Monday, September 9, 2013

The Twelve Days of Seafood

I spent the final two weeks of August travelling the remote corners of Nova Scotia with my girlfriend's family. While I have backpacked across Canada twice, I ran out of steam (and funds) before I could reach the Maritimes during both efforts. Have you ever actually looked at a map of Nova Scotia and PEI? They are essentially islands east of the Eastern Seaboard. I was really excited to see New Scotland, partly over meeting Erin's relatives, partly over visiting some of my own family heritage sites, and partly over the world class seafood that comes from this quaint province. I was so excited by the prospect of eating East Coast marine life on a daily basis that I set a challenge for myself: The Twelve Days of Seafood. I did this with Mexican food when I visited LA and Pasadena with my dad in March of 2013, and I found this intense culinary schedule rewarding when comparing specific dishes and (literally) internalizing the cuisine of a unique locale. The idea of an enchilada wasn't all that appealing for a few weeks after returning from LA, and I am not currently host to a burning desire for smoked haddock, but I maintain that this approach to dining in foreign cities and cultures has its obsessive compulsive advantages. I now present to you, The Twelve Days of Seafood: 

Day 1 - Lobster Roll

Knowing that I had this mammoth gastronomical challenge ahead of me, I was craving crustaceans as soon as I entered the province. We went to a new bar-bistro in downtown Halifax on August 20th to meet a group of Erin's highschool buddies. It was called Two Doors Down and is a slightly more casual version of the city's celebrated Chives Bistro. They had a cool menu, featuring local seafood and Halifax beers. While they had numerous attractive options, I zeroed in on the Brioche Lobster Roll, the quintessential East Coast sandwich. This was a starter, so it was small (it even came with miniature potato chips) but it was all claw. It was also lightly dressed, so the lobster was the focus. A great start to the trip. 

Day 2 - Whole Fresh Lobster 
After running some errands and grabbing a coffee at Dartmouth's outstanding Two If By Sea, we drove down to Nova Scotia's South Shore, which is about two hours south-west from Halifax. After visiting the UNESCO town of Lunenburg and seeing the near-complete Bluenose II, we picked up four giant local lobsters and quickly drove them back home. We cooked these beastly bugs outside by steaming them in Boxing Rock Temptation Red Ale, which imbued the lobster meat with a sweet and slightly hoppy flavour. Erin and I had never bought and cooked our own lobster, so this was a memorable night indeed. 

Day 3 - Halibut 
We departed for a mini road trip beginning on August 22nd, heading up to the North Fundy Shore to Advocate. After visiting with Erin's maternal aunt Jane in Economy and buying a wheel of Stinging Nettle Gouda from Den Hoek (aka Damn Dutchman Cheese), we headed towards Cape Chignecto for dinner at Wild Caraway. This converted boutique hotel and restaurant is quietly becoming famous in the province for their exquisite use of local ingredients. I ordered the Atlantic halibut with baby hodgepodge and Erin ordered the local scallops with nasturtium salad. The halibut was braised and moist, and the buttery hodgepodge was composed entirely of new carrots, peas, fingerlings, and beans. 

Day 4 - Sole 
We headed north from Chignecto towards Amherst, at the New Brunswick border, on August 23rd. After a fascinating pit-stop at the Joggins Fossil Museum (with interactive eroding cliffsides!) we spent the evening at the Amherst Shore Inn. The Inn has a restaurant with a rotating daily menu, and the owner Mary Laceby takes pride in serving Nova Scotia seafood. I had the Sole Florentine. It was a warm and hearty meal. The sole was stuffed with spinach and basil, and then baked with tomatoes and garlic. 

Day 5 - Maple Smoked Atlantic Salmon 
We spent the 24th driving to the beach house that once belonged to Erin's maternal grandma at Cape John. This was also Erin's dad's birthday, so we loaded up on beer and sausages from the cleverly named Pork Shop in Tatamagouche for an evening pig-out. "Pork isn't seafood, Alex!" I hear you proclaiming. I know, dear reader...I know. Fortunately, we picked up some smoked Atlantic salmon to enjoy for lunch on the beach at Cape John that day. Phew! The Twelve Days of Seafood was nearly spoilt. St Mary's River Atlantic salmon products are a Maritime staple. 

