Following the Chowder Trail in Nova Scotia

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For centuries, kitchens in Nova Scotia have been churning out chowder, a creamy soup that lends the province a proudly preserved culinary identity. Discover its myriad variations along the Chowder Trail.

Published October 11, 2023

20 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“Chowder has always been here,” says Emily Haynes. “It isn’t just a dish for Nova Scotians — it’s who we are.” The executive director of Taste of Nova Scotia, an association that promotes businesses that champion local ingredients, Emily is taking me for a blustery coastal stroll along the Bay of Fundy. “Chowder was shipboard food,” she says as we pass fishing boats stranded on the bay’s muddy bottom; the Atlantic inlet between the Canadian Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is home to the world’s highest tides. “Fishermen would cook salt cod or fresh catch with salt pork in hot water, then ship’s biscuits were added as a thickener. It was a tasty meal that could feed a whole ship from one pot.”

It’s thought Nova Scotia’s relationship with chowder began more than 400 years ago, when French colonisers landed on the eastern coast of Canada in the early 17th Century, followed by English, Scottish, Irish and New England settlers. While the first known chowder recipe was printed in Boston in 1751, the Oxford English Dictionary says chowder may likely derive from the French word chaudière, referring to an iron pot used by French fishermen to make fish soup. There are other theories, too: in Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots, author John Thorne says chowder could stem from jowter, which is an old Cornish slang word for fish peddler or hawker.

As European colonisers spread across the North American continent, chowder made its way through Canada’s Atlantic provinces and down the East Coast of the US, where regional adaptations of the dish began to appear in the 17th and 18th centuries. From Newfoundland in Canada to Rhode Island in the US, today hundreds of chowder variations exist along North America’s Atlantic coast, including those made with corn, barley or meat, and seafood chowders containing anything from scallops and oysters to haddock and salmon. 

“Nova Scotian chowder isn’t like New England or Manhattan chowder,” says Emily, referring to two recipes from the East Coast made exclusively with clams. “What’s wonderful about our chowder is that there’s no rule book, which means no two chowders in Nova Scotia are the same.”

In 2011, Taste of Nova Scotia launched Canada’s first Chowder Trail, a network of province-wide restaurants serving the best examples of the dish. To be included on the trail, restaurants must make their chowder fresh and only use Nova Scotian seafood. The rest, however, including what seafood, dairy, vegetables and herbs are used in the soup, is up to the chef.

“We wanted to create a food trail that tells the story of all Nova Scotians,” says Emily. “It had to be chowder. Whether you’re from Cape Breton or Halifax, chowder is what connects all of us in Nova Scotia, even if we can’t always agree on the ingredients.”

Along the coast, in chef Renée Lavallée’s kitchen at her home in Dartmouth, the air smells of smoked applewood and sizzling oil. The chef and co-owner of The Canteen, a Nova Scotian restaurant located downtown, is preparing its signature smoked bacon and haddock chowder, one of 44 recipes currently on the Chowder Trail. 

“My chowder has nothing orange in it,” says Renée, who has won local paper The Coast’s Best Chowder every year since 2017. “Carrots are too sweet, and don’t even bother making chowder if you’re using salmon or trout!”

When I share that I’d eaten a delicious salmon chowder in a dill and sherry cream at Press Gang restaurant in downtown Halifax the night before, she shakes her head in disapproval. “There’s no salmon in Marie Nightingale’s recipe,” says Renée, one hand on a wooden spoon and the other pointing at the book in my hands. “Take a look.” 

I turn the oil-blotched pages of Marie Nightingale’s Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, referred to by Renée as the “bible of Nova Scotian cooking”, until I see a recipe for fish chowder which, according to the book’s author, is 100 years old. The ingredients are haddock, salt pork, onion, potatoes, milk, soda crackers, parsley and butter; nothing orange.

“Obviously I’ve tweaked the ingredients a little,” says Renée, returning to the hob to add cubed potatoes and celery to the smoked bacon and leeks. A glug of Nova Scotian white wine follows. “I use smoked bacon instead of salt pork and leeks instead of onions, but the flavour profile is the same.”

