'In Nova Scotia, you're judged by the quality of your chowder and your fish cakes," said restaurateur and innkeeper Adam Bower of the Grand Banker in Lunenburg. While fish cakes don't ring our culinary chimes, chowder is another kettle of fish. We love the stuff — which is why we decided to explore Nova Scotia one bowlful at a time, on the Nova Scotia chowder trail.
Before you get all "don't we have great chowder right here in New England?" on us, let's just say . . . sure, if you like clam chowder. We've done the Boston Chowder Fest many times. But Nova Scotia brings something special to the table — chowder made with plump Digby scallops, shrimp, smoked haddock, salmon, mussels, and lobster, or some combination of them, all pulled from local waters. Cream is typically involved, though not always, and seasonings vary by chef. The Nova Scotia chowders we sampled include a curried version, one made with almond broth, and one garnished with kale. If you're a true chowderhead, Nova Scotia should top your bucket list.
There are 60-plus stops on the official Chowder Trail (recently re-labeled the "Seafood Trail") but a tour de chowder offers a bonus beyond great eats: gorgeous scenery along the way, including beaches, lighthouses, and verdant hillsides dotted with wineries. Our goal: to sample 10 different versions of chowdery excellence on our tour. Here's a report.
Day 1: CAT ferry from Portland, Maine, to Falmouth, Nova Scotia
Chowders sampled: 0
Yes, you can drive the entire way, but then you'd miss the potential whale and porpoise sightings aboard the new CAT ferry, run by Bay Ferries Ltd. (www.ferries.ca/thecat), mid-June to Oct. 1.) Unlike the old ferry that required an overnight stay aboard, this one takes just 5-and-a-half hours, departing Portland at 2:30 p.m., and arriving in Nova Scotia that night. Walk on or bring a car; just be ready for a wait at the customs gate when you disembark.
After a long travel day, all you really want to do is conk out, no? We were happy to decamp at the Rodd Grand Yarmouth Hotel (www.roddgrand
yarmouth.com), located about five minutes from the ferry dock.
Day 2: Yarmouth to Lunenburg via Shelburne
Chowders sampled: 4
Commencing our 452-mile chowder route, we followed the meandering Truck Highway, a.k.a. coastal route 3, along Nova Scotia's South Shore. Here, pine-fringed fingers of land touch the blue Atlantic, a scenic drive indeed. Our first stop: Charlotte Lane Café in Shelburne (www.charlotte
lane.ca ), a homey spot in a comely seaport village founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1783. We were skeptical: When you enter a restaurant through a gift shop, how good would the chowder be?
In a word: Excellent. At our table on the back porch, we shared a bowl of chowder loaded with scallops, shrimp, haddock, and maple-smoked salmon, finished with tarragon, parsnips, sweet potato, bacon, in a broth of local Boxing Rock beer. "We could stop right here. This is the best chowder I've ever had," our companion, Marcia, declared. No wonder Charlotte Lane was voted Best Small Restaurant in Nova Scotia in 2013. Open for lunch and dinner, the cafe makes everything on site, including dessert. The chowder rated an A+.
Reluctantly bypassing Kejimkujik National Park Seaside (not on our chowder-themed itinerary), we stopped at White Point Beach Resort's Founder's Lounge (www.white
point.com ) in White Point. Delighted to discover they served chowder all day (it was now around 3 p.m.), we ordered a bowl of cedar-planked salmon chowder, with local bacon and Digby scallops.
Maybe the salt air and beach walk revived our appetites, but this chowder was delicious. The salmon and bacon proved a perfect pairing, with the whole, juicy scallops adding a hint of sweetness. Delighted with our enthusiasm, chef Alan Crosby sent us off with a copy of the (gluten-free) recipe.
Next up: Lunenburg, where the Old Town district is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived too late to hit the popular Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic or join one of the whale-watching trips and fishing tours offered here, but we poked around some galleries before dinner. Our digs for the night were actually located atop our next restaurant stop: the Brigantine Inn (www.brigantine
inn.com) and the Grand Banker Bar & Grill (www.grandbanker.com.)
Could we actually eat more chowder today? Of course we could.
The Grand Banker's seafood chowder was fine, a creamy broth studded with morsels of haddock, shrimp, scallops, and clams, but it was the Acadian-Style Cajun seafood stew that made our taste buds zing. With just the right amount of heat, this hearty stew is of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, according to owner Adam Bower.
