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By Habeeb Salloum and Muna Salloum
In the field of cuisine, Canada has some little-known secrets that need to be uncovered. From the prairies in the west to the eastern coast of the country, refined dining in the largest cities of the nation are well-known. However, there are those hidden gems that pop up here and there exposing a newfound Canadian gourmet treasure. As we discovered, these are the gourmet cuisine or “bites” offered on the island of Cape Breton. This is thanks to a new generation of young chefs and sous-chefs, who have returned to their native home or non-native Nova Scotians who have developed a unique cuisine in order to revive and showcase the bounty of the province.
We had spent a few days in Sydney, the largest city on Cape Breton Island, sampling some of its cuisine that preserves traces of its traditional heritages. Venison, wild duck, oak cakes, haggis, whiskies, and hot buttered rum remain part of the cultural culinary tradition but there is so much more. Surrounding waters have given the cuisine an overall gourmet punch to Nova Scotia’s culinary offerings. Lobster, halibut, trout, oysters, scallops, mussels, and the province’s unique Snow crab are the essentials of what now make Nova Scotia a competitive venue for the world’s best dishes.
We decided to try out some of the southern Cape Breton dishes as we were headed towards the famous Cabot Trail to indulge in the wonders of nature and what it offered in local cuisine. This decision came about after a number of conversations with various patrons of Sydney’s eating establishments. Many urged us to try out the island’s developing haute cuisine suggesting locales where to begin our journey of discovery.
This is how we ended up for our preliminary ‘taste of Cape Breton’ at the Chanterelle Country Inn and Cottages at North River on the Cabot Trail.
When we reached North River’s Chanterelle Inn to have lunch we were met at the front door by its gracious and remarkable owner Earlene Busch. We soon learned her story of how she ended up on the beautiful isle of Cape Breton.
Born and bred in Boulder, Colorado, Earlene established herself as founder and CEO of a high tech company. A highly active business person who travelled the world for both her work and passion for collecting curly maple furniture, she ended up on the Cabot Trail. When one of our group asked her what brought her to Cape Breton, she laughed and said: “It’s always a strange answer but it’s furniture.”
She arrived, purchased the furniture but fell in love with the island, especially the Cabot Trail and decided to make Cape Breton her home. She bought a 100-acre piece of barren land and, in only one year, constructed the inn from scratch. It is built entirely on an environmentally friendly basis. The view is marvelous – it overlooks North River and St. Ann’s Harbour. As Earlene explained, her world travels also introduced her to international cuisines and when she sold her company, she trained as a chef. We were soon to discover that her culinary skills matched her business acumen.
She prepared for us a fantastic meal for lunch. The baked halibut with roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes, the creamy fiddlehead soup, and the homemade strawberry and peach sherbets left us with indelible tastes and flavours. In this quaint clean inn located along the Cabot Trail, we discovered a gourmet food haven nestled among the green natural wonders of the island. We said our farewells and thanked Earlene for her delicious culinary creations all made from local fresh ingredients.
The next evening our goal was the Bite House in Baddeck, a renovated farmhouse. As we stepped out of our auto, a cloud of mosquitos attacked us. We quickly took cover by running inside the Bite House and worried that this was a bad sign of the evening to come. Well, never judge an establishment by its mosquitos as we ended up spending one of the most delectable and palate-inspiring evenings of our gourmet adventures.
We sat at a meticulously clean and contemporary dining table surrounded by an atmosphere of serenity. The local ingredients for the anticipated 5-course tasting meal had been either farmed or foraged by Chef Bryan Picard. Artistically presented, each dish offered a combination of flavours and textures. The first ‘bite’ was lobster meat placed on seaweed and delicately flavoured with a basil-mayo sauce followed by cold-water shrimp embraced by mustard leaves and chives. What a combination of greens and crustaceans! It even got better. Our first entree was hot-smoked trout laced with radishes, sea chickweed, pickled pumpkin, and mint with a sprinkling of sesame seeds accompanied by a slice of crusty thin rye bread. A goat dumpling slightly simmering in a bacon-thyme broth and decorated with sunflower shoots followed. Capping the main meal was an unbelievably moist chicken partnered with fiddleheads, a ‘secret’ green sauce and pieces of Hakurai turnips. All this ended with an outstanding dessert of grilled rhubarb nestled on lemon balm ice cream. Our conclusion? – a must gourmet stop for even the best chefs of the world.
