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WEEKEND IN THE ANNAPOLIS  VALLEY

WEEKEND IN THE ANNAPOLIS VALLEY

We sometimes underestimate the exceptional experiences just outside of Halifax—weekend or even day trips that hold the potential to introduce us to wonderful people, places, and—of course—food and drink. It’s the people doing magical things with Nova Scotia agriculture that are truly the most impressive. Year-over-year, these talented individuals are finding new and creative ways to connect more people with authentically Nova Scotian adventures. While visitors to our province spend time researching their trips, it’s the locals who are often overlooking what’s in our backyard. In a mere 48 hours, I manage to dine at an award-winning winery restaurant, drive along the Bay of Fundy, take a sustainable seafood cooking class, board a British-style double-decker in downtown Wolfville and visit five wineries. I sampled several wines, ate lunch at another winery while enjoying the most incredible view, devoured a six-course dinner made with carefully foraged, wild Nova Scotian ingredients, and spent the night in a historic inn—never driving even a full hour in one stretch.

The first part of the trip takes me from Halifax to Newport Landing, not far from Windsor. The city landscape quickly turns rural, and once off the main highway, you seem to turn a corner into a new universe. Perspective becomes multi-dimensional, rolling hills and lush scenery morph into the brown, muddy banks of the Bay of Fundy. In just under an hour, I’m pulling into Avondale Sky Winery and Restaurant, and it’s surprisingly quiet for such a stunning day. The winery is housed inside circa-1837 St. Mathews church that was famously brought to the vineyard by owners Stewart Creaser and Lorraine Vassallo in 2009. The church made a 42-kilometre journey from Walton that included road and water—the Bay of Fundy to be exact. There are photos chronicling this incredible story inside the winery, and the staff and managers are happy to recite the tale.

Once inside, Maggie, a fresh-faced, enthusiastic summer employee is happy to walk me through a handful of wines—she is friendly, knowledgeable, and engaging. During the tasting, winemaker Ben Swetnam stops by to say hello. I learn that some of the wines are named after places in Hants County the church passed on its journey. Moving through l’Acadie Blanc, rosé, frizzante, red, and then ice wine, it’s the 2018 Lady Slipper rosé that most catches my attention. Made solely from Leon Millot grapes, it has a beautiful deep red-pink hue but is light and clean on the palate, with notes of cranberry, cherry, and strawberry—at only 9.6% alcohol, I think Swetnam has crafted the perfect wine for summer sipping. 

Outside, through the winery’s back door, is the dining terrace—a lovely, shaded wooden deck with views of the vineyard, lush green lawns, and Mosher House, an early 1800’s farmhouse where they hold special events. I order a glass of the Lady Slipper and study the offerings—this is going to be hard. As I’m looking over the menu, chef Justin Floyd stops by to introduce himself. While I wish I could eat more (actually, all) of this incredible menu, finally I decide, since it’s so warm and it’s only mid-day, on the heirloom tomatoes with roasted garlic and creme fraîche, along with the country ham with fresh mozzarella. It’s not exactly a hot food kind of day. 

The country ham is shaved thin and piled next to a heavenly hunk of fresh mozzarella, drizzled with honey and mustard sauce, a fine dusting of crumbled almonds, and accompanied by dressed greens. Chef has also sent out an order of sourdough bread, which he bakes daily, and butter. This is my kind of food: tangy, sweet, fatty, meaty—on top of bread and butter. A picnic I could eat all day. I chose the perfect match to this protein-heavy dish: a rainbow of beautiful heirloom tomatoes dotted with creme fraîche. Nestled between tomatoes are pieces of sweet roasted garlic. On top is a dense cover of fresh chives and dill. The dollops of creme fraîche are light as clouds; cracked pepper and large flaked sea salt season this dish perfectly. It’s practically my dream lunch, then Chef arrives with another treat: toasted sourdough lined with a thick layer of whipped ricotta cheese, heavily drizzled with a fermented Damson plum jam that is tart and sweet but complex, and bright raspberry-red. Sweet purple basil leaves top the toast, which tastes like summer. This is my ideal way to end a meal and is a perfect pairing with the Lady Slipper. 

Chef Justin Floyd

After lunch, I’m back on the road—this time to Summerville, about a 20-minute journey following the coastline north along the Bay of Fundy. The Flying Apron Inn & Cookery is a combination of accommodation, restaurant, bookstore, and cooking school; it’s owned and operated by chef Chris Velden and his wife, Melissa. The main entrance brings you immediately into an ample, open space that houses the dining room and bar, as well as the kitchen, where you can see Chris on the line. It’s the quiet time between lunch and dinner, but there are still a couple of tables. I walk up to the bar, where Chris and Melissa’s daughter, Lola, is making drinks, serving tables, and checking in guests. My room is a cozy, cottage-like space with a wooden ceiling and a king-sized bed. There are thoughtful touches like an amenity basket in the bathroom, and hand-made lavender soap, complete with a tiny ziplock bag for you to transport it home. 

