Want a real Nova Scotian Christmas feast? Keep the menu close to home.

Halifax Magazine, December 2010

Editor’s Note:  With Christmas upon us we wondered if it was really possible to prepare a special meal using solely local ingredients.  Rather than do the usual story on the subject, we decided to take a more hands on approach, giving writer Megan Venner a budget and a challenge. 

It seemed simple when I first agreed to the idea in the summer… cook an entirely local meal.  The blueberries were so ripe they fell off the bushes, vegetables were fighting for space on the market shelves, lobster season was open.  What could be easier?

Inspired by The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon, I began to plan.  My map showed me 100 Miles aroundHalifax offered farms and fishing boats from Northport to Liverpool and from New Glasgow toSherbrooke.  My first disappointment came when I realized Digby was just outside my grazing limits.  The idea for scallop stuffed mushroom caps was out but I got over the disappointment when I realized lobster might be even better.

Naively, I perused my cookbooks.  Every recipe called for some ingredient I could not get locally.  Some substitutions were easier than others.  I could use butter in place of olive oil, maple syrup or honey instead of sugar but others were much more of a challenge.  A recipe for blueberry punch sounded promising until I discovered it needed lemon juice and cinnamon sticks.  I didn’t know any lemon groves closer thanCaliforniaso I moved on.  Luckily I have some experience in the kitchen so I began to adapt and create my own recipes.

Flour was the first ingredient to stump me.  I’ve seen wheat growing in Nova Scotia fields and Ben’s Bread is made here but finding locally produced flour proved impossible.  Sure, this province is the smallest wheat producing province in Canada (less than 0.001% of the wheat grown in Saskatchewan) but it still grows a respectable 7,200 tonnes.  Who knew finding local flour would be so hard?  I did find one potential source with a day trip to the Balmoral Grist Mill, a working museum where grain is still ground into flour.  Unfortunately, the day I was there the only product available was stone ground oats.  It proved to be a useful flour substitute in some dishes, but it did limit my options.

Dessert was my biggest challenge.  I settled on blueberries early on.  There were plenty in my freezer from the abundance of high season.  What else would a good Nova Scotia girl use?  Figuring out what to do with them was the problem.  The friendly lady at the Grist Mill assured me I could use the oats in a blueberry grunt or crisp but even the standby Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens cookbook called for corn starch, baking powder, and vanilla.  I was about to admit defeat until my love of cheese led me to Fox Hill Cheese House.  I was assured the German soft cheese they made would make a fabulous cheesecake.

Salt was another problem.  We’re a briny province.  Every summer I drive past the Windsor Salt plant in Pugwash, but that stuff is shipped away to join salt from other production points so I could not be assured my box of Windsor Salt was indeed local.  Instead I found the Lavender cooking salt from the Beach Lane Lavendar Farm in River John.  The salt is sourced from the Pugwash plant and the owners assured me lavender is suited to anything I might make with rosemary as the two are related.

I planned to cook the feast at the family’sAmherstShorecottage so a drive from myAnnapolisValleyhome to the cottage took me from one end of my 100 Mile limit to the other.  In the summer I went blueberry picking in Dempsey’s Corner where I also dug potatoes and picked beans.  We drove through the Valley, noting with interest the lawn signs in Wolfville pleading with people to ‘save our farms.’  Berwick’s Meadowbrook Meat Market supplied a beautiful roast and some fresh valley mushrooms.  We picked up quark at Fox Hill Cheese, and went on to find Farmer’s Dairy sour cream and milk, garden fresh zucchini and freshly caught lobster in Port Howe.

Despite a fruitless last minute scouring the neighbourhood gardens for the garlic I forgot, those at the table agreed it was one of the finest meals of the season.  The simple, fresh flavours came through and were complimented by wine made from grapes grown no more than 10 miles away.  Each bite seemed sweeter knowing we had done our part to do as those Wolfville signs begged and “save our farms.”  The mushroom caps and the cheesecake were particularly fine examples of a local adaptation making a recipe even better.

I learned a few things.  Eating a 100 Mile diet is a fine idea… but it is simply not feasible for my family full time.  I have three kids, in three different schools.  I work, so does my husband.  I don’t have time to grocery shop all over the province.  It is, however, an excellent theme for a holiday meal that you have the time to pre-plan.

Nova  Scotia produces an incredible array of foods.  The problem is access.  The grocery store is still more likely to carry produce fromArgentinathan from theAnnapolisValley.  The frozen food aisles carry very little that’s local… with the possible exception ofOxfordblueberries.  If I want local produce in the winter (that’s not potato or carrots) it has to be frozen or canned at home in the fall.

The ingredients for my meal came from 10 different farm markets, stores and gardens in a huge swath of the province.  Every meal cannot take that level of travel or work.  I will, however, set myself the goal of making more local meals.  Locally produced food makes up only 13% of the average Canadian’s diet.  I don’t want to live that way.  Now, when I buy feta, I want it to be the stuff made in Aylsford.  My vinegar will be made from local apples, not Italian grapes.  My garlic, my butter, my milk… it doesn’t have to come from away.  The fall farm bounty will find its way into my freezer and my meat will come more from the local butcher and less from the ubiquitous supermarket styrofoam.  I will continue to buy local where I can and refuse to buy apples fromChile.

A 100 Mile diet can be an expensive production… or can be as simple as a hodge podge or steak and corn on the BBQ.  Either way, it tastes great, is better for our health, our environment and our economy.

Menu:

Lobster stuffed in Valley mushroom caps, topped with Dragon’s Breath cheese.

Pork Roast with Beavercreek Winery Apple Wine and apple mint.

Potato/Zucchini Latkes

Green Beans

2008SunriseVineyard Frontenac Gris, Jost Winery, Malagash

Maple Cheesecake with Blueberry Sauce

Cheese Tray: Curried Quark, Dilled Havarti and Cranberry Cheddar (Fox Hill Cheese House) and Dragon’s Breath (That Dutchman)

Jost Port