Slightly different was The Clove Hitch Bar & Bistro located in Port Hood. Expecting to have, judging by its name, regular bar food, we discovered that the Bistro has really raised the notch in what bars can serve. As we relaxed outside after a long day of touring, our host ordered tidbits of delicious appetizers amidst the cool breeze. When the breeze became too windy, we were somewhat hesitant to eat inside only because the music from the electric guitar made it hard to converse. But we followed our host’s lead and sat still, silently complaining that the music and song were just too loud.
Attempting to shut out the blaring music, we were able to concentrate on the bites presented at our table all prepared by Chef Jason Sampson, a passionate creator of new tastes for traditional dishes with a French and Italian flair. The menu, just as the bar/bistro advertises, includes only fresh local ingredients. Friendly, accommodating and efficient staff make the place a comfort spot away from home. Despite the loud music, I enjoyed the light creamy seafood chowder, lobster sushi, pan-seared scallops on a red pepper jelly, crispy light lobster wontons, and a very tender beef short rib. I don’t know what was more artistic – the appetizers that the Chef brought to the table or his tattoos. Port Hood, located on the western coast of the island, is a quiet seaside community, offering this gem as one of its highlights.
As a finale to our gourmet tour, we took the decision to visit a new craft brewery then end it with a stop at Cape Breton’s famous whiskey distillery.
There seems to be a plethora of craft beer breweries springing up all over Canada. Like wineries, these breweries are dotted across the country and have reached Cape Breton. On our way to the Glenora Inn and Distillery, we stopped near Baddeck at a craft brewery to sample its beer. There at the Big Spruce Brewing Company we met Jeremy White, owner and inventive brewer. Having created at least a dozen types of unfiltered, unpasteurized and excellent beer, Jeremy enjoys his vocation as he has the opportunity to experiment and offer the world the best of what nature can bring to brewing.
After a tasting-session of his beers, and in the early morning to boot, we headed on to Glenora where we were to try our hand at becoming malt whiskey experts. It wasn’t a contest to determine whether beer or whiskey are better, it was to introduce us to the flavours of Cape Breton.
As we walked through the entrance of Glenora, a landscape of immaculate green with white buildings sparkling in the sun greeted us. The inns surround the dining areas so that while dining, the view is breathtaking. As a guest, there are a number of options for dining and drinking. For those who enjoy a good whiskey, take a stab at the taste-testing experience. Five types of whiskey are placed at the table for each guest to try and a lesson on how to drink and understand whiskey is delivered.
Not skipping a beat, our host herded us into the dining room where we were to enjoy one of the finest lunches that we have ever had in our travels across Canada. Executive Chef Patrick MacIsaac is the master of the haute cuisine offered at the inn. Thanks to him, Glenora is famous not only for its whiskey but also for its fine dining menu. With the hands of a magician, Chef Patrick enthralls his guests with his creations. We enjoyed a magnificent lunch. Scallops, lobster, smoked trout and their trimmings made Glenora a place to remember. Everything was so fresh and so tasty with ingenious combinations of herbs, vegetables and sauces. It was a great ending to our tour of southern Cape Breton, a paradise-isle which Ulysses missed out on.
IF YOU GO:
1) It is best to have your own car or rent an auto when visiting Cape Breton. Taxis are rare and beware gas stations are a few and far in between.
2) For lunch, a must is to visit the Chanterelle Country Inn & Cottages where the halibut is divine. Served with roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes, the dish diffuses the flavours of Cape Breton: 48678 Cabot Trail, Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
3) For dinner, The Bite House is the place to be. However, reservations must be made weeks in advance. Baddeck is to dine at the Bite House. A 12-seat restaurant located in a fully-renovated 100-year old farmhouse just on the outskirts of Baddeck, guests are given a 5-course meal, all gourmet dishes that are created from local organic ingredients. Dinner is $60 CAD plus tax. The menu changes monthly: 1471 Westside Baddeck Road, Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
4) For a fine dining bar/bistro experience, try the The Clove Hitch Bar & Bistro: 8790 Route 19, Port Hood, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
5) Accommodation: if you enjoy a good whiskey and living in style, try Glenora Inn and Distillery. Its grounds are tranquil and the rooms are immaculately clean: 13727 Route 19, Glenville, Cape Breton.
6) For further tourism information about Cape Breton Island.