Welcome to New Brunswick on Canada’s east coast, where Andrew Eames finds lobsters cheaper than luncheon meat, postcard-worthy views and a food scene that’s attracting the cream of European chefs
New Brunswick is part of Atlantic Canada, whose main international gateway is Halifax, Nova Scotia. The currency is the Canadian dollar, and New Brunswick is four hours behind the UK. In August the average high temperature is 25C and the average low is 12C.
Air Canada flies direct to Halifax Stanfield International Airport from London Heathrow every day from £773 return. http://www.aircanada.com
Westjet serves Halifax Stanfield International Airport from Glasgow every day from £558 return. http://www.westjet.com
Flight duration is 61⁄2 hours and there are regular domestic connections for the one-hour hop onward to Saint John. Alternatively, you can rent a car at Halifax and drive around (or take a ferry across) the Bay of Fundy.
Tourism New Brunswick is the region’s website featuring information on activities and sightseeing, places to stay and an extensive food and drinks section. http://www.tourismnewbrunswick.co.uk
To offset your carbon emissions when visiting New Brunswick, make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London to Halifax produce 1.27 tonnes C02, meaning a cost to offset of £9.54.
Larry Foster had already filled two buckets and was aiming to fill a third before the tide returned. With a potential revenue of around £100, three buckets was not bad for half a day’s
work. Mind you, it was half a day of scrabbling around on the seabed with a clam fork, digging hard in search of a telltale squirt. For most people it would be too arduous a livelihood, yet surprisingly for someone who’s been digging for clams since he was six years old, Larry ‘hadn’t had a moment of backache’.
As he worked, bare-chested in the summer sun, the 67-year-old talked of winter, when temperatures dropped to -35C and everything on the beach froze. Everything except the water, that is, because this is the Bay of Fundy, home to the largest tides in the world. With all that diurnal movement, ice had no chance to form.
And did he mind us asking questions? ‘Not at all. Sometimes, if there are tourists, I’ll pretend that I’m a felon out on day release and that’s my warden parked up over there,’ he smiled as he waved his evil-looking six-pronged fork in the direction of a vehicle parked in the distance. ‘That usually gets rid of them.’
Larry was clam-digging just outside Saint Andrews, the last gasp of Canadian shoreline before the US state of Maine, visible across the other side of the Saint Croix river. So once he’d passed his clams to the wholesaler, they could easily end up in Boston or New York – or even in Ossie’s Lunch (established 1957) down the road.
Ossie himself may no longer be around but his 80-year-old wife, Roseanna, is still working behind the counter alongside daughter Angela, who now runs the business. On their menu, besides the clams, are scallops, prawns and succulent lobster claws served in a bun, for the Bay of Fundy is one of the finest seafood destinations in the world. In fact, the water here is so nutrient-rich that it hosts a regular autumnal feeding frenzy of finback and minke whales and, of course, a host of whale-watching boats.
In 1604, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain first landed on an island in the Saint Croix river, this benevolent place was the earliest settlement of Europeans north of Florida. At the time, he reported ‘everything is very pleasant on account of the woods, the beautiful landscapes we found there, and the fine fishing for the many kinds of fish.’
He would still find a lot to like now. The landscape remains a confection of Acadian forest – red spruce, yellow birch and maple – and of fertile islands where sweet and saltwaters mingle in a doodle of creeks and shores. And as for the fishing, these calm, limpid bays are scuffed regularly by the passing of a heavily laden scallop dredger or lobster boat heading for home.
A couple of hundred slumbering years after these first settlers moved inland, Saint Andrews reinvented itself as Canada’s first seaside resort, a place of lordly holiday-making, where wealthy families would travel out by the newly laid railway line to their villas by the sea. But then the arrival of the jet age effectively stopped any further development firmly in its tracks. The railway slowly withered away, leaving behind elegant Victorian and Italianate villas and the imposing mock- Tudor railway hotel The Algonquin Resort.
