Dine by the bay
Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley is one of the country's best-kept culinary secrets, bringing some of the Maritimes' finest cuisine – and best views – to your table, Allan Lynch writes
As a culinary hot spot, Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley is one of the country's best-kept secrets – which is strange, considering its long history as a foodie destination.
Before he founded Quebec City, Samuel de Champlain was part of a company of French explorers who built a permanent European settlement, the Habitation at Port-Royal, on the shores of the Annapolis Basin. To break up the boredom of the winter of 1606, Champlain founded a dining club there, the Ordre de Bon Temps (Order of Good Cheer), with members providing fresh game. The colonists passed the winter "most joyously and fared lavishly," Champlain wrote – or at least avoided the scurvy that had thinned their numbers the previous winter.
Like Ontario's Niagara region and British Columbia's Okanagan, the Annapolis Valley has a robust wine sector – but it adds fresh seafood to the table.
And while good food and drink are staples throughout the valley, Wolfville, Port Williams, Grand-Pré, Annapolis Royal and Digby are the main culinary clusters.
Wolfville is the epicentre of Nova Scotia's wine region. It's also home to Acadia University – a picture-perfect college town of ivy-covered buildings, lush gardens and well-kept homes. It has 4,200 permanent residents and 3,700 students.
The other significant number is 21: That's how many cafés, restaurants and bars there are in Wolfville – a place so food-obsessed that even the Wool 'n Tart yarn shop has a lunch service.
As the home of Devour! The Food Film Fest (Oct. 25-29), Wolfville has even caught the attention of ultimate foodie Anthony Bourdain, who has jetted in for the festival.
Wolfville is a compact, walkable, sophisticated small town. Yes, there's a Tim Hortons, but most businesses, restaurants and cafés are locally owned.
Troy – look for the wooden horse – has a Mediterranean menu. Beside it is the small Korean restaurant Danji. Across the street, on the corner of Elm and Main, is the Library Pub and Merchant Wine Tavern, an intimate, two-storey establishment with generous menu portions.
Next is Paddy's Brewpub and Rosie's Restaurant, which spans the block and offers sidewalk seating on Main Street and a patio on Front Street.
On the other side of the yarn shop is the Just Us! coffee house, in the front of the Acadia Cinema, a heritage building. Just Us! is a fair-trade coffee shop with snacks, light lunches and killer desserts. Three doors down, Joe's Food Emporium has a mixed menu ranging from pub grub to seafood, pasta and Lebanese dishes. There's indoor and sidewalk seating, plus live music most weekends.
On the next block is the Rolled Oat Cafe, which is a safe stop for vegans. The Slow Dough bakery is basically funky food and to-die-for desserts. Next is the recently expanded Naked Crepe Bistro. No surprise what they offer. Behind it on Front Street is La Torta Woodfired Pizzeria. It offers small plates and Neapolitan-style pizzas washed down with Italian and local wines, plus local craft beers and ciders.
Back on Main Street is the Annapolis Cider Company. Located in a former five-and-dime store, it produces fresh, small-batch cider from local apples – free of sugar, artificial flavours or colouring. The cider shop offers takeout, stand-up bar and table service. A flight of three ciders with roasted corn kernels is $5.
Slightly outside the central commercial core is the Blomidon Inn. This former sea captain's mansion has 31 rooms and suites and lunch and dinner service for the public. The alliteration-loving menu features chowders, scallop stir fry, lobster linguini, seared salmon and Blomidon burgers.
The Wolfville Farmers' Market, held every Saturday, is a popular spot for locals to brunch. Vendors offer fresh pasta, sushi, Indian curries, plus Mediterranean, German, Syrian and Middle Eastern foods. Many of these same vendors are back each Wednesday night for a community meal.
Port Williams is growing its funky factor. The first place you come across is the Noodle Guy. Owner Ross Patterson smiles as he explains he doesn't pretend to do traditional Italian pasta and noodles. "In Italy, each region has their local dish. I do regional Nova Scotia."
The restaurant is located in a former nearly new shop by the Cornwallis River. Saturday afternoons there's a jam session in one of the front windows. Other times, you could even find blues icon Morgan Davis performing.
The menu is whatever is on the blackboard that day. There's $10 Tuesdays (fresh pasta and sauce to go) and Burgers and Beer Thursdays ($15), which is so popular you'll need a reservation. For special sellout events, the place has been known to allow some locals to BYOC (bring your own chair) and squeeze in at a table.
Around the corner is the Wayfarers' Ale Society. It produces a series of small-batch heritage and seasonal beers and light ales, such as One-Eyed River Hog IPA, Thistle Dew, Ruby Ale, Hellene (described as "a slender blonde ale of German lineage") and a traditional English pale ale. It has an upstairs pub with a deck overlooking the Cornwallis River and offers bar snacks (nachos, pizza, bruschetta, garlic fingers) paired with live music on weekends.
