Nothing brings people together like an unforgettable meal. In Nova Scotia, fresh and local isn’t a fad – it’s a way of life. We’ve sent one of Canada’s best food and travel writers on a culinary road trip to 5 destinations, stopping to experience seafood just pulled from the ocean, mouth-watering produce from our traditional valley farms, and acclaimed wine from our vintners. Now take yourself there, and dine in modern world-class restaurants, lively pubs, or beachside at an authentic lobster shack. Set out on a delicious culinary adventure as varied as the communities that dot our province.
Nova Scotia Tourism Agency
Pears grown in the bottle add colour and flavour
to Ironworks Distillery’s potent eau de vie.
A curving seaside road, with narrow bays visible through breaks in the trees, leads me to the heart of Nova Scotia’s south shore. Along the way handmade signs tempt me with all manner of treats: fresh baked bread, homemade sauerkraut, pickled beans, smoked fish, double smoked bacon. The church is having a fish fry.
By the time the spires of the three iconic churches of Mahone Bay – the picturesque ideal of a maritime town – come into view I just have to pull over. A stroll down main street leads me into a pretty jade coloured building edged up against the water. Today this is the home of Amos Pewter, but the building started life in the 1880s as a boat building shop. Instead of schooners and dories the building now turns out world famous jewelry, ornaments and home decor items. I watch in awe as a craftsperson pours a ladleful of liquid pewter onto a steel table and it immediately forms into a hardened splash, a silver spill that she picks up in a single piece like magic.
I pick up a set of spoons shaped like scallop shells and imagine all the chowder they’ll help me eat. First I’ll need a bowl, though. Good thing that right across the street is Birdsall-Worthington Pottery. Exquisite pieces line the walls of the studio: touching commemorative plates, shapely vases, colourful pendants. Boxes full of original pieces are lined up by the door waiting to be shipped to places like Decatur, Philadelphia and Vancouver.
I meet Tim Worthington who, along with his partner, Pam Birdsall, makes all of the pottery that the studio produces. He can’t shake hands because his are covered in clay, but his greeting is no less warm. When I find out he’s originally from Ohio I have to ask how he, and so many other creative types ended up in this charming, but out-of-the-way place. “I didn’t even really know where Nova Scotia was when I first came here to attend art school,” he recalls. “It was like coming to this exotic place. That was 25 years ago and I’ve never looked back. There’s so much variety here, you can go 15 km up the road and go from rocky shoreline to these mile long beaches that are so far off the beaten track that you park your car and walk 20 minutes, but your reward when you get there is you’re the only person there.”
Nova Scotia Tourism Agency
A kayaker approaches the three iconic
churches of Mahone Bay.
It’s time for me to got to get back on the road, too and now that I’ve got eating covered, thanks to my new pewter cutlery and pottery bowl, I’m off to find something to drink.
If there’s one town on the South Shore that can compete in beauty with Mahone Bay it’s Lunenburg. The bright, colourful buildings set up against the dark, sparkling water of the harbour seem almost unreal in their tidy perfection. It’s no wonder that in 1995 the town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation that ranks it alongside the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal in India.
Far from being frozen in time, like those places, however, Lunenburg is very much a vibrant, happening place. I’m here to see how a very old blacksmith shop has been repurposed into a very modern micro-distillery. I pull up to the Ironworks Distillery, so named because it’s housed in a 19th century blacksmith shop, just as a horse and buggy carrying a quartet of happy, tipsy looking visitors pulls away from the loading dock. Inside I discover the biggest pair of bellows I’ve ever seen. “Those are leftover from the shop’s blacksmithing days,” explains a woman who introduces herself as Lynne Mackay, one of the distillery’s owners.
She explains that those same bellows once helped stoke the fires that enabled the shop’s blacksmiths to produced hardware for both Bluenose schooners. The smell of wood fire still perfumes the shop, but now the fires run the Ironworks’ big brass still. It looks like an old fashioned diving helmet as worn by a vintage robot. “Except for the lights and agitator the whole thing is powered by fire,” Mackay tells me.
Fermented apple bubbles away through one of the porthole-like viewing windows. This is the first run of what will eventually be vodka. “We make our vodka out of local apples,” Mackay says. She offers me a taste and it’s delicious: strong and clean with just a hint of apple. In addition to vodka Ironworks also distils an intense apple brandy, blueberry liqueur using wild blueberries from Van Dyk Farms in neighbouring Queen’s County and an amazing pear eau de vie with an actual pear right inside the bottle. There is also rum of course: “We weren’t going to do rum,” Mackay admits, “because it’s not made with local ingredients, but you can’t be a distiller here and not make rum because that’s what people associate with Nova Scotia.
All of this taste testing makes me realize I better get something to eat. A local group of musicians has just wandered into the shop before their concert and I ask for their recommendations. This leads to a heated debate; locals are passionate about their food. Trattoria della Nonna gets a nod for its pasta and pizza, someone else suggests Fleur de Sel for Spanish and French inspired cooking with local ingredients. The drummer likes the Old Fish Factory’s seafood chowder. “What about for fish and chips,” I ask and for once there is agreement. Almost in unison, the band says: “The Knot Pub.”
We share one last toast and I’m soon settled in to a booth inside the charming nautical themed pub with a pint of locally brewed Knot Pub ale and a plate of the freshest, crispiest haddock and chips on the south shore. The bar begins to fill up with locals and visitors alike and at some point in the evening an upbeat folk duo starts up and a fiddler joins in. By the time a sing-along gets underway I’m beginning to see why people from all over the world come here and never manage to leave.