After a couple of hours of relaxation, I head downstairs to the bar to grab a drink before my cooking class begins. I choose a delicious rhubarb and rosehip cider from Annapolis Cider Co. The atmosphere is buzzing, there are a few tables in for dinner, plus ten eager cooking students milling around and ordering drinks. Beverages in hand, we enter the private room. In the centre of the bright space is a rectangular stainless steel table with ten chairs around three sides of it, and a multi-burner cooktop, oven, and workspace on the other side where Chris will be leading us through a demonstrative cooking class using sustainable seafood. The vibe is light, and fun—we know we don’t have to do much for the rest of the night except watch, drink, eat, and learn. 

Chris starts the class on a serious tone, though, with honest talk about sustainability in the seafood industry, and how we as consumers should be aware of what’s really happening to make informed choices. I admire him for doing his duty as an advocate of sustainable practices in agriculture. Then, the fun part—he starts to prepare mussels from Eastern Shore, cooked in garlic, onion and Avondale Sky Tidal Bay. A simple dish, with amazing aromas. Following a few giggles, Chris mentions that yes, you do need to use the entire bottle and only to use a wine that you enjoy drinking. Toasted baguette accompanies the mussels, which are ready quickly and taste delicate and sweet, almost melt in your mouth. 

Our second course is a shrimp salad and avocado dish using naturally raised Selva Shrimp. These hefty warm-water shrimp are raised without using artificial feed or chemicals and rely on mangrove forests in Southeast Asia, which provide a natural growing environment. While sautéing the shrimp with garlic and onion, Chris prepares a simple avocado salad: fresh greens dressed with an easy mason jar citrus vinaigrette, a full half an avocado, which he then tops with four shrimp. The shrimp is firm, meaty, and rich but with a very clean flavour. Another straightforward dish, something the students will be able to recreate at home.

Next Chris plops down a sheet pan full of beautiful, vibrant pink salmon fillets—he’s making Sustainable Blue salmon tacos, with spiced cucumber salsa. We talk briefly about farmed salmon and the environmental and health issues. Sustainable Blue is located near the Bay of Fundy and has developed a way to raise Atlantic salmon without any negative environmental impact. According to Chris, it’s the closest thing to wild salmon available. 

Chris rubs a spicy marinade on the fillets before popping them in the oven. Then, surprisingly, he brings out fresh masa dough for the tortillas. This was not on the recipe sheet, and I’m pleased. With a hand press, he makes a few fresh, warm tortillas on the grill—which smell incredible. After about ten minutes the salmon is ready, he portions it onto the tortillas and tops them with classic accoutrements such as pickled red onion, shredded cabbage, green onion, sour cream, and cucumber salsa. Three tacos per person mean a full 10 oz. salmon fillet each—three courses in and I’m struggling to finish, despite it being some of the best salmon I’ve had.

Dessert has been pre-made, but Chris talks through quickly how to prepare the lemon tart. The filling is literally three ingredients. This one has a chocolate crust and he serves it with whipped cream and fresh mint. Everyone is happy. Our banter already moves on to the next meal: the farmhouse breakfast. This is included with our overnight package and will be cooked-to-order by Chris. We all say goodnight. 

Soon after breakfast the next morning I’m en route to Wolfville to catch the Magic Winery Bus. It is a scorching hot day with clear blue skies—excellent driving conditions for my 45-minute trip. I make it on the 11:30 A.M. bus, departing from the Wolfville Visitor Information Centre (VIC). The Magic Winery Bus is an old-school double-decker bus that visits five wineries, allowing passengers to hop on and off as they please. The tour starts on a fantastic note, with high energy from the guide Mike, and driver Jacques. The 68-person bus is almost full. There’s a mix of 30-something friend groups, married couples, families, and even bachelorette parties. It’s high frequency—everyone is pumped. Mike keeps us entertained as we drive through downtown Wolfville with jokes and facts, personal recommendations, and a whole lot of Annapolis Valley pride. 

From the pick-up location, the bus makes stops at Gaspereau Vineyards, l’Acadie Vineyards, Luckett Vineyards, Domaine de Grand Pré, and finally Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, before heading back to the VIC. Each winery has a designated (and thankfully, shady) area for us to stop, try a few wines, and learn about the winery from an ambassador before we’re on our own for the rest of the hour. Four of the wineries have restaurants, so it’s easy to stay both well-hydrated and well-fed throughout the day. 