Next door is the Port Pub and Bistro, which also has an on-site microbrewery, Sea Level Brewing, and live music on weekends. The menu, which lists the 14 farms and eight local wineries that supply it, changes frequently to feature the freshest local produce and proteins.
Across the creek from the Port Pub is the Barrelling Tide Distillery, a craft distiller of gin, two types of vodka (one from local corn, one from chili peppers), Tidal Run ("an unaged molasses spirit") and a variety of fruit-flavoured liqueurs.
On the Halifax side of Wolfville is Grand-Pré, which has double UNESCO World Heritage status as the longest continuously farmed part of North America and the site of the Deportation of the Acadians. Some Acadians landed in Louisiana, where they developed Cajun culture and cuisine.
There are several dining choices here. The roadside Evangeline Café is a valley institution. It has a short, simple, modestly priced menu with good food.
Up the hill is Domaine de Grand Pré. Its Alpine-style Le Caveau Restaurant has a European influence, with a menu that ranges from the mandatory scallop and lobster chowder to vine-smoked salmon, goose cassoulet, boar porchetta, seared scallops and steak. A vegetarian menu is also available.
On another hill is Luckett Vineyards, owned by celebrity grocer Pete (Toodlee-doo) Luckett. His Crush Pad Bistro has one of the best views in southwest Nova Scotia. It looks across the vineyard and the Minas Basin to Cape Blomidon, home of the Mi'kmaq god Glooscap, and takes in the farms, fields, vineyards and waters that supply the menu. For novelty, there's a red London call box in the vineyard where visitors can make free calls to anywhere in Canada. Standing outside the box, you'll hear conversations begin with, "You'll never guess where I'm calling from!"***
The streets of this former colonial capital are lined with romantic and flamboyant Georgian and Victorian architecture. As a result, the downtown core is a national historic district.
The town's centrepiece is Fort Anne, which is the oldest national historic site in Canada. In the late spring, all summer and in the early fall there's a lively farmers' and traders' market on Saturdays. It's like a village fête with fresh food, handicrafts, art, antiques and entertainment. Some vendors offer edible options. In Annapolis Royal, every other doorway seems to be a café, bistro, bakery or restaurant. Like Wolfville, you can't go wrong.
Between the market and Fort Anne, you'll find Leo's Café. Located in one of the oldest buildings in Canada (circa 1713), Leo's does light fare. Most items are under $10. For a more slap-up meal, cross the street to Restaurant Composé, which overlooks the water and brings a European sensibility to Maritime fare. Cross the street and go up a few doors (Maritime directions) to Bistro East, housed in a former store. Its menu features a deliciously edgy presentation of local ingredients.
On the next block, bookending the town's quirky variety store, is the Country Nook Café, a hole-in-the-wall place that does great soups and sandwiches, and the two-holes-in-the-wall-sized and diner-like Fort Anne Café. Beyond these is the German Bakery in the yellow mansion across from Fort Anne. It has European-style desserts, great breads and the heartier menu items you'd expect from a German culinary background.
Digby is home to the world's largest scallop fleet. Then there's the lobster. Not surprisingly, the town's main street is lined with seafood restaurants. Several places, such as the Fundy Restaurant, overlook the fishing fleet that supplies your plate.
For a slap-up meal, the Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa is the place to go. This Norman-style château was built in the golden age of railway hotels. The resort has 85 rooms in the main building and a cluster of cottages scattered across a 51-acre campus.
Executive chef Dale Nichols is in charge of Churchill's Restaurant and Lounge. His smoked-haddock fishcakes with glaze, which he describes as "a heavy-duty, big flavour reduction" (of garlic, ginger, coriander, fennel, star anise, honey, soy, sake, sugar, orange juice, rice wine vinegar and Sambal Oelek) is such a great start to a day, you may want a second night to justify another breakfast. When it comes to a signature dish, Nichols's scallops and mushroom risotto accounts for 60 per cent of nightly sales.
A final Pines amenity is the Stanley Thompson-designed championship golf course. Its panelled clubhouse also offers a meal service.
Other notable stops include Berwick's Union Street café (great decor, fun menu, good food, exuberant service and live entertainment).
For those with dietary issues, Crystany's Brasserie, in the Village of Canning (near Wolfville), is the province's only gluten-free restaurant.
And in Windsor, the Cocoa Pesto restaurant in the 160-year-old Woodshire Inn has a great menu and exemplary execution. For $29.95, I had a meal-in-itself bacon haddock chowder, Neptune penne (with generous slices of smoked salmon) and Key lime pie topped with fresh whipped cream. For a fast in and out, the Spitfire Arms Alehouse on Water Street has pub grub with an edge.
While not technically in the valley, chef Chris Velden of the Flying Apron Inn and Cookery in Summerville offers the truly unique experience of Dining on the Ocean Floor at Burntcoat Head, site of the world's highest tides. His four-course surf-and-turf dinner with wine pairing is served in a cove that just hours before was under 10 metres of water. (Don't wear good shoes.)
For more information, visit tasteofnovascotia.com.