If there is one word I’ve consistently used to describe the Canadian Maritimes, it’s “melancholy”. If I close my eyes and think about the Atlantic Provinces, my mind immediately conjures up images of a vast yet beautiful ocean, a failed fishing industry, lonely lighthouses, and cold nights in small town halls filled by the melody from a single fiddle.
Perhaps I had romanticized it a little too much. As the largest city in the entire region, Halifax today is an eclectic, wholly unpretentious, and modern place. There are hints of historical melancholy here and there, but overall, the air is crisp and lightly salty, the produce is as fresh as the seafood, and the architecture is clean and orderly.
Canada’s First Food Law Conference
This cool and comforting environment was the perfect setting for Canada’s first national Food Law Conference — the primary reason I found myself in Halifax this past November. From the regulation of truffle importation to the future of agriculture, I spent two days learning from, and with, some incredibly like-minded people. The conference also included an inspiring talk from Chef Bryant Terry, James Beard Foundation Leadership Award-winning chef, educator, and author renowned for his activism in creating healthy, just, and sustainable food systems.
Devour! The Food Film Fest
The conference organizers went well above and beyond their law conference obligations and timed the event to coincide with Devour! The Food Film Fest. I had heard wonderful things about this film festival before, so you can imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that it was included as part of the conference. The festival also took place in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, a small town that I’ve gotten to know well only through stories from my first-ever roommate Kaitlyn (pictured in first photo). Even crossing the bridge from Halifax to Dartmouth is an experience in and of itself.
Once on the other side, we were ushered into Acadia Cinema’s Al Whittle Theatre where we spent the afternoon watching The Chocolate Case, a somewhat disturbing but mostly uplifting documentary about the chocolate slave industry and social innovation, peppered with Dutch humour. Tony’s Chocoloney chocolate was also served. Following that, we attended the Devour Chowder Smackdown held at the Wolfville Lion’s Club. Ten of the region’s esteemed restaurants came prepared with giant vats of the good stuff, showing off their own spins on an Atlantic classic. Ocean Wise‘s Executive Chef Ned Bell was there to “oversee” the activities along with guest judge Bob Blumer. I have never felt so content (and also borderline sick) from all the incredible chowders we tried. And they were certainly generous portions. We finished the evening with some oysters and drinks at the Devour industry night. It was especially nice to catch up with one of my favourite Scottish personalities, Chef John Higgins from George Brown College and occasional Chopped Canada fame.
Restaurants Worth Visiting
When I made a callout on Facebook for “Halifax recommendations”, the response I got was overwhelming. I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that those who have lived in the city are fiercely proud and slightly defensive of the culinary culture here. I enjoyed a few different meals throughout my four days, but I’ll highlight my favourites:
Edna Restaurant: This restaurant’s name stands for “Eat Drink Nourish Always” and it was unanimously the most-recommended restaurant by all. As they do not take reservations, we early bird-ed it hard, and arrived at a timely 5:30 pm (good call, Erica) and managed to score a great seat with some great lighting. Like many newer restaurants in North American big cities, this establishment is designed in a style that feels both cozy and upscale, with warm woods and nice metallic finishes. They gave us a great showcase of seafood including oysters on the half-shell, seared scallops, and a stellar cream and bacon based clam dish that was balanced out with fennel and garlic. That clam dish was so rich, yet not too heavy, which is a great feat for a dish like this. Beautiful and exciting seasonal cocktails rounded out the meal.
enVie: A Vegan Kitchen: The Bryant Terry talk at the Halifax Seaport Market was also catered by the fantastic vegan restaurant enVie Halifax. While I did not manage to eat at the establishment itself, what I tasted and heard from trustworthy sources makes it worthy of being added to the list. All of their ingredients are GMO free, and their produce is sourced locally and organic whenever possible. For anyone who’s looking for a refreshing experience, I’d definitely recommend this place.
Lot Six Bar & Restaurant: What a wonderful place for a night out. Located inside the historical Carleton Hotel building, it’s a very reasonably priced restaurant that uses foliage and wicker to create an intimately chic indoor patio dining experience. The revolving and tight menu is local and seasonal–inspired by international flavours but accessible for the average diner (think Arctic char with maple and chili “laquer” and slow cooked pork belly with braised cabbage and gala apple). Sadly, Meghan and I didn’t get to meet their famous bartender and bar manager Shane as he happened to be competing at a bartending competition that night. I’d love to return for their famous oyster happy hour.
