Field to Fork: The Food of Nova Scotia is Experiencing a Farm Renaissance
Following the trend of farm to table restaurants in the US, Nova Scotia is having a renaissance of its own agricultural tradition. As a province, Nova Scotia produces a surprising number of agricultural products for a province of its size. For example, Nova Scotia produces enough blueberries to make 26 million pies each year. Its blossoming wine industry has tripled since 2000 and now boasts of 16 wineries in the region. Altogether, Nova Scotia’s farm receipts total close to a half a billion dollars annually.
So it’s no surprise that field-to-fork products are springing up throughout the province. From artisanal cheeses to grape varietals only found in Nova Scotia, tourists are flocking to the region to see and taste for themselves the unique products Nova Scotia has to offer.
First on the list is Beverly McClare of Tangled Garden in Grand Pré. As I walk into the her boutique, I am immediately taken in by the odor of fresh herbs–dill, rosemary, oregano, lavender and thyme. Colorful jellies are stacked into a triangular Christmas tree that sits in the window, catching the sunlight as it streams in. The walls are decorated with what I would call twig art, with stems of various trees framed on the walls. Dried flowers and pussy willows are either suspended from the ceiling or line the floor in pots of all shapes and sizes. Colorful products line the walls like in an old-fashioned candy store.
One of the pioneers to come to Grand Pre in the 80s, Beverly McClare started out in the restaurant business, opening up her own restaurant. One of her chefs started making vinegars with fresh herbs, which inspired her, so they started a 4X4 herb garden for the vinegars. This quickly became her new passion, so she closed the restaurant looking for a small plot of land to plant an herb garden.
And the gardens! The garden tour starts with a pergola of purple & white wisteria gently waving in the breeze. The gardens are separated into edible herbs, flowers, fruits and an incredible labyrinth that Deepak Chopra would love. She also grows hard-to-find herbs and berries like gooseberries and haskap, a trendy berry that apparently has more anti-oxidants than blueberries.
Her new line of liqueurs are infused not distilled. She starts with grain alcohol, infuses it with fresh herbs, and steeps it for a year. The result is an explosion of flavors, with just the right mix between herbs and sweetness, not the syrupy sweet concoction that is often found in the US.
Six acres and twenty years later, McClare has dramatically expanded her small herb garden. From the flavored vinegars, she now makes savory and sweet jellies, balsamic vinegars, liqueurs, ice cream, among countless other products. Her best-sellers are ginger-lime-thyme jelly that can be brushed on grilled fish, or rose geranium jelly, in a light pink color with a unique intense floral taste. What’s next? Possibly hosting garden weddings and/or events at the lovely gardens, and unique flavor combinations of jellies and liqueurs. Any way you look at it, it’s a labor of delicious love.
Second on the list is Foxhill Cheese House that just won the Consumer Product of the Year Award.
From a sixth generation dairy farm one of the most innovative entrepreneurial companies in Nova Scotia, the path to success hasn’t been an easy one. But Jeanita Rand, Co-Owner, claims it was a very rewarding one.
Rick Rand’s father had opted to continue his dairy farm the way his father had operated it, not trying to add value or adapt to changing conditions. So when he passed away in 1995, his son Rick had to make a choice–sell the farm or find a way to make it work. Providence came in the form of a local granny who knew of the Fox Hill farm situation and also knew of a retiring cheese-maker who wanted to sell his equipment. She put the two together and Fox Hill Cheese House was born.
Converting a dairy farm to a cheese production facility was no easy task. The Canadian government placed a quota on farmers, saying they could only sell what they produced on-site. This severely limited the production capabilities; however, the Rands decided to apply for a Federal permit, so they could at least sell outside the province of Nova Scotia.
They started with nine varieties of cheese in May, 2004. They chose to sell the cheese direct to consumers at the local Wolfville Farmers Market. In July, they held a launch party with over 1000 people, but by November, sales had trickled to a stop when the farmer’s market closed for the winter. So they started to participate in the Halifax Farmer’s Market that was open year round.
Proof of today’s success? Fox Hill Cheeses now has enlarged their facilities in 2005 and have a full-time retail store in Halifax, with over 100 employees working for them. They now specialize in aged and specialty cheddar, plain and herbed havarti and gouda, quark and quark dips, fresh curds, feta, parmesran, natural yogurt, gelato and premium ice cream products, along with premium 4% milk. Here are some of their more unusual products:
Quark: a cream-cheese like fresh cheese, except with 1/2 the fat of cream cheese. Great on fresh fruit or just plain with a little bit of honey to sweeten it.
Parmesran: their version of Parmesan, a little softer more mild. Play on words since their family name is Ran and Parmesan is trademarked.
Gelato: one of the creamiest gelatos I’ve ever tasted with unique flavors like licorice, cantaloupe and crème brulée.
Karen and Brendon Enright from Ontario had always dreamed of opening a B&B, so they bought one in Nova Scotia and started their entrepreneurial venture, keeping their day jobs. They soon found themselves working around the clock. After seeing the movie Serving Sara with Matthew Perry who bought a winery, they followed suit, knowing absolutely nothing about winemaking or grape-growing.
At first, they planted concord grapes that were great for eating, not for wine-making. After a few hard lessons and the help of famed Dominic Rivard, a Quebec winemaker, they learned how to plant the right vines and how to make wine.
Annapolis Highlands Vineyards has taken some huge risks that have paid off. The first was in planting vinifera, or well-known varietals, like Pinot Gris, that industry experts told them wouldn’t grow in Nova Scotia. They have now won 15 medals, including four from the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, since opening in June, 2009. They have expanded their product offering to include fruit wines made from blueberries, wine tea, wine jellies and whatever innovative products Karen can think of.
They have also always looked for out-of-the-box solutions to get exposure for their wines, and help tourism at the same time. For example, this year’s wine labels showcase Nova Scotia iconic images, like the Cape Fourchu Lighthouse or Digby Scallops.
So whether it’s aged cheddar from Foxhill Cheeses, or Annapolis Highlands award- winning pinot gris, or Damson Plum Liqueur with Sweet Basil, your taste buds will be pleasantly surprised with all the Nova Scotia farm products you can find.
About The Author: Jeanine Buckley is fluent in French and has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. Formerly an international marketing consultant helping Canadian companies enter the US, Jeanine is now a travel writer with a blog focusing on Canada and Boston. Read more of Jeanine’s articles at http://www.bostoncanadatravel.com
Photo Credits: Pierre Jenatton