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Ian Brown Eats Canada

A day without lobster in Nova Scotia Add to ...

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.

Walford père is 70 now, and on wife number five. Walford mère, John's birth mother, has been married four times herself. It was a complicated story, interrupted only by samples of mouth-wowing jellies.

Once a single room on a single acre, the store now sits on five acres brimming with lavender and rosemary and thyme and other fruits and flowers that go into the 100 jars of jelly and jam made in the small production kitchen each day. They make them in batches of five. A woman wearing a kerchief was in the garden, cutting thyme; another was cleaning basil in the kitchen. The jellies and jams go for $10 a jar.

There were sculptures in the garden, and a spiral maze made from flowers and plants, and a sign over a gate to nowhere that read: Nosce Te Ipsum, which means know thyself. After a near-collapse brought on by the surfeit of choice - basil wine? quince rosemary? orange chive? grape basil? - I bought a ginger lime thyme jelly and a cherry anise hyssop jam. "This is why Beverly's only been married once," Mr. Walford said as I made to leave, opening his arms, "because she spends all her time working in the garden."

The moment I stepped out among the neat rows of scented perennials, I remembered the jar of Tangled Garden jelly my wife gave my mother every Christmas before she died - a token of respect for the old girl's skill as a gardener and cook. She preferred the spicy ones.

Crustaceans and cash

I'm not saying I didn't think about lobster on my day without lobster. There's a lot to think about. There are 41 different lobster fishing zones in Atlantic Canada, and 10,000 licence-holding captains - a lot of stakeholders, not one of whom trusts many of the others. There's no quota on lobster, beyond a minimum allowable size and a few "intake rules" regarding breeders, and the annual catch has jumped like a wild salmon, from 44,000 metric tons in 2007 to 58,000 metric tons last year. That's a 30-per-cent increase. This year will be another record.

But revenues have dropped 20 per cent since 2006 - the inevitable result of an oversupply of lobster, a worldwide recession and a rising Canadian dollar. To make matters worse, Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, told me one afternoon, "it's absolutely guaranteed when the price goes down that your average fisherman will try to catch more."

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.

The shore price for lobster peaked at $6.50 a pound in 2002, and is now down to $4. That means one thing if you're a Newfoundlander lobstering with your wife for two or three months a year to land 2,000 pounds and round out your income. It means another if you're working Area 34 off the southern tip of Nova Scotia for six months in a million-dollar boat that goes out two days at a stretch and lands 12,000 pounds of lobster a day. Insiders will tell you that you can find cocaine at a moment's notice in towns with big lobster fleets - Digby, Yarmouth, even Sydney on Cape Breton.

The Alps to Acadie

The Swiss group was waiting down the road at Domaine de Grand Pré, the province's oldest winery. The words Nova Scotia and wine are still not commonly uttered together, with good reason: French vintners lived in Acadian settlements as far back as 1636, but they haven't been around for 225 years, since the Acadians were expelled. The number of fine Nova Scotian wines is small enough to prove it.

The Swiss visitors were a graphic designer, Laszlo Horvath, and his wife Arianne, a blood analyst. They were from Bern, and guests of Diana Nelson, Canada's senior trade commissioner in Bern, and her husband Randall. Every time someone mentioned a decent restaurant in Nova Scotia, Laszlo wrote it down: He also took copious notes for his wine club, a very serious group back in Bern.

Sitting outdoors under a pergola, we ate line-caught halibut as white as a newly laundered shirt, tiny sliced red potatoes, chanterelle mushroom soup, an apple strudel and a raspberry cheesecake. We talked about the Pope and typography and the many ways Switzerland and Canada are alike. Both perch on the shoulder of economic giants. Both are modest.

No one mentioned lobster.

Maritime High Tea

Because I wasn't eating lobster for a day, I drove into the green arms of the ultra-fertile Annapolis Valley and stopped at the Tin Pan Bakery in Port William. The Tin Pan was a tiny place made tinier by a full house of regular customers - six souls in total, none of whom weighed less than 250 pounds. In a bakery, this is good advertising. I passed on the fat-free cheese and bacon buttermilk biscuits, cited by The New York Times as one of the 10 best foods in local maritime captivity, and ordered an extra-large iced tea instead.

Owner Dee Cook (yes!) sold a 12-ounce Bodacious Burger on a homemade white bun the size of my face. As for the iced tea, she said, "this is a family recipe because I had to make it for my daughter. My daughter was a hyperactive child, and she needed something with extra caffeine to calm her down, because that was how her hyperactivity worked."

Good to know! Maybe that's why for the rest of the afternoon I felt like I was on cocaine. I know I went to the Fox Hill cheese house in Port William and sampled the gelatos of the owner, Jeanita Rand (vanilla, licorice, mint). I know I bought a block of fenugreek havarti and a pot of 3-per-cent-butterfat yogurt, which may be the best I've ever tasted. (I ate it mixed with brown cane sugar for dessert the following night in my hotel room, watching professional women's tennis. I also ate the entire freaking block of havarti over the course of the same day, in cubic-inch chunks. I figure my intestinal tract now resembles the old rally trail from Darfur to Cairo.) I know I stopped to sample some house-brewed beer at The Port, a gastro pub beside the Cornwallis River, where I listened to the waitresses convince one of their number to spend $250 on her daughter's baby shower, rather than $100. "There are some things you just have to spend a little more for," one of the women said.

When the ice-tea buzz finally wore off, I was almost back in Halifax. I noticed two guys, two Haligonians in their late thirties, sitting side by side on a picnic table next to a roadside ice-cream stand called Pinky Scoopmore's.

Nice name. I stopped my rental car. It's not often you see grown men eating ice cream on their own, is it? "Do you guys normally go for ice cream on your own?" I asked.

"No," one of them said. "But our wives had to do some chores with the kids. So we thought we'd take a break here and wait until the kids were in bed."

I thought about breaking my lobster fast that night at dinner. But by then I was too far along. I ate at the Midtown Tavern on Grafton Street, a 61-year-old Halifax restaurant famous with locals for speedy service and steady fare. Doug Grant, the original proprietor, still owns it with his sons Eric and Rob and their new partner, bartender Scott Rozee, who recently persuaded them to add a startling innovation to the menu: desserts.

I ordered a sirloin steak, medium rare, with sautéed onions and mushrooms, for $13, tax included. You know the kind of steak I mean. It was delicious, and also Nova Scotian.

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