I am haunted by the taste of a lobster. Certainly, I had savored other crustaceans before this tender burst of salt tang arrived on my plate one summer evening some nine years ago.
It was my first trip to my partner’s hometown of Windsor, N.S.. As a landlubber from Toronto, I would forever be “from away.” As a welcome, my new in-laws brought home “the feed” of lobster, as East Coasters say, “right off the boat,” though they were really purchased at seafood wholesaler Paturel’s International in Shediac, New Brunswick, and boiled, properly, in a pot of ocean water. It was a brilliant ploy.
The first taste made me instantly and insatiably hungry for the sea. Try as I might to satisfy my new craving at Toronto’s fish markets and oyster bars, nothing could rival the explosion of flavour that comes from seafood just hours out of the water. Yes, we would have to come home and often.
For a recent ten-day visit, we devised the ultimate road trip to satisfy our passion, a drive that would take us to Maritime Canada’s most celebrated seafood regions: Halifax, to sample its many new restaurants; Digby, Nova Scotia, home of the world-famous Digby scallop; Shediac, New Brunswick, lobster capital of the world; and PEI, for the oysters voted best in the world as far back as the 1900 Paris Exhibition.
Indeed, a new twist on east-coast travel is the culinary tour, with Nova Scotia offering its Taste of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick its Seafood Great Day Experiences. The PEI Shellfish Festival in September is a chance to taste that province’s bounty right on Charlottetown’s waterfront.
Our plan was to go to the source, dining in restaurants that feature fresh local seafood or buying from wholesalers and taking the catch home to cook. For that reason, we stayed at rental cottages with kitchen facilities and started our gastronomic adventure at a cooking school.
Autumn is a sweet time to travel the Maritimes, especially if your primary goal is to eat. Harvest is in full swing, the turn of leaves makes for stunning scenery and the ocean is still summer warm. Best of all, there’s little traffic to thwart coast-to-coast dashes for dinner and few crowds to disturb very necessary long walks on the beach.
From our rental cottage at Evangeline Beach near Wolfville, we drove across province to 100 Acres and An Ox, near Barss Corners. Travel and Leisure lists it as “one of the world’s great B&B experiences,” but we chose to stay here a night because proprietor Ardythe Wildsmith, a nurse-turned-maritime chef with Cordon Bleu credentials, offers occasional cooking classes in her home kitchen. She stressed two things: using the freshest local ingredients and having fun. An hour into the morning class, we were well into the sauces – persillade (garlic and parsley for the scallops), remoulade (fancy tartar for the crab) and wine (for us).
We spent the afternoon eating our creations: sumptuous crab cakes and scallops, which we first sampled raw, to emphasize that thou shall not overcook these delicate wonders: sear in hot olive oil for no more than a minute on each side.
Our next stop: the home of the famous Digby scallop. This port town sits above the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, where marine life from whales and porpoises down to the Timbit-sized sea mollusk thrive. The area offers splendid conditions for the bivalve: 40- to 100-metre-deep beds on the Continental Shelf and cold, turbulent tidal water that conveys plankton and algae to the slow-moving sea animal.
We headed straight to the wharf, home of the world’s largest inshore scallop fleet – and an offshore fleet that trawls for scallops on George’s Bank, southwest of Nova Scotia. That means that all Digby scallops are not Digby scallops (though if they’re caught on a Digby boat, they’re called that). More accurate is the terminology “inshore” and “offshore,” according to O’Neil’s Fisheries on the wharf, where you can pick up a pound or five inshores to take home. Offshores are slightly larger and denser (chef’s like to call them “deep water”), but there’s little chance of tasting one fresh as off-shore boats, at sea for up to 12 days, freeze most of their catch onboard, which contrary to widespread belief, does affect the natural succulence.
To savour fresh inshores (which, refrigerated, last only four or five days), we bypassed Digby restaurants (which tend to treat these delicacies like common haddock, battering and deep-frying them) and headed five minutes up the shore to The Pines Resort for lunch.
At this Norman-style chateau and golf resort, inshores arrive daily, sometimes just four to five hours out of the water and “still flickering against your cheek,” according to Chef Claude AuCoin. From our window-side table, we had a splendid view of the wharf, perfect backdrop to sample an off-the-menu medley of scallop creations, which you can prearrange. To pop the ocean flavour, AuCoin rolls them in Nori and dulse (dried seaweed) before searing. Or he flaunts the snow-white meat, sitting it atop a puree of carrot and cardamom, a grilled beet. “Wow,” we kept saying as the sweet meat melted in our mouths.
After our daytrip to Digby, we returned to our cottage via the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia’s farm belt and now a burgeoning wine region, stopping at Grand Pré Winery for a bottle of L’Acadie Blanc to accompany our night’s feast of inshores.
Next day, we popped into nearby Wolfville and the excellent Tempest restaurant for lunch. Chef Michael Howell makes the finest chowder we tasted on our trip – lobster in a peaches-and-cream corn base. He treats his deep-water scallops reverentially, as one should a creature that takes nearly 10 years to reach its market weight of two to three ounces before succumbing to your gullet. Cheekily, a single, large deep-water arrived atop a sautéed slice of purple Peruvian potato with an eggplant and red-pepper puree. The scallop, a chameleon with flavours and colours, suits the theatricality and we loved it too.
With just day left for Nova Scotia, there was yet Halifax to taste, no easy feat with its many new fine restaurants. Still, we managed to tuck into three, starting with mainstay Salty’s, which along with spectacular views of the harbour, serves lovely crab cakes. A walking tour of the hilly downtown revived our appetite by happy hour so we headed to the oyster bar at the stunningly beautiful Press Gang. Its setting is the stone basement of the city’s third oldest building, designed by maverick resto owner Victor Syperek (of Economy Shoe Shop fame). We sampled fresh oysters on the half shell from New Brunswick, Cape Breton and – our favourites – PEI Malpeques.
