Nova Sco­tia’s ul­ti­mate seafood feast

Dine with King Nep­tune in Nova Sco­tia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES STE­WART James Ste­wart was a guest of the Nova Sco­tia Tourist Board.

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

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