which millions once entered the gateway to Canada, the oldest farmer’s market in North America reflects the rich tapestry of Nova Scotia…
Traditionally a seafood-based cuisine, the bar has been raised—from the calibre of chefs to what they’re able to source—and high-end dining in Halifax has become a foregone conclusion. It’s an eclectic, cosmopolitan scene. Take, for example, Chef Dennis Johnston of Fid Resto. Dedicated to local suppliers, he prepares his “mayhem” of veggies and farmer’s market inspirations, but it’s when he adds a global twist, with his renowned panko-crusted salt cod cakes, that he wows us.
At Stories, in the historic boutique The Halliburton, the freshest quality ingredients need no complication. There is no bread and no potato in the crab cakes—and no need —they are packed to the seams with crab and scallop and lightly seasoned to enhance their truest fruition. Tender braised local lamb, house-made herbed gnocchi and local blue cheese presented in an individual-sized crock exemplifies the finesse required to cook simply, with delicacy, such bold flavours.
Choosing one dish per course at Gio is not an easy task, as Chef Vince Scigliano demonstrates his artistry. Grilled asparagus with bacon vinaigrette, pecorino and arugula, is topped with an egg yolk tempura that, when cut, drapes over the warm salad and emulsifies the vinaigrette. Pheasant breast stuffed with confit leg and pear, with a red wine and blueberry jus and shaved foie gras torchon on onion and cardamom purée is a luxurious melding of flavours and textures.
Brunch in Halifax means Jane’s On The Common for sweet potato breakfast biscuits enveloping aged white cheddar, bacon and a whole free-range egg. This one’s to go, as we drive north to the Bay of Fundy.
Road Trip Fare
Stopping in Wolfville, we visit Tangled Garden for spoonfuls of jam: strawberry and lavender, apple and sage, and blueberry and lemon verbena. A rustic lab of jellies, jams, vinegars, salsas, herb liqueurs and herb ice creams, experimenting with herbs and fruits is what it’s all about here. Ginger lime thyme jelly, quince rosemary chutney and hot peach salsa instantly reinvent any dish.
When was the last time we enjoyed a glass of milk from an old-fashioned glass bottle? Foxhill Cheese House’s fresh pasteurized, non-homogenized, all natural milk from Holstein and Jersey cows makes us wax nostalgic. Only hours old before processing, the milk solids are all in there, we are told. They haven’t been touched. Rich cheeses, natural vanilla yogurt and creamy gelato are low in salt and very high in comfort.
The finnan haddie and chorizo chowder at Tempest Restaurant is a velvety smooth confluence of smoke and spice with generous pieces of haddock and sausage. Local and sustainable crispy skinned sea bass with capers is meticulously plated with salsa verde, Tuscan white bean purée and tomato compote. Also of note on some menu items is Chef Michael Howell’s use of sea vegetables from Acadian Seaplants to add flavour and colour. Located in Dartmouth, Acadian Seaplants is the largest facility of its kind in the world. Focused on traceability, quality and purity, this Canadian company’s premium edible garnish is quietly appearing on select menus. Macrobiotic, gluten free and organic, each frond contains nutrients and amino acids and is thought to enable stress reduction.
At Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound, the tide rises, the tide falls, twice daily. We pick our own lobster, weigh it, take it to the cookhouse and wait in the dining room while our host shows us the difference between male and female, left and right handed and, just in case, how to make a lobster go to sleep (curl it up and stroke its tail).
Along the French shore to Yarmouth we sample rappie pie, Acadian soul food of gelatinous, starchy potato. It’s an acquired taste. But at Chez Christophe, it’s seafood as soul food: our platter of giant scallops, seasoned haddock and firm shrimp are fresh from the bay just outside the restaurant. Clean, plump and hearty, it’s this seafood lover’s dream.
Deep in the wilderness of Acadia we arrive at Trout Point Lodge, and are greeted with a refreshing glass of Annapolis Highland Vineyards Geisenheim Reisling, the “astronomy of the day,” proffered by a resident astronomer, and a home-baked oatmeal pecan cookie. In the golden autumn morning we hike, paddle and fly-fish for brook trout. In the kitchen we are taught how to prepare the essential Nova Scotian dish: chowder, to feature seafood in a way that is accessible, nourishing and warm.
Whether chowder, stew, bisque or soup, each bowl along our journey is chock-a-block full of seafood. The waters are so rich in nutrients that the fresh scallops from Adams & Knickle are puck sized; mussels from Indian Point fill up their shells; and oysters, with a sweet cucumber taste, from Eel Lake Oyster Farm, grow to a 3-inch jumbo size. Meandering along the “chowder trail” we visit the Swiss inspired Charlotte Lane in Shelbourne for a sea harvest chowder of scallops, shrimp and haddock with a sprig of tarragon, and seared plump scallops with orange sesame ginger drizzle. In Lunenburg, at Grand Banker Bar & Grill, we ladle a gumbo style stew of haddock, scallops, jumbo shrimp, and muscles simmered in a rich Cajun broth; and at the renowned Fleur de Sel, a roasted squash and apple soup is lovingly adorned with crisp spaghetti squash and olive oil poached lobster.
Lunenburg, traditionally known as the Balsam Fir Christmas tree capital of the world, now has another claim to fame: the Haskap berry. Originally from Siberia and Northern Japan, it made its way to Saskatchewan. But, after finding the perfect soil and micro-climate to match the crop, Lunenburg County became the most coveted region for growing this potent berry. Oblong and purple, it is distinct for the pigment in its flesh and its two layers of skin, which equates to twice the level of vitamin C, A, fibre, polyphenols and bioflavonoids of other berries. At The Wooden Monkey in Halifax, we sample haskap ice cream and haskap smoothies; and at Lunenburg’s Ironworks Distillery, it’s the haskap liqueur, reminiscent of blackberries, but with more zing. We wouldn’t be in Nova Scotia if there weren’t also blueberry liqueur and, new to the market, their vodka, distilled not from grain or potatoes, but from Annapolis Valley apples. It is very approachable and smooth with a hint of fruit essence.
Before returning home, we stop at Clearwater Seafood to have a 3lb live lobster couriered to my unsuspecting friend at his Toronto office. A dramatic shock to his afternoon? Perhaps, but there’s nothing more Nova Scotian than sharing in the taste and the experience.
While there is a long history of wine in Nova Scotia, recently many wineries are attracting the attention of the world. The L’Acadie Blanc is Nova Scotia’s quintessential grape and pairs naturally with seafood. Domaine de Grande Pré’s Tidal Bay is a gold medal winning “white hybrid blend” of L’Acadie, Vidal, Ortega, Muscat and Seyval. Bright, dry and crisp, it has a fresh and complex nose and lingers on the palate. Pomme d’Or is made from a variety of local apples, and tastes of baked apple and caramel. Gaspereau Vineyards Maple Wine is fermented maple syrup fortified with L’Acadie brandy for a smooth and rich maple flavour. The 2010 Rosé is made from freshly crushed Lucie Kuhlmann grapes. Copper coloured, with an aromatic bouquet of cranberries and strawberries, its round mouth-feel pairs well with Atlantic salmon. L’Acadie Vineyards is the first certified organic vine.yard in the region and its gold medal winning Prestige Brut is an elegant celebration of the L’Acadie grape with its toasty aroma and fine bubbles. The Benjamin Bridge Vineyards Nova 7 is an exceptional blend of Muscat. Gentle, floral, tropical and fresh, its balance of minerals and acidity make it stunningly effervescent. We will line up for a sip. – Adam Waxman