Atlantic Canada – on the eastern seaboard of the continent – is comprised of four provinces; Newfoundland & Labrador; New Brunswick; Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In fact, it was in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island that Canada officially came into being with the signing of the British North America Act in 1867. But in this region, human history, and hence culinary history, runs much deeper than the mid-1800s. Curiously, many of the historic dishes remain rooted in everyday life.
The first recorded settlers were the Norse who briefly touched down on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. They did not stay. Nor did the fishing fleets of the Basques who came for cod and left only names along the coast.
When French explorer/adventurer Samuel de Champlain came to the island of St. Croix at the mouth of New Brunswick’s St. Croix River in 1603, his small settlement became a recipe for disaster. He could hardly have picked a worse location on a bay with the highest tides on earth and some of the coldest water. In the winter, pack ice – huge, immovable slabs of frozen ocean – prevented movement to and from the island and the following year, he and his remaining men, journeyed across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal, in the Annapolis basin, today one of Atlantic Canada’s prime growing regions. It was there that he made a strong ally with the Mi’kmaq chief, Membertou. These natives showed Champlain how to survive, harvesting the wild, and with their help, he founded The Order of Good Cheer, the first feasting society in North America.
Although Champlain moved on to further explorations into the heart of Canada, he had established a French presence that was reinforced by waves of immigrants from France. They brought with them rustic food traditions which still remain. These men and women were known as Acadians and, although they were dispersed by the British in 1755, their culture is still strong, particularly in the areas to which they fled and now are generations deep. Fricot, a stew-like dish made of meat, onions, and potatoes is always seasoned with savoury, a herb grown and used almost exclusively in Atlantic Canada. They build dikes and reclaimed the seashore, harvesting plants like salicornia, as they had once done in France.
The first Scots sailed to Atlantic Canada in the 1770’s, settling first in areas now known as Prince Edward Island and north coastal Nova Scotia. Today there are many Scots communities mainly on the island of Cape Breton. There, you’ll find oatcakes and hearty, ancient dishes such as maragan along with a plethora of early Scots foods.
When Americans fled the revolution that tore their nation away from England, they flowed northward along the coasts and river systems into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They brought with them their traditions of husbandry growing flax for cloth, wheat and buckwheat for flour and bread and huge luxurious gardens. Beans were very very important. In early seed catalogues from Saint John, New Brunswick, there were dozens of what we would now name as ‘heritage beans’ for sale. The wonderful brown bread of the Loyalists, laced with molasses and good whole wheat flour is one of their great legacies, particularly when served with baked beans.
For three centuries herring were trapped in weirs (pronounced ‘weers’), large complex mazes of netting that stretched from the ocean floor to the surface. Today they are still part of the oceanscape of the Bay of Fundy. The fish are smoked in large open barns in which fires smolder for days and the smoke perfumes whole communities.
There are ingredients which are particular to each area or with certain historical connection. Mention Screech or hard tack or Crosby’s molasses or Purity cookies or salt cod and everyone thinks Newfoundland. Talk about dulse, the red salty seaweed or fiddleheads, the tightly curled frond of the ostrich fern or shad, a bony fish caught in the summer and instantly we know you’re thinking about New Brunswick. Lobster, Malepeque oysters, potatoes, blue mussels all speak of Prince Edward Island while Tancook Island cabbages, smoked salmon, wild blueberries and clams say Nova Scotia. These are only a few of the signature regional ingredients but there are hundreds of others.
To find them the very best way is to head to the region’s farmers markets from the small lively one in Bouctouche, a thoroughly Acadian town on New Brunswick’s Northumberland Strait to the venerable Halifax Market in that city’s Historic Properties. In Charlottetown’s, on Prince Edward Island, you can taste Kim Dormaar’s perfect smoked eel or salmon heaped onto one of Steve Knechtal’s sourdough bagels. In Fredericton or Moncton, wise shoppers buy as much of Regina Duivenvoorden’s great Gouda cheese from Sussex, New Brunswick. A small lively market has just sprung up in. The list is long and mouthwatering.
The region’s wine industry is just beginning to flourish. They are presently adopting national standards both for grape and fruit wines. In New Brunswick, Canada’s smallest distillery, Winegarden Estates, makes superb apple schnapps from the fruit of its own orchard.