When I arrive at Luckett Vineyards, it is hopping with people. Pete Luckett and his team, over the years, have evolved the space to accommodate large groups simultaneously wine tasting, shopping, and eating in the restaurant. Here you’re able to stroll the vineyard and make a free long-distance call in a traditional red phone box to anywhere in North America (a nod to Luckett’s British background). The Crush Pad bistro is entirely outside and covered with large umbrellas and white tents, a cool and shaded spot to grab a bite and take in stunning, panoramic views of Blomidon and the Minas Basin. I get a glass of L’Acadie, barrel-aged in Hungarian oak. For lunch, I order calamari with a kale caesar. The calamari, crispy on the outside, tender and meaty on the inside is complemented nicely by a zingy lime crema and slightly spicy, rich roasted red pepper aioli. The kale caesar is hearty, with large shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and crispy pancetta. 

It’s about a 15-minute walk along Main Street from the drop off location to Tattingstone Inn, my home for the night. The Tattingstone is a grand property, circa-1874—originally a farmhouse and home to George Thompson, an early mayor of Wolfville. It is a registered heritage property and is known for being home to famous Canadian architect Leslie R. Fairn, who lived there for 35 years while overseeing construction of Acadia’s University Hall and several other local buildings. Transformed into accommodations in 1987, current owners, Randy and Erika Banting, are in their fifth season, having relocated from Ontario after becoming enamoured with Annapolis Valley. 

An annex to the main building, Carriage House, holds six of the property’s fourteen guest rooms. Mine is on the second level and features a patio with soft seating. Inside is spacious and modern, with a rainfall shower and large soaker tub. I crank the AC and unwind from a busy day of hopping on and off the wine bus, excited for the six-course feast that awaits. 

Nelson Penner is a local chef and organic farmer who runs a stall at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market and a pop-up dinner series called Wild Feast Nova Scotia. The Bantings have been working with Nelson since last December, holding monthly Wild Feast dinners inspired by his deep love of foraging and cooking with wild ingredients. 

To start is a warm salad of green beans, sweet corn, charred ancho chili peppers, heirloom cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, roasted garlic, pecorino cheese, and sumac. This multi-textural salad is a refreshing start to the meal, combining salty, sweet, and fiery heat.

The second course is a seared scallop with edamame guacamole, chorizo sausage, pickled maitake mushrooms and tomato jam. The chorizo bits are rendered crispy and mellowed of any spice, taking bacon’s place with the scallop. The tomato jam offers a hint of sweetness, and the guacamole is thick and garlicky. One bite is a flavour bomb of rich, salty, sweet, and umami.

I consider our third course an intermezzo, it’s flavour profile is so refreshing: cool, sweet watermelon and shaved cucumber salad, with goat cheese mousse, Thai basil, and lemon-honey vinaigrette. 

Butter-poached lobster arrives, a significant portion of claw meat on top of a sweet corn and white wine crema. There are chanterelles, sweet peas, and grilled whole spring onion, plus a small line of dark, salty miso. The crema is wonderfully nostalgic; it tastes like my mother’s corn chowder, puréed. The spring onion lends a perfect, subdued zing and the peas bring texture and summer comfort. The salty-umami punch of the miso is an excellent addition to the heavy flavours.

Chef Nelson Penner

I’ll admit by now I’m worried about the fifth and sixth courses—I’ve eaten every single bite so far. Then sous vide ribeye, cooked rare, hits the table. Served with caramelized new potatoes, cherry tomatoes poached in olive oil, and mustard and black pepper sauce; I find I have no trouble at all. The beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the poached tomatoes are topped with basil, like a rich and sweet reconstructed tomato sauce. Dainty chanterelles, Nelson’s signature ingredient, find their way to the plate once again; and the tanginess of the mustard sauce ties all the luscious flavours together. While I’m somehow cleaning my plate again a tremendous thunderclap booms and the humidity finally breaks. Drops of rain start to dot the patio just outside the window.

My dress is a little tighter than when I arrived, but I know I can do this. Dessert is wild strawberries. Nelson has made ice cream from black locust blossoms, which tastes like rich vanilla. One scoop on top of a small pile of candy-like wild strawberries—some of the best I’ve tasted. There are crushed pieces of black pepper meringue and amaretti cookie on the plate, and wood sorrel. It’s a deconstructed, wild strawberry shortcake, and I love it. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I finish this too, like the rest of the meal—which disappeared before my eyes. Happy to be staying on the premises, I roll myself back to my room and recover for the rest of the night. It’s still raining, but tomorrow’s forecast calls for another beautiful day, ideal conditions for the quick drive home.

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