08 MAY 2012: In the past week I’ve dined on local caviar and smoked sturgeon, boar topped poutine, white chocolate risotto and foie gras from a nearby farm. I’ve sipped blueberry beer, white wine made from Louise Swenson grapes and Chocolate River maple wine. What province could I possibly be in?
If you guessed New Brunswick I’ll bet you’re a local. There’s a burgeoning locavore movement here but much of it is still below the radar to the rest of us in Canada. I found culinary surprises around every corner of this friendly province with its down-home charm.
Moncton has been named among the best places to live in Canada by MoneySense magazine and Reader’s Digest has called it the most honest city in North America and the most polite.
It’s also home to Pump House Brewery opened by Moncton firefighter Shaun Fraser in 1999. They serve awesome wood-fired oven pizza here but what impressed me most was their beer sampler tray. Nine samples of their own brewed beer, all delicious, for a mere $6.75. Of particular note were their Scotch Ale with its malty smoky flavours from peat smoked barley and the Blueberry Ale, light and fresh with floating blueberries in it.
At the Tide and Boar gastropub recently featured on the Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here” they serve local boar on poutine – a heart stopper of a dish that’s too tasty to resist. They also bake their own bread, make their own ketchup, brew their own ginger beer, serve innovative martinis, smoke their own fish and make charcuterie in-house.
At a Magnetic Hill Winery, close to the famous site where cars appear to be magically pulled up hill, I enjoyed a panoramic view of Moncton and the Chocolate River as I sipped through the lineup of 14 wines. Jeff and Janet Everett restored an 1867 historic property to open a B&B and winery here.
Their wines are all from fruit though you could be easily fooled particularly by The Illusion, a fairly dry white wine made 100% from heritage white rhubarb. Their sweet wines are all named after the Chocolate River, brown from its celebrated Tidal Bore. They don’t contain chocolate rather they are made sweet and tasty from apple, pear, maple syrup and the like.
Saint John, Canada’s oldest incorporated city and the only one on the beautiful Bay of Fundy, home to the world’s highest tides, boasts a rich history and the thrills of the Reversing Rapids.
It also has Atlantic Canada’s original wine bar, Happinez, owned by Peter Smit. This intimate spot has won awards for its innovative architecture that makes the most of a tiny space, including an outdoor patio that can be disassembled and brought indoors in winter.
Wines can be sampled in flights of three two-ounce pours along with tasty platters of local goat cheeses from Au Fond des Bois and charcuterie from La Ferme du Diamant. I dined that evening at the new hot (and perhaps ghost haunted) restaurant Decimal 81 which specializes in local cuisine and capped off the night with homemade desserts at Opera Bistro.
The next day Jesse Vergen, executive chef at the Saint John Ale House took me on a forging expedition. We picked organic vegetables from his farm, dug up fiddleheads by the river, stopped at some local markets and then the thrill of it all; we visited Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar, where Cornel Ceapa raises sturgeon and catches wild sturgeon for their eggs and meat which he smokes on premises.
Cornel has a PhD in sturgeon and he loves these prehistoric looking creatures. He sells his baby sturgeons around the world to help repopulate areas that have lost most of their stock. It takes 10 years to grow sturgeon to the size (usually 6 to 8 feet long) with an average weight of 100 to 150 pounds that they are ready to process.
There are 29 species of sturgeon, some which can grow much larger than that. They’re harmless bottom feeders but their bony plates give them a fierce crocodile-like appearance and many people don’t feel the same love that Cornell has for them. Nonetheless he perseveres and I am glad of that. The caviar is fantastic.
Jesse took some smoked sturgeon meat back to the Ale House and whipped me up a creamy delicious chowder with it and freshly caught seafood including delicate Saint Simon oysters. He also introduced me to the wines of Motts Landing, which he considers the best grape wine producers in the province.
Winemaker Sonia Carpenter who made wine in New Zealand, has planted cold climate varieties from Minnesota such as Louise Swenson and elsewhere to make distinct and pleasant wines.
My final stop was Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital nestled alongside the St. John River. The downtown is chockablock with museums, National Historic Sites and galleries notably the world famous Beaverbrook Art Collection, as well as an impressive selection of bars, clubs and restaurants.
I plunged right into it with a Picaroons (named best in Canada at the Canadian Brewing Awards 2011) beer tasting matched with chocolate enhanced dishes created by Julie Dixon, the sous-chef at BrewBakers, a wine savvy restaurant in the heart of downtown. Her baked haddock with creamy white chocolate risotto was an unforgettable dish.
For my final indulgences I went to Lunar Rogue, home to over 375 whiskeys, whose owner Frank Scott is founder of Canada’s oldest whiskey festival that takes place in Fredericton each November.
After a sampling of his treasures I went to Blue Door for a farm to table taste of seared La Ferme du Diamant foie gras and Kuinshoeve farm beef tenderloin wrapped with local hardwood smoked bacon.
Behind that unassuming exterior those Maritimers are pretty darned sophisticated.