For Taste & Travel Magazine, Winter, 2012
We arrive at Peggys Cove at dusk. On the eastern point of St Margaret’s Bay, this fishing village, population 46, is one of Nova Scotia’s busiest attractions. But we are alone here. The bus tour season in this celebrated place appears to be past its prime and we have these granite outcrops, these lashing waves and Canada’s most iconic lighthouse to ourselves.
The late October light is stunning, slicing through the clouds in purple bands. We leap from rock to rock, kids again, though mature in our complaints and our carefulness: wishing we’d brought a scarf, a hat, alert to the dark rocks, the slick spots, the sharp edges. There are signs that warn the incautious of the perils of taking lightly the power of the sea and we heed them.
Besides, there is a dinner reservation awaiting us in Lunenburg, and we have every intention of being there.
Moments after we leave Peggys Cove on NS highway 33 toward Lunenburg, we stop at The Whalesback promontory, the site of the Swissair Flight 111 Memorial (one of two in Nova Scotia, erected in honour of the 229 men, women and children who perished when their aircraft crashed into St Margarets Bay on September 2, 1998). Three thin notches on a monument stone, representing the flight number, form sightlines to the crash site, while a second granite marker points to the town of Bayswater, and to the second memorial site.
An hour later we arrive in Lunenburg. This nineteenth century fishing port is on the map for a few fine reasons: It boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation; it’s old by Canadian standards, and awful pretty by any standard; and it has a long and storied maritime history. And every time I visit, it’s tastier.
This, thanks in part to Chef Martin Ruiz Salvador. In 2008, he and his team from Fleur de Sel restaurant in Lunenburg beat out the big city boys of Halifax to take the top prize at the Nova Scotia Gold Medal Plates culinary competition. We may have had Peggys Cove to ourselves, but Fleur de Sel was packed.
Open from May through October, housed in a yellow clapboard, Arts and Crafts style house in the centre of the historic district of Lunenburg, Fleur de Sel is all creamy yellow and starched white, softened with rounded arches, potted daisies and thoughtful service led by Sylvie Ruiz Salvador.
Her husband’s cooking draws from the sea and local farms for inspiration and from a firm foundation in French cuisine for its discipline. We worked our way happily through his tasting menu. From the opening moves – chilled Annapolis Valley cantaloupe soup with mint oil – and on through Cherrystone clams with a fennel and tarragon cream, seared beef heart with chanterelles, roasted partridge with local artichoke stew, farmhouse cheeses with fruit bread and honeycomb and poached peaches with almond milk sorbet.
“Did it ever occur to you,” wrote newspaper man Horatio Crowell in 1931, “that the Creator … may have spent aeons in moulding those features of this Province which possess such delicacy of beauty, such subtlety of charm that, travel the world over, we find them unexcelled, and without peer?”
Working on an appetite for breakfast, wandering the harbour in the early morning, the inspiration for Crowell’s poetry was plain. Like all naturally gifted bits of geography, Lunenburg was settled early, in the mid 1700s, before Canada was Canada, when immigrants from Germany, Switzerland and from Montbeliard (a “Countship”, not yet a part of France) established new lives in this county. They were known as the Foreign Protestants, and they were joined soon thereafter by pre-Loyalists from New England, paying off the cost of their sea passage by working on the fortifications for the British protectors.
The Government of Canada declared old Town Lunenburg, known as Mirligueche to the Acadians, a National Historic District in 1992. In 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added “World Heritage Site” to its list of honours. Lunenburg is the second urban community in Continental North America to be designated a World UNESCO District. The first was old Quebec City.
Sometimes best to discover the historic and cultural significance of a town from a grizzled guide called Jack, a Lunenburg man for generations, and his faithful horse Duke. Those two, bless them, pulled us up the steep hills that stretch from the harbour to the top of Old Town, unchanged in arrangement and with some of the finest preserved 18th century wooden houses and churches in the country.
A community dominated by the sea and blessed with a deep harbour is a natural for shipbuilding and it flourished along Lunenburg’s waterfront. Be sure to visit the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, red barn buildings at wharfside, and then head to the Lunenburg Shipyard. Housed in a massive tent is the restoration project of the famous Canadian fishing and racing schooner the Bluenose II. Though the damaged hull is being completely replaced, much of the original ship – the rigging, sails, blocks, rescue boats and two decks – will be re-used and she’s due to be back in service in the spring of 2012.
We were due for lunch. Seeking simple fare, we headed to Ruiz Salvador’s second restaurant. This one, The Salt Shaker Deli, is open year round. Among assets like salt cod and spud cakes, Indian Point mussels with Halifax’ Propeller beer, Stinky Charlie’s garlic pizza and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, is The Salt Shaker’s triumphant seafood chowder. Also: save room for pie.
We took our time on the way back to Halifax – stopping at the Kiwi Café, an emerald green restaurant and coffee shop in the Village of Chester, owned by transplanted New Zealander Lynda Flinn. Toys and books for visiting kids, water bowls for visiting dogs and solidly good home baking keeps the place crowded and the crowd happy.
Books and biscuits vie for attention at the Biscuit Eater Café in Mahone Bay. We buy a good read and settle down with a thick bowl of black bean soup and a pulled pork and blue cheese sandwich. We end the chapter with a strong espresso and a slab of chocolate cake – like the old fashioned, from-scratch birthday cake your mother made. Only considerably better.
Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, 68 Bluenose Dr., 866-579-4909, www.museum.gov.ns.ca/fma
Bluenose II restoration project, 121 Bluenose Dr., 1-800-763-1963, www.bluenose2.ns.ca
Fleur de Sel, 53 Montague St., 902-640-2121, www.fleurdesel.net
Salt Shaker Deli, 124 Montague St., 902-640-3434, www.saltshakerdeli.com
Kiwi Café, 15 Pleasant St., Chester, 902-275-2570 www.kiwicafechester.com
Mahone Bay, NS
The Biscuit Eater, 16 Orchard St., Mahone Bay, 902-624-2665