Today, across the region, travelers can find a handful of upscale restaurants and a drove of homespun eateries. Intelligent innkeepers tend to point the way. Local growers and fishermen follow suit.
From the magnificent Inns at both Bay Fortune and Spry Point, Prince Edward Island, where one can dine on the utterly delicious seared tuna caught only miles away to the fabulous sea urchins and perfect oysters at Rossmount near trendy St. Andrews in New Brunswick. At Ozzie’s Lunch, a New Brunswick roadside diner has some of the best fried clams in the country to Kim’s Bistro in Charlottetown where, when the season is right, you can find sea snails.
Culinary traveling in the Atlantic region is not always easy… but with patience and a smile one can always savor the most hospitable area in Canada, while celebrating what’s local and seasonal and absolutely delicious!
in the picture: Spry Point, Prince Edward Island, Atlatic Canada
Newfoundland & Labrador
Newfoundland & Labrador (roughly 692,000 square km) is the largest and, in many ways, the wildest. Varying from tundra to rocky shorelines, it is the most easterly land mass in Canada. New Brunswick, a province of rivers and valleys and Bay of Fundy, location of the highest tides on earth, is the next largest (73,433 sq km). Nova Scotia (55,491 sq.km) and tiny Prince Edward Island (5,657 sq.km) follow in order.
This is a typical Scots recipe from shared by Cape Bretoner, Kevin MacLeod. He writes “the recipe came over from Scotland at the time of the Clearances … it is a poor man’s dish. The consistency is not as moist as say a normal sausage.”
Summer savory is a very important seasoning all across the region.
8 cups ( 2 l) rolled oats
5 cups (1.25 l) finely chopped suet
3 cups (750 ml) chopped onion
1/2 cup (125 ml) flour
2 tbsps (25 ml) salt
1 1/2 tsp ( 7 ml) black pepper
1 tbsp (15 ml) summer savory
Mix the oats, suet, onion, flour, salt, pepper and summer savory in a large bowl. Fill sausage casings and tie each with a strong thread. Simmer slowly in salted water for about 1 hour. Prick to prevent breaking.
When ready to eat, cut into 2 ” (5 cm) chunks and bake at 400°F (200°C) for about 30 minutes or until they bulge out of the ends.
Poutines à Trou
Poutines à Trou is a special dish of the Acadiani, the first French settlers in North America. It was normally made at Christmas time with Gravenstein apples, the traditional apple of Atlantic Canada. Sometimes cranberries are mixed with the apples.
5 cups (1.25 l) all-purpose flour
2 tsp (10 ml) cream of tartar
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
1/2 lb (250 g) cold shortening
1 ?? cups (426 ml) milk
5 large apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 cup (250 ml) raisins
?? cup (50 ml) finely diced salt pork
1 ?? cups (300ml) granulated sugar
1 cup (250 ml) warm water
For dough, in large bowl, combine flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Using pastry blender, or your fingers, cut or rub in shortening until mixture is the texture of coarse crumbs. With wooden spoon, then eventually using your hands, work in milk, about 1/2 cup (125 ml) at a time to form a stiff dough. Divide into two sections, wrap with plastic wrap and let rest while you prepare the fillings.
For filling, in bowl, stir together apples and raisins or cranberries. In skillet over medium heat, cook salt pork just until crisp; pour off fat.
Roll out one section of dough to ?? inch (1 cm) thick rectangle. Cut into 4 rough rectangles. Place about 2/3 cup (150 ml) apple mixture in centre of one section top with a few pieces pork. Wet edges of dough with a little milk. At one short end, overlap corners to form a cone. Repeat at other short end, to bring the poutine into a rough round with an opening in the top. Place in buttered 9 inch by 13 inch (3 l) casserole dish or other large casserole. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Bake in preheated 400° F (200° C) oven 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in small saucepan make syrup. Bring water and sugar to a boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Pour about 1/3 syrup into centers of poutines. Reduce heat to 350° F (180° C); bake a further 35-40 minutes or until golden brown and apples are tender. Pour remaining syrup into poutines.
Makes 8 servings.
Anita Stewart, of Elora, Ontario, is a freelance journalist and culinary activist
Recipe courtesy of Anita Landry of New Brunswick / first published in “Flavours of Canada” (Raincoast, Vancouver 2000)