Renée — who oozes cool with her Vans dungarees, cropped curly hair and tattooed forearms — doesn’t strike me as the kind of chef who would adhere to the rules of a 1970s cookbook. But as she adds cream to the pot, she explains that it’s important to stick to tradition when it comes to Nova Scotian chowder. 

“Nova Scotians are particular about two things: chowder and hodge podge (a vegetable stew),” explains Renée, who sells 40 litres of chowder a day at The Canteen in summer months. “If my chowder doesn’t remind a person of their grandmother’s chowder, they’ll call me out on it. You just can’t mess with chowder in Nova Scotia.”

To finish, Renée adds smoked and fresh haddock to the simmering chowder base. Raw lobster tail meat, mussels still in their shells and fresh dill follow. A cork pops, and a glass of Benjamin Bridge Tidal Bay — Nova Scotia’s signature wine appellation — is poured. Lunch is ready. 

Before the spoon reaches my lips, I can taste the applewood smoke from the bacon. There’s a heap of golden haddock and skin-on potato chunks rising from the bowl’s middle, like a rocky sandbank jutting from a milky sea at low tide. I try the chowder base first, which is velvety smooth and slightly sweet from the leeks. Then, a spoonful of seafood: the smoked haddock flakes beautifully, while the fresh haddock and lobster are firm and sweet. The dill adds a subtle hint of grassy citrus, the mussels a briny touch of the sea. Renée’s carrot-free chowder is, I must admit, pretty close to perfection. 

Along the eastern shores

The next day I leave Halifax for Musquodoboit Harbour, in Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore region. A single-lane road winds through a sea of half-naked pines, their barks twisted and warped from Hurricane Fiona. Now and again there’s a break in the trees, revealing a flash of silvery water bobbing with red and green fishing boats. Wooden pontoons with empty Adirondack chairs and snagged fishing nets stretch out into the water, their ends severed by a snow-white fog so thick it looks like smoke. The air smells of wet earth and the sea, and the only other traveller I see is a porcupine crossing the tarmac.

When I arrive at Lupin Dining and Pantry — a small restaurant attached to chef Kim MacPherson’s 115-year-old house — the trees that surround the vegetable patch are strung with fairy lights and the outdoor fire pit is burning. Inside, there are jars of rhubarb compote and pickled butternut squash, and a spring tasting menu — including Arctic char with tarragon foam and roasted lamb with pomegranate vinegar — is written on the wall. I take the steps down to the basement kitchen, where Kim is ladling a fresh batch of chowder into a bread bowl.

“My chowder is inspired by the Eastern Shore,” says Kim, whose farm-to-table restaurant is a new addition to the Chowder Trail this year. “The seafood here is more delicate and buttery than anywhere else in Nova Scotia because the water is colder. I’d say we have some of the best seafood in the world on this shore.”

Opting for a lighter, more aromatic take on traditional chowder, Kim boils down Eastern Shore lobster shells with bay leaves, peppercorns, celery, onions and carrots to make a seafood stock. Scallops and fresh haddock are then lightly poached in the stock and a white-wine cream that’s been infused with chives and parsley from the restaurant’s herb garden. The chowder is served in a hollowed-out bread roll, double-baked with olive oil for extra crunch. 

“Nothing in my chowder is smoked — I find it overpowers the more delicate seafood, like the lobster and the haddock,” says Kim. “For me, chowder is about community — it’s about showcasing the ingredients and producers on our doorstep. As for the bread bowl, that’s just a bit of added comfort.”

If Renée’s chowder was smokehouse fragrant, Kim’s is like inhaling a wild meadow in full bloom: there’s the subtle bitterness of fresh parsley and bay leaves, the tanginess of dill and a light onion flavour from the chives. I cut into the rosemary-studded bread bowl with the edge of my spoon, releasing scallops the size of 50p coins and soft-as-velvet haddock infused with lobster stock and white wine. I use the last morsel of bread to mop the bowl before finishing with Sober Island Brewing’s Black Oyster Stout, made with the flesh, shell and juice of Pristine Bay oysters. 