For many years the local economy was almost entirely sustained by a combination of fishing and whale watching, with a smattering of artists and regional tourists. However, it is fast becoming an international gastronomy destination, thanks to a new wave of chefs attracted to the area by the very same local produce that once so delighted Champlain.
Two parallel universes of cuisine exist here. Not far down the road from Ossie’s Lunch, where everything is battered and deep fried, is Rossmount Inn, with a lobster tank sitting in reception. Owner and chef Chris Aerni says: ‘The key thing about seafood is that it needs to be undercooked.’ For him that means salmon gravlax, cured with a salt and sugar mix, sliced thinly and served with sweet dill mustard and a sour cream cucumber salad. Or a salmon fillet poached at just 49C for ten minutes and served with fiddleheads, the nutty- tasting tops of ostrich ferns that grow by the riversides in spring.
These fiddleheads, along with the likes of ramps (wild garlic), chanterelle mushrooms and delicate, salty, goose-tongue greens are brought to his door. ‘We are forced to cook seasonally here, so I spend most of my time getting products, which means creating relationships with people who grow things,’ says Aerni. In this small and quite isolated community, everything that he serves is either grown, caught or picked by somebody he knows.
Aerni is Swiss and, in fact, most of the new generation of Saint Andrews’ chefs are of European origin.
The Algonquin’s executive chef Ron Kneabone, for example, had a Polish mother who was an ‘amazing cook’. The size of the 233- room family resort and the events it hosts means he has to provide multipurpose menus for all budgets and tastes but he gained a lot of his early experience working in a small bistro in northern France.
Alex Haun, the wunderkind at Saint Andrews’ Savour in the Garden restaurant, also has reason to be grateful to his ancestry, particularly his German grandmother ‘who was a far better pastry cook than I will ever be.’ He started working in local restaurants as a washer-upper at the tender age of 12 and had his own place by the time he was 21, although he admits he was ‘a bit pretentious’ in those early days. Now 30, he has bagged 12 culinary gold medals and cooks his seven-course tasting menu with an almost poetic intensity, using only local and regional items in flavour combinations that can take diners by surprise; his dessert sabayon, for example, was salted with caviar.
For these chefs, the difficulties of getting supplies in this relatively remote corner of Canada, particularly in the early season, is a constraint that forces them to be creative. It works on them rather in the way that the strictures of a sonnet – just 14 lines long and with a strict pattern of rhyme – does on a poet.
Meanwhile, the artistry of what appears on the plate is matched by what can be found in the shops and galleries of Water Street, Saint Andrews’ main drag. Here, where high-backed Adirondack chairs are placed out on painted decks to watch the tides come and go, you can find metal fish made by Alanna Baird; watercolour lighthouses by Simone Ritter and tremendously delicate bird paintings by Steven Smith, who also runs the Crocker Hill Store alongside his wife, Gail, and their dogs, Bella Blue and Abigail Snitch.
Directly across the road from Crocker Hill is the Europa Inn, a place where artist and chef come together. Painter Simone Ritter is married to chef Markus Ritter. They moved to Saint Andrews from Germany 16 years ago after Markus read a book predicting that the east coast of Canada was due a resurgence. The Bavarian chef has brought a taste of Germany with him, because his restaurant with rooms is known not for its seafood but for his wiener schnitzel and his ‘surf and turf’ made with venison and scallops (both, of course, locally sourced). For Ritter, the book’s prediction has come true: he is planning to increase his room stock at the Europa from eight to 26, although the restaurant will always remain his main focus. ‘I like cooking where other people are on vacation, I enjoy the atmosphere,’ he says.
Ritter is right in thinking the abundance of seafood isn’t to everyone’s taste. Not so long ago, having lobster in your school sandwiches was a sign of poverty in Saint Andrews, and children used to petition their parents to give them baloney, the equivalent of Spam. Even today, there’s more lobster here than the locals can shake a stick at – the Bay hosts the world’s largest lobster pound – with the result that much of it crosses the border into Maine.