Day 6 - Halibut 
The Chanterelle Inn is a hidden hilltop house right on the Cabot Trail that offers quiet, quaint rooms and an exclusive restaurant that seats no more than twenty people. Owner Earlene Busch and chef Bryan Picard are incredibly proud of what Cape Breton has to offer, and this is reflected in the décor and cuisine. The fish of the day on our first night at the Inn was line-caught halibut with roasted baby tomatoes. I preferred the flavour of this halibut to the halibut at Wild Caraway, but it was also a bit drier and dense than the fish at Caraway. It was a lovely meal with a calming sunset out on Chanterelle's covered patio. 

Day 7 - Seafood Bouillabaisse 
The dishes prepared by Bryan Picard at the Chanterelle Inn were so good on our first night that we opted to dine in for our second night there. Like the aforementioned Amherst Shore and Wild Caraway Inn, the Chanterelle features local ingredients. The ingredients that Bryan uses are not only all from Nova Scotia, they are from Cape Breton itself, and the daily fresh menu lists the origins of each product. Incredible! The feature on this second night was the Seafood Bouillabaisse which contained crab leg, haddock, scallops, shrimp, and one large poached oyster. The broth was translucent and carried just a hint of spice. 

Day 8 - Cape Breton Mussels 
After driving some of the Cabot Trail and walking the Skyline, we stopped at Cheticamp for a light lunch. Well, it was supposed to be a light lunch. Little did I know that the $9 mussel lunch at the Acadian would consist of nearly 50 bivalves, presented as a pile in front of me. Basking in schadenfreude, Erin and her parents watched as I worked my way through this mound of unbearded and gamey-tasting mussels. Not my favourite Nova Scotia meal, but memorable. 

Day 9 - Digby Scallops 
We were in Bear River at Erin's cottage from August 28th-31st and planned to meet Erin's Aunt Blanche and cousin Meaghan at The Digby Pines. The Pines harkens back to the age of destination resorts, shuffleboard, and black tie dining. It has adapted to, and essentially suffered through, the current economic recession but still has an exceptional restaurant and property. Since we were in Digby, my entrée choice was a no-brainer. My seared scallops were simple, sweet, and succulent. They were served with a garlic bread pudding and some sautéed seasonal vegetables.

Day 10 - Oysters 
Family friends, Phil and Diane, came to Erin's cottage in Bear River and brought two dozen oysters with them. This was a great opportunity for Erin and I to try shucking for the first time, and it was harder than we thought it would be. These oysters did taste different from BC oysters, but I'm not really sure how to describe it. They were meaty but fairly mild. It seems like many oyster species grown in BC waters are smaller and more metallic tasting. Thanks Phil and Diane! 

Day 11 - Fried Clams 
One of my dad's friends, Scott, is from New England and always complains that it is impossible to find fried clam on the West Coast. It's actually true. Fried clams are not a "thing" here, despite our access to good eating clams. So, knowing that I was venturing to the Eastern Seaboard, Scott insisted that I hunt this delicacy down. We found them at Vicki's Fish and Chips outside of Annapolis. They fry the entire clam at Vicki's, which is much preferable to clam strips, which are just the feet (foots?) of the clam. I showered my ginormous pile of clams with lemon and vinegar and dug in. If only Vicki's served cold beer...  

Day 12 - Crab Cakes 
I actually forgot to eat seafood on our last day in Nova Scotia. We were busy packing and doing chores during the day, and then we went out with Erin's friends in Halifax that night. While drinking at The Split Crow, I was recapitulating my culinary accomplishments when one of Erin's friends asked what I had consumed that day. My jaw dropped and, at 10pm, I called the waiter over to see if the kitchen was still open. It was, and I ordered crab cakes, which were dense and paired nicely with my Propeller.

People keep asking me what my favourite meal was, amidst all of these gastronomical delights. And in all honesty it was the simple marinara and cold beer that Esther and Dennis, Erin's parents, prepared for us right after we arrived. Meeting and enjoying the company of the two people that produced my one true love was undoubtedly more memorable and meaningful than any umami oyster or savory shellfish.

Keywords: "Best Halifax Seafood", "Two If By Sea", "Alex Dawkins Vancouver"

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