Brooklyn Warehouse: Jeff is a law school friend I was happy to catch up with over “not brunch” at Brooklyn Warehouse. Though some may disagree, it seems like Halifax locals (at least compared to Toronto) are more content to eat a normal breakfast at home before venturing out for normal lunch later on. When we were at Brooklyn Warehouse, I tested this theory and casually asked the waitress whether they had a brunch menu. “Nope, but we can put an egg on top of anything for you” she joked. We settled on a trout over a bed of risotto and a crispy Korean fried chicken sandwich instead. No regrets.
Experiences worth Experiencing
The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market: It’s not quite like it used to be (so I’m told) in the old building, but the new home of the market seems to be doing well. There hasn’t been a farmer’s market in any city I haven’t enjoyed, and this one was no exception. The high ceilings and ample lighting makes it less claustrophobic experience than most. Just note that no pets are allowed into the space.
Walking along the Waterfront: Halifax is a port city and there’s nothing like a nice stroll on the boardwalk to appreciate that. If you have the time, The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 would be worth a visit. I only had time for a walk and a quick ice cream from Sugah (try the hand paddled ice cream made with rum cake from the shop next door).
This was also a special trip for me as I got to spend some time with the aforementioned Kaitlyn (who I met when we were both starting university at the tender age of 18) and her husband Craig (who I have known for just as long). I hadn’t seen them in a very long time and it was so wonderful to reconnect on the East Coast.
Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour: Kaitlyn, Craig and I also bought tickets for the not-to-be-missed-and-surprisingly-good tourist stop that is the Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour. It is as traditional as it is conceptual, and is as much of a lesson on hops as it is on the history of the city. Our guide/cast member Ursula had both a British and modern Nova Scotian accent which is kind of fitting because she probably managed to come as close to the Alexander Keith-era accent as could’ve been done. Fun note: If you have a military background (like Craig does), you are eligible for a discounted ticket for the tour.
Genuine Nova Scotia Oat Cakes: My Airbnb hosts for this trip, Ken and his partner Pam, were very special people. Based unusually but purposefully on his Buddhist principles, Ken decided to turn the humble (and Apocalypse-proof) oat cake into a small but growing business. Following on this idea, each time Ken makes a big batch of oatcakes, he listens to something that inspires and entertains him. Whether it’s a musical album, audiobook, or podcast, he makes careful note of what inspired him each time. I was honoured to find out that he had used a text-to-speech reader to play Chu on This out loud as he baked one of his batches of Lavender Love XII. It’s certainly not a goal I’ve ever had on my Life List, but I’ll take it! And maybe I’m now biased, but I think the lavender ones are my favourite. You can buy the oatcakes off of the website, or find them in shops throughout Halifax.
Lobster from the Halifax International Airport: To be honest, I thought this was a joke. You know the Air Canada safety demonstration videos that show a box of lobsters being placed under the seat in front of you? Well, you too, can take a box of live lobsters home with you when you fly out of this airport. These guys are experts on packing and handling the crustaceans, and the $8 packing charge includes a bag of frozen peas or corn to keep the lobsters asleep (as you can’t take liquid/melting ice onto the plane). It can be quite a lot to handle, but believe you me, I had a wonderful time at home cooking and eating them right upon arrival (and finally putting my friend Matt Dean Pettit’s The Great Lobster Cookbook to good use).
I didn’t tell Kaitlyn and Craig this at the time, but there was a moment during the Alexander Keith’s tour when the “cast members” were performing in a traditional cèilidh that I was totally overcome with emotion. As 18-year-olds, Kaitlyn and I frequently joked about being from the East and West Coast, and how different Ottawa (where we did our undergrad) was from our respective hometowns. However, this was the first time that I truly felt just how pronounced that difference was. Seeing her in her element–holding hands with her high school sweetheart, singing the music she knew so well, and back to the land she grew up on–I’d never seen her happier.