A lot of this trade doesn’t touch Saint Andrews itself, which exists in a dreamy bubble, free of worldly considerations. The grittier side of life takes place 100km along the shore at Saint John, the main economic hub hereabouts, and the Bay of Fundy’s only city.
In its less gritty parts, Saint John is a brownstone Boston lookalike, and it too is developing parallel universes of food and wine. For example, the Saint John Ale House offers local pickled gaspereau fish and periwinkles alongside the obligatory burgers and fries. Just around the corner, Kim Steele and Tim Muehlbauer (of Danish parentage) in the East Coast Bistro are getting a well-earned reputation for their seasonal handmade food, a lot of which is on show just around the corner in the City Market, the oldest covered market in North America.
On the whole, though, downtown Saint John is about freight and shipping. The city’s elegance is largely sequestered out at Rothesay, a suburb to the north, where the Saint Andrews villas are repeated on a larger scale. Looking out over the broad Kennebecasis river, you can see why the doctors and lawyers would want to live here and why they might want to dine at The Shadow Lawn Inn, where the striploin beef is meltingly good. This chef’s origin? Ukrainian. The European exodus is in full flow.
From Rothesay it is just a ferry ride across the river on to the Kennebecasis peninsula, where locals have their weekend cottages and where the chefs get the rarest of their ingredients – the caviar that Alex Haun puts in his dessert.
Acadian Sturgeon is run by Cornel Ceapa and his wife Dorina, who came here from Romania. On land, Ceapa harvests sturgeon’s eggs from his captive shortnose sturgeon but he also ventures out on to the water every morning to check seasonal nets. As he hauls aboard his 11th fish in the space of a couple of hours, he explains how the sturgeon fishery is scheduled to fade to nothing when the current licensees die but all the signs indicate the wild population is thriving. Sturgeon meat, he says, looks like pork and tastes like scallops; the caviar we try tastes just as it should, with the aquacultured shortnose caviar tasting buttery and mild, while the wild Atlantic caviar is more complex and interesting. And none of it has had to travel all the way around the world to appear on our spoons.
Ceapa and his sturgeon tell much the same story as Larry Foster and his clams did in Saint Andrews: the quality produce that enthralled Champlain back in 1604 is very much still here in New Brunswick. But now the chefs are here, too.
Where to Stay
The Algonquin Resort Big Full-service, all-comforts resort built in mock-Tudor style, with its own 18 hole golf course, and a sumptuous view. The Algonquin is generously proportioned, with ballrooms, pools and even a waterslide. There’s often live music. Doubles from £110, including breakfast. 184 Adolphus Street, Saint Andrews, E5B 1T7, 001 506 529 8823, http://www.algonquinresort.com
Homeport Homestay Innkeepers Ralph and Karen Holyoke have combined two 19th-century Italianate villas to create this ten-room property in Saint John. Maple floors, period furniture and a view over the water, particularly from the belvedere on the roof. Doubles from £60, including breakfast. 80 Douglas Avenue, Saint John, E2K 1E4, 001 506 672 7255, http://www.homeport.nb.ca
Kingsbrae Arms Don’t be fooled by the name, this is the grandest of Saint Andrews’ addresses. The only Relais & Chateaux property in New Brunswick, the manorial shingle-covered ‘summer cottage’ from 1897 is filled with art and antiques, has a beautifully kept garden and a discriminating clientele (maximum 20 guests). Doubles from £165, including breakfast. 219 King Street, Saint Andrews, E5B 1Y1, 001 506 529 1897, http://www.kingsbrae.com
Rossmount Inn A former country estate sitting atop sweeping lawns with fantastic views from its own little mountain – Chamcook Hill – behind. Run by chef Chris Aerni and his elegant wife Graziella, the 18 rooms are uncomplicated and comfortable, but it is the setting, the food and the hospitality that make this special. Doubles from £71, breakfast not included. 4599 Route 127, Saint Andrews, E5B 3S7, 001 506 529 3351, http://www.rossmountinn.com