Exploring Acadia

My journey along the Chowder Trail continues on the French Shore, a string of coastal villages home to the largest Acadian population in Nova Scotia. For 35 miles between the port town of Yarmouth and the scallop capital of Digby, the language, culture and religion introduced by French settlers 400 years ago is still alive: Acadian flags — blue, white and red with a gold star — decorate front porches and shops; restaurants serve Acadian meat soups and clam pies; road signs are written in Acadian French, a mixture of English, Mi’kmaq (the language of east coast North America’s First Nations people, the Mi’kmaq) and 17th-century French. 

In the Acadian village of Saulnierville, the dining room at La Cuisine Robicheau looks out onto the deep waters of St Mary’s Bay. Following in the footsteps of his parents, who opened La Cuisine Robicheau in 2012, 25-year-old chef Shane Robicheau pays homage to his Acadian heritage with dishes like fricot (chicken soup with potato dumplings), rappie pie (grated potato with clams or chicken) and an Acadian-inspired haddock, scallop and lobster chowder. 

“The secret to Acadian cooking is the salted onions,” says Shane in a thick French-Canadian accent. He shows me an enormous mason jar filled with oignons salées — salt-encrusted spring onions — and offers me a sample so salty it makes my eyes water, before adding some to the pan to make a chowder stock. “Preserved foods are a big part of Acadian culture. We use salted onions in all our dishes. With the chowder, it just brings a whole different flavour to the broth.”

Shane’s chowder is tinted orange from butter-seared lobster and bulges with hunks of skin-on haddock and plump Digby scallops, landed 40 minutes north from where we are. The broth is mottled with butter and has a warm spiciness from black pepper, but it’s the onions that steal the show: used sparingly as a stock seasoning, they give a deliciously briny, almost fermented onion kick that balances beautifully with Nova Scotia’s sweet seafood. 

“Acadian cooking warms the heart,” says Shane as he pours a fresh apple cider made by Corberrie, an Acadian producer 20 minutes away. “For me, these dishes bring back memories of cooking with my grandfather and the kitchen parties we used to have. We’re one of the only restaurants still doing family-style Acadian food, but that’s why we do it — to keep those memories alive.”

Before returning to Halifax, I make a stop in the Annapolis Valley, a patchwork of apple orchards, corn fields and sun-soaked vineyards. I try the chowder at Le Caveau, which is inspired by ajo blanco (Spanish almond soup) and made with ground almonds, celery root and lashings of garlic, before heading to Planters Ridge, a new vineyard restaurant recently added to the Chowder Trail.

“I was a little nervous putting chowder on the menu,” says English chef Emily Wilson, who prior to becoming chef at Planters Ridge had a sell-out crumpet business in Halifax. “People take it very seriously here. My biggest fear is that they won’t like it because it’s not traditional, but I also want to put my own spin on it.”

Inspired by her family’s cullen skink and fish pie recipe, Emily, who’s from Devon but has Scottish heritage, uses mashed potato and milk rather than cream or cornflour to thicken her chowder. She then adds candied salmon, fresh haddock, Digby scallops, freshwater prawns and — the pièce de résistance — hand-pressed dill oil. 

The sun starts to dip below the grape vines as I dig into a light and velvety smooth chowder with a distinct sweet-umami flavour. From the winery’s tasting room, I can see vegetable farms and vineyards stretching out to the Bay of Fundy, where my scallops were fished that morning. The taste of milk-poached haddock and freshly pressed dill still lingering on my taste buds, I understand what Emily from Taste of Nova Scotia had meant when she said that in Atlantic Canada, it’s possible to “eat your view”.

“Eating local is more than enjoying good food” — Emily’s words ring in my ears as I enjoy my final glass of Tidal Bay. “It’s about protecting this place; this view. By eating Nova Scotian chowder, we’re protecting our farms; our fishermen; our vineyards — maybe even who we are.”  

Published in Issue 21 (autumn 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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