It's possible, in the course of eating your way across a country the size of Canada, to visit Nova Scotia without tasting lobster.
But the lobsterless path is fraught with peril. Temptation is everywhere. Every Halifax restaurant seems to boast a lobster dish. McDonald's recently ended a promotion on a McLobster sandwich. On television, not an hour passes without a commercial that fills the screen with chunks of claw and tail meat forked in slow-mo into splashing vats of butter as shells rip asunder in ecstatic ejaculations of spray and juice. To judge from the commercials, eating a lobster is more or less like riding the flume at Disney World.
It's not that I dislike lobster, either. I adore it. I've eaten it all my life. I've trapped it for a summer job. Unlike most human beings, I actually know how to eat a lobster properly without asking for advice.
But lobster is Nova Scotia the way screech is Newfoundland and wheat is Saskatchewan - a boiled, steamed and baked cliché that says have no fear, weary traveller, this place is unchanged, even if it is. Canada exported more than a billion dollars' worth of lobster last year, more than half of which was landed by Nova Scotians. Europeans pay $70 a kilo for live bugs hauled from Nova Scotia's chilly bays. Eating a lobster implies many things, but it also implies an act of tourism. I figured there had to be something else to eat in burly, rural Nova Scotia.
Off to a shaky start
I arrived late in Halifax after flying all day from Vancouver, five hours in the air added to a four-hour time change. I felt like Jules Verne. I rented a car and drove to my hotel, unpacked for the umpteenth time - someone should write a play about that discouraging little ritual - and slipped down to the hotel bar for a glass of wine. I took what I thought was an isolated seat at the bar. Then Greg returned from the bathroom to reclaim the seat next to mine.
He was inebriated but talk- ative. He said he'd earned $100,000 a year as a chef in Halifax until he started using drugs. When he wasn't jovially slapping me on the back hard enough to dislodge a melon from my windpipe, Greg liked to shake my hand, adding one of those nerve-wracking finger diddles. I never know when those handshakes have ended. I bought him a beer and went for a walk. On my way back, I ran into him again in the lobby. "You want a final shooter?" he asked, loudly. I declined. He embraced me anyway.
The next morning, Janice Ruddock, executive director of Taste of Nova Scotia, a non-profit collective of local food growers and producers, invited me to lunch at a winery with two couples visiting from Switzerland. Why would anyone say no?
I was supposed to meet her in a parking lot in Bedford, normally a 20-minute drive from downtown Halifax. This is the thing about Haligonians and directions: They offer them freely, but assume you know the city. Every local knows what "take the Bedford Road" means, but a tourist (and I'm not naming names) might assume that means "take the road to Bedford," which could be any number of byways and highways.
An hour later, Janice suggested I follow her car. An hour after that, as the red Bay of Fundy appeared to the west, she turned into a store called The Tangled Garden. It specialized in fancy herb jellies, available only at the store or by mail or at an annual craft fair.
Herbs and hips and husks hung in bunches from the ceiling of the shop. Jars of translucent jelly and vinegar and cordial lined the walls. The owner, Beverley McClare, was away. John Walford, her stepson, an former actor turned documentary maker visiting from London, was behind the counter. Ms. McClare, who is now in her early fifties, set up shop 24 years ago with Mr. Walford's English father, George: She was his third wife, and they were married for 20 years. "He liked them young, my dad," Mr. Walford said.
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