Shadow Lawn Inn. This elegant Victorian villa on the waterfront in Saint John’s northern suburb of Rothesay is where New Brunswick residents come for their anniversaries, so the atmosphere is very convivial. The nine well-equipped suites are large and comfortable. Doubles with continental breakfast from £71. 3180 Rothesay Road, E2E 5V7, 001 506 847 7539, http://www.shadowlawninn.com
Where to Eat
Braxton’s at The Algonquin Don’t assume because this is a big place with an extensive menu that produce is not locally sourced: sous chef Keith McMeekin makes the maple syrup in his own backyard. Three courses £32. 184 Adolphus Street, Saint Andrews, E5B 1T7. 00 1 506 529 8823, http://www.algonquinresort.com
East Coast Bistro Chefs Kim Steele and Tim Muehlbauer tend to alternate in the kitchen of this Saint John restaurant but you can always expect good local produce, especially good handmade pasta that’s not often found in these parts. Three courses £28. 60 Prince William Street, Saint John, E2L 2B1. 00 1 506 696 3278, http://www.eastcoastbistro.com
Europa Inn Chef Markus Ritter’s five-course seasonal tasting menu pushes all the local buttons – lobster, scallops, venison – and pairs them with international wines. The whiskey maple ice cream is particularly good. Five courses with wine, £43. 48 King Street, Saint Andrews, E5B 1Y3. 00 1 506 529 3818, http://www.europainn.com
Rossmount Inn Locals make a beeline for Chris Aerni’s haddock fillet with capers and chives, so fresh it melts on the fork. His mussel cream soup with a hint of curry is to die for. Three courses £28. 4599 Route 127, Saint Andrews, E5B 3S7. 00 1 506 529 3351, http://www.rossmountinn.com
Saint John City Market This old covered market is full of good things: if you’re there early, stop off at Slocum & Ferris slocumandferris.com for one of its breakfast bagels or blueberry pancakes. If it’s lunch you’re after, be sure to head to Billy’s Seafood billysseafood.com for a crabcake salad, seafood mac and cheese or a tuna steak sandwich.
Savour in the Garden Chef Alex Haun’s restaurant in the glorious Kingsbrae Gardens. His creative seven-course taster (expect seared foie gras and smoked lobster) costs between £40 and £50. 220 King Street, Saint Andrews, E5B 1Y8. 00 1 506 529 4055, http://www.savourinthegarden.com
Don't missBeer and wine It’s not just the locally produced food that’s getting attention, it’s the drink, too. Gilliane Nadeau’s tours take in both the new craft brewers in Saint John and the vineyards establishing themselves in the surrounding countryside. 001 506 325 4644, http://www.uncorkednb.com Kingsbrae Garden If there was ever any doubt about the fertility of the soil in this forest-covered land, Saint Andrews’ Kingsbrae, with its 11ha of formal and informal horticulture, is proof otherwise. A new feature is a growing collection of compelling modern sculpture. 001 506 529 3335, http://www.kingsbraegarden.com Ministers Island Reached across a causeway only when tides permit, this island was once the private domain of Sir William Van Horne, one of the pioneers of Canada’s railways. His ‘cottage’ is massive, and his circular bathhouse, with its swimming pool cut into the rocks, looks like a Martello tower. 001 506 529 5081, htttp://www.ministersisland.net Sturgeon safari If you don’t mind getting up early, the chance to witness wild sturgeon being netted, tagged and (mostly) released is unmissable. And dawn on the Saint John river isn’t too bad, either. The boat trip is followed by a mini feast of home-produced caviar. 001 506 763 3202, http://www.acadian-sturgeon.com Whale watching Several operators offer cruises from Saint Andrews pier. The whale-watching season runs from July until September but they also go out for nature cruises, spotting seals and bald eagles. Try Island Quest Marine. 001 506 529 9885, http://www.islandquestmarine.com
Andrew Eames and Andreas Trauttmansdorff travelled to New Brunswick with New Brunswick Tourism, Heritage and Culture
This article was published on 10th August 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.