For dinner, we strolled to the chic FID, which serves scallops like no other, quite literally, with the adductor and roe attached (in Canada, they’re usually cut off). Two males and two females arrived in the entrée — the roe of the female scallop was slightly pinker and sweeter and tasted faintly of smoked oyster.
The next morning, we set out for the bridge route to PEI, which handily took us through Shediac, N.B., a beach town that made east-coast lobster famous worldwide — thanks in great part to one man, Émile Paturel, who started a processing plant for canned lobster in 1890. After going bankrupt three times, he turned the lowly bottom feeder (which farmers had been spreading on fields as manure) into an export delicacy. In 1949, the town of Shediac trademarked its claim to fame as the Lobster Capital of the World.
Alas, there are virtually no lobsters left in Shediac Bay, but the town remains one of the best places to buy lobster, always “in season” here thanks to a host of seafood wholesalers who bring it in from whatever maritime region is currently fishing lobster. We learned this from Eric LeBlanc, whose business card reads “Lobster Guy.” LeBlanc offers lobster-centric tours aboard his Shediac Bay Cruises, which includes a demonstration of how to buy, catch, cook, crack and eat the hard-shelled creature.
The lobsters we ate aboard – from nearby Northumberland Straight and currently in season — were very good. As they molt (shed and grow new shells) twice a year, their meat is tender. But they didn’t rival my ultimate, which I now suspect was a colder water creature (which molts once a year and whose claws tend to be packed with meat), likely from Quebec’s Magdalene Islands, in season in early summer. Ah, another reason to come back.
The next day, we set out for PEI’s Malpeque Bay, namesake of the island bivalve, and nearby Tyne Valley, home to the The Landing Pub and Oyster Bar, which serves exquisitely fresh Malpeques on the half shell, which means, they are not only raw but very much alive.
Indeed, one of the reasons Malpeques are so prized is that the hearty cold-water creatures can survive (with refrigeration) up to a month out of the water, compared to a few days for their southern cousins. They’re also transsexuals, often starting out male and ending up female, but that’s another story.
If you can’t bear the pulse of life on your tongue, try The Landing’s melt-in-your-mouth deep-fried oysters coated in a light batter. A plate left us wanting more, so we ventured around the bay to Carr’s Oyster Bar at Stanley Bridge and sampled oysters steamed in a wine and garlic broth (and took home a dozen from Carr’s wholesale, along with island lobster). But the ultimate cooked oyster arrived at the exquisite Dalvay-by-the-Sea, 15 minutes from our rental cottage at Brackley Beach. Here, chef Andrew Morrison delivers them, other worldly, seared with lemon, cilantro and Back truffle.
But we are connoisseurs (or philistines perhaps), so pushed onto the south-eastern tip of PEI to taste the crème de la crème: live cultivated oysters. This is a pioneering effort to perfect the near perfect. Of PEI’s 6.2-million pound annual industry, only 200,000 are cultivated versus wild.
These boutique oysters have a deeper and more uniform shell, all the easier to shuck. But, like the way soil and temperature influences the taste of a wine, so the ocean’s water and floor shapes these gems.
Russell Dokendorff Jr. grows his oysters in South Lake, a long, still narrow arm with an eel-grass bottom. Competitor Johnny Flynn raises his in Colville Bay, a wider and more turbulent mouth with a sandy bottom. Russell, a typical PEI business guy, took us to see Johnny’s farm enroute to his own. They each sent us away with a dozen to compare.
Later that day, on the deck of our little cottage, in the glow of an early September sun, we opened a bottle of chilled Riesling and shucked the star oysters, just hours out of the water. The South Lakes were slightly plumper with a silky texture. They smelled of sea river and had a smooth salt taste, with sweet aftertaste. The Colville Bays both smelled and tasted sharper, of a wilder ocean. But, truth be told, the difference was both subtle and sublime, and we’re eager to go back for more.
WHERE TO STAY
100 Acres and an Ox Country Inn:
4172 Cornwall Road, Barss Corner;
(888) 363-6694; www.100acresandanox.com
WHERE TO EAT
FID: 1569 Dresden Row, Halifax; (902) 422-9162,
The Pines Resort: Digby; (877) 375-6343; www.signatureresorts.com
The Press Gang: 5218 Prince St., Halifax; (902) 423-8816.
Salty’s: Halifax; 1869 Upper Water St., on the Harbour; (902)-423-6818; www.saltys.ca
The Tempest: 117 Front St., Wolfville; (902) 542-0588; www.tempest.ca
WHERE TO EAT
Pasturel’s Shore House and Lobster Shop: Shediac; (506) 532-4774.
WHAT TO DO
Shediac Bay Cruises: Shediac; (888) 894-2002; www.lobstertales.ca
WHERE TO STAY
Chebooktoosk Chalets: 23 Rue Acadie St. Bouctouche; (888) 773-0111;
WHERE TO STAY
Shady Acres Cottages: Brackley Beach Rte. 15; (902) 672-3313; www.peisland.com/shadyacres
WHAT TO DO:
PEI Shellfish Festival (September): Take in shellfish-sampling for beginners, oyster-shucking competitions, seafood tours of the harbour, a chef’s cook-off and maritime musicians who turn this festival into an kitchen party on the wharf; 1-866-955-2003;
WHERE TO EAT:
Carr’s Oyster Bar and Wholesale: Stanley Bridge; (902) 886-3355.
The Landing Oyster House and Pub: Tyne Valley; (902) 831-3138.
Dalvay-by-the-Sea Heritage Inn: Grand Tracadie; (902) 672-2048; www.dalvaybythesea.com