Day 3: Lunenburg to Halifax via
Chowders sampled: 4
After a quick fishermen's breakfast of fish cakes and baked beans, we set off for Peggy's Cove, one of Nova Scotia's most photographed beauty spots. Like a baby Rockport, Peggy's Cove offers galleries set in weathered fishing sheds, with the requisite colorful fishing boats. At least, we think it does: Peggy's Cove was swathed in fog on our visit.
Working our way through the gift shop, we put in our order for chowder at the Sou'Wester Restaurant (www.peggys-cove.com ), getting takeout so we could skip the crowded dining room. The "authentic Maritime cream chowder," made with lobster and haddock, they say, was mostly potato in our serving, and pretty meh compared to the others we'd tried. Eating it outdoors on a bench by the ocean, with the wail of bagpipes and that fog-shrouded lighthouse, made for an interesting setting, though.
Next up: Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital, with its bustling harbor, city vibe, and fondness for Bostonians. Admittedly, our enthusiasm for chowder was flagging. We parked the car at the Delta Barrington Hotel (our home for the night; www.deltahotels.com) and stopped by Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery (www.keiths.ca). We'd missed the hourly tour by 10 minutes, but soothed our regret with a sampling of ales (and a cup of not-bad seafood chowder that we're counting in our total) at the Stag's Head Tavern next door. We felt big love for the
But wait — it was 5 p.m., meaning Chives Canadian Bistro (www.chives
.ca ) had opened for the evening, one of the highlights on our chowder tour. Executive chef/owner Craig Flinn is a cookbook author and one of Canada's top names in the farm-to-table movement. Served with a wonderful buttery biscuit, the curried seafood chowder had a unique, Thai-inspired flavor that the curry fan in our party savored. The 'classic chowder' lover: Not so much.
Five Fishermen Restaurant & Grill (www.fivefishermen.com), next up on our tour, has a unique backstory: the historic c.1817 building was once a funeral home, and it is said to be haunted. Opened as a restaurant in 1975, the upstairs is white-linen formal, while the downstairs is more casual. Five Fishermen is consistently rated as one of the best restaurants in Nova Scotia, so we had high hopes for the chowder. It was definitely the prettiest bowlful, topped with mussels and clams in their shells, and a sprig of kale. Filled with salmon, shrimp, Digby scallops, halibut, clams and cream, it was very good, but minus the savory oomph of the smoked fish chowders.
Day 4: Halifax to Digby
Chowders sampled: 3
Dreams of Digby scallops dancing in cream filled our dreams, as we awoke to another day of chowder feasting. From the South Shore and Halifax, we drove alongside the Bay of Fundy to the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia's wine country. So it was fitting that our first stop was Le Caveau at Domaine de Grand Pre Winery (www.grandprewines.com/restaurant ), where we sampled chowder on their elegant pergola-ed patio. Le Caveau is considered to be one of the best winery restaurants in the world, and we enjoyed their "light take" on seafood chowder. Brimming with lobster and scallops, the chowder was thickened with almond broth, flavored with spring onions and smoked paprika, and just a touch of cream. Bits of slivered almonds added some crunch.
By now, we were getting chowder-ed out. Maybe a nice seaside bowlful, with seagulls and views of the Bay of Fundy's legendary high tides, would restore our enthusiasm? We drove past rolling fields and farmlands to Hall's Harbour Lobster Pound (www.hallsharbourlobster.com ), one of the rare eat-in-the-rough lobster shacks we encountered on our tour. "It feels a bit Woodman's," Marcia noted, as we queued up to place our order. The chowder: Just OK. The mussels: Way too salty. But all was forgiven when we dug our forks into the lobster poutine, a triumph of French fries, cheese curds, and lobster meat.
Admittedly, we had gone a bit overboard on the eats today. But we had one reputedly fabulous spot left on our tour: Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa (www.digbypines.ca) in Digby, the source of those raved-about scallops. Somehow, after our drive through the orchards and rural villages of the Annapolis Valley, we decided we could handle one more taste of chowder. At Digby Pines' Churchill's Restaurant, we stuck our spoons into chowder made with smoked haddock and bacon, in a thyme-infused broth with cream, potatoes, and onions. Even after 10 other chowders, we liked this one a lot — but we loved the buttered lobster tortillas we ordered as an accompaniment.
Ten chowders in one trip? Hah! We'd made it to 11 shared bowls. And we still haven't conquered the entire chowder trail. We'll be back — but it'll take awhile before we're ready for more chowder.