Nova Scotia’s ultimate seafood feast
Dine with King Neptune in Nova Scotia
Beside a white clapperboard lighthouse in Nova Scotia’s Burntcoat Head Park is one of the strangest signposts you’ll see on a coastline: “Ocean Floor”. No one goes to the province’s west coast solely to see the sea. What really seizes the imagination around here is the tide.
I’ve come to dine in the most original restaurant in Canada. You can’t just turn up; your reservation is dictated by the planets. When the orbits of the Moon and Earth conspire to generate a low tide on a Saturday afternoon in summer, the organisers of Dining on the Ocean Floor head to a lovely cove notched in Burntcoat Head Park and serve lunch on a seabed that was deep underwater a few hours earlier.
That sounds like gastro-showmanship, I know. Actually, it’s a perfect match for the Bay of Fundy. In a quirk of geography, the effects of Atlantic currents combine with a funnel-shaped bay that amplifies the tidal range as it narrows, meaning the channel between Nova Scotia and mainland Canada is rinsed by the largest tides in the world. How large?
Imagine four times the combined volume of all the freshwater rivers in the world. Now swirl it into and out of the Bay of Fundy every six hours and 13 minutes. So powerful is the tide’s 160 billion-tonne surge that the very seabed flexes in the ebb and flow. (“Proceed with caution,” reads another sign en route to the cove.)
So fast is the 10-knot flow that it’s thought it could power the domestic needs of Canada’s three Atlantic Coast provinces; two 1000-tonne subaquatic turbines are under trial. And so great is its range near the bay’s head at Burntcoat Head that the sea level drops by up to 15.8m.
That creates a fair bit of floor space for plucky restaurateur Chris Velden, co-owner of Flying Apron Inn, a homely, award-winning bistro in nearby Summerville that manages the cooking side of this dining experience; neighbours Meander River Farm & Brewery and Avondale Sky vineyard supply the drinks.
Thirty years ago, Velden toiled at the stove of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Dusseldorf. Now he’s prepping for a barbie on the beach dressed in work boots, shorts and a tatty straw hat. He looks like a very happy man.
“Dining on the ocean floor has its own challenges for a chef,” he says while preparing our first course, a “shore boil” of lobster claws, clams and blue mussels cooked in white wine.
Challenges? For starters, there’s how to produce a gastronomic triumph on a glorified camp stove. The trick is a fancy gas barbecue and two powerful burners.
Then there’s the weather — predictably unpredictable in Nova Scotia. Although our meal is to be drenched in sunshine, I’d been warned two days earlier that rain might force us into the lighthouse.
However, it’s the tide itself — a marvel ranked in 2014 alongside the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Niagara Falls as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of North America — that presents the real challenge. As soon as it bottoms out, sending the team scurrying down the low cliffs beneath us to set up Velden’s makeshift kitchen and tables, the timer starts on your reservation.
Neptune is the strictest maitre d’. He kicks you out after four hours. It’s a brilliant way to reveal a coastline that’s usually overlooked, says Velden, (Peggy’s Cove on the east coast is the one on every postcard) and also a chance to showcase local food.
About 95 per cent of the produce for our meal originates from less than 32km away. All is fresh, most is organic.
Velden also uses Bay of Fundy sea blite, feathery seaweed that tastes like mild wasabi. “There’s so much quality and variety here from so many passionate artisans and producers,” he says. “Everyone knows each other, so food here is way more personal than it is in many places.”
Nova Scotia as a hip food destination — who saw that coming? At Burntcoat Head the tide has retreated to its full extent. On top of the cliffs, we 20 diners have learnt about foraging (who knew Japanese knotweed was edible?), quaffed craft beers brewed by a farmer, and eaten bowls of shore boil, tossing our empty shells into a metal bucket with a satisfying plink.
Now, finally, it’s down to the cove. Low ochre cliffs wrap around behind us and arc down the bay. Muddy rock the colour of rust stretches into the near distance — this is the ocean floor.
The air is tart with seaweed and brine. While the din- ing team races to create a restaurant, two marine biologists guide us on a seashore safari. We crunch over barnacles towards a silver-pink sea. Hermit crabs and green crabs scuttle in rockpools. We ponder strange stumps in the seabed — the remains of fossilised trees — and I nibble a sea-lettuce leaf a biologist plucks from a rock pool. It tastes like rubbery, salty salad.
I keep looking back towards the cliffs over that bare seabed. It looks extraordinary; as if someone has pulled out a giant plug. We loop back around an islet stranded like a galleon’s hulk to discover a long table magicked on to the foreshore. Then, before the incoming tide, we begin to eat.
Over our starter of organic meats and cheeses, the sea is about 90m away. By the main course — pasture-raised beef with lobster tail poached in butter — it’s an ever- present hiss. Muddy seawater the colour of chocolate milkshake sucks against the shore to our side.
The farmer-brewer and winemaker introduce their drinks paired to each course; there’s an award-winning Surf and Turf ale brewed with dulse seaweed, and a crisp, aromatic white wine of Nova Scotia’s first appellation, Tidal Bay. And with the cooking over, Velden finally leaves his kitchen.
“Did you see any sharks earlier?” he jokes. “You may need to eat dessert quickly or you will.”
Perhaps it’s the delicious food and wine. Maybe it’s just the sunshine and sea air. But as the tide creeps evercloser, this feels joyfully eccentric. It’s Monty Python meets MasterChef.
Two hours after we have sat down, the sea is less than 30m away. The tide is now rising at around 3.6m an hour, its fastest rate. While we retreat towards the cliffs for coffee in garden chairs, the dining team hurries to clear away the restaurant. At least there’s no floor to mop.
It’s now early evening. Low sunshine shoots down the bay to ignite the cliffs and burnish the sea from bronze to copper, then gold. Within an hour the ocean floor is covered. We have to pinch ourselves that we ever ate there.
‘Did you see any sharks earlier? You may need to eat dessert quickly or you will’ CHRIS VELDEN CHEF
Ready for dinner on the ocean floor at the Bay of Fundy, top; water flows back into the bay, above; preparing dishes, below