Burt Wolf's Table: Halifax - #222

BURT WOLF:   Halifax ... on the east coast of Canada.  Surrounded by clear clean waters that produce some of the world's finest seafood.  It's the place to look at the magnificent, natural charm of North America.  To learn how to take the meat out of a lobster...  Cook up some great tasting and easy recipes...  And find out what politicians and crabs have in common.  So join me in Halifax at Burt Wolf's Table.

The first Europeans to see the coast of Nova Scotia were probably the Vikings who stopped by during the eleventh century.  But they were just visiting.  The first fellow to drop in with the idea of claiming the land for a European king or queen was the explorer John Cabot, who arrived here from England in 1497. 

They used Cabot's voyages as the basis of their claim of discovery.  They believed that the area was destined to become New Scotland, in the same way that they believed the shores to the south were destined to become New England. 

And so in 1749 Colonel Edward Cornwallis showed up here with 2,500 British Colonists, and they proceeded to build a classic replica of an English town.  They called in Halifax.

He built it on the world's second largest natural harbor ... the British being ever-intent on ruling the waves.  And he reproduced everything he could to remind him of jolly old England ... including the food.  Roasts, puddings, biscuits, double-crusted fruit pies, and an elegant tea service that is still in fashion.

Every day the mayor of Halifax has an open tea.  All of the citizens are invited in the hope that they will come and speak their mind.

The town itself and the surrounding countryside with its coastal villages presents some of the most beautiful parts of North America's east coast.  Bill Goddard is a native of Halifax and a pilot with Cougar Copters. 

BILL GODDARD:   When the first explorers came to Halifax from the sea, this is what they saw ... it's a fabulous coast ... that strip of land down there is called McNab's Island.  It looks beautiful now ... but in the old days ... if they caught a deserter from the British Navy they'd hang him from the gallows right there on the shore.  As the other British ships would come in they'd see the deserter hanging there ... it was like a stop sign that said “don't desert here.”

BURT WOLF:   Um ... that's a pretty effective sign I bet.  (LAUGHS)

BILL GODDARD:   The sea is central to the story of Halifax ... that's the world's largest natural harbor ... and it's ice-free all year ... the only one that's bigger is in Australia.  That's Peggy's Cove ... it's a fishing village that sits right on the granite rocks ... it looks just the way it always has.  They say it's the most photographed fishing village in the world.

You know, Captain Kidd buried his treasure around here ...


BILL GODDARD:   There are a number of groups trying to figure out how to find it.  This was a big area for pirates.

BURT WOLF:   Sure, they must have loved it.  After a tough season of sinking ships and stealing treasures and looting and killing ... you know, there's a lot of pressure to being a pirate ... it must have been really nice to come up here and mellow out ... and relax in a seaside village.

But it looks like most of your visitors are families just relaxing or couples taking time off.

BILL GODDARD:   True.  Or lovers of good food -- like you.

BURT WOLF:   I'm definitely a food lover in terms of eating.  But I'm even more interested in food folklore and history.  And as I look at Nova Scotia's past ... I see a very strong New England influence.

The original French settlers to arrive in Nova Scotia called themselves Acadians ... after an ancient Greek word that meant “dwellers in the land of innocence.”  They had been the first European colonists in the area ... but by 1755 they were living on territory controlled by the British.  And there were ten thousand Acadians.

Now, that made the British nervous.  They were afraid that the Acadians were going to side with the French in the constant Anglo-French wars of the period.  And so the British troops gathered up all of the the Acadian families and forced them out of Nova Scotia. 

They scattered them all over North America ... some as far south as New Orleans.  As a matter of fact, the people in the New Orleans area who are known as cajuns are actually the descendents of the Acadians who were forced out of this area.  And the British took the farms that belonged to the Acadians, which just happened to be on the best farm land in the area, and sold them to loyal British subjects in New England.

That influx of New Englanders became even greater during the American Revolution, when thirty thousand people loyal to the king of England moved up here. 

At one point in time there were so many people from New England in Nova Scotia that they represented two-thirds of the local population.  And they gave the cooking of the area a distinctly American colonial flavor.

There are recipes all over Nova Scotia that clearly come from kitchens of eighteenth century Virginia and the Carolinas.

The local hearts are definitely Canadian.  But part of the local stomachs came up from down South.

The town of Halifax has a number of restaurants along the waterfront that have become well-known for their seafood cookery.  Perhaps the most famous is called The Upper Deck.  The chef is Chris Profit.  And one of his signature dishes is called Upper Deck Lobster.

Chris starts the dish by removing the meat from a lobster that was cooked by boiling.

CHRIS PROFIT:   Son of a gun ... put him up on his head with his legs ... like hold it back.

WOLF:   Um-hmm.

CHRIS PROFIT:   Off come his legs.  Take his tail ... just twist it from the body ... set that guy aside ... this is gonna push down cause you're gonna ... (CRACKING SOUNDS) ... crack on one side ... cracked on the center on the other side.  That's the tail.  Now, on the claws ... just push down and snap ... and off come the joints.  One, two.  This is like a pump.  Pull 'er out ... off she goes ... same action ... pumpin' up the jam ... out comes the click ... turn her over so the claws down ... line up her ... crack it open and out comes your claw.  And that's the lobster out of the shell.

BURT WOLF:   Then he crushes two tablespoons of black pepper into small pieces ... using the bottom of one of his sauce pans.  A little tarragon ... the black pepper ... the lobster meat ... and a splash of white wine cooked together in a sauce pan for a few minutes.  Cooked pasta is added.  A third of a cup of cream.  Three minutes of high heat to thicken the sauce, and it's ready to serve.

Until recently lobsters were so plentiful that all you had to do was walk along the beach and pick them up.  A British visitor to Nova Scotia in the mid-1800s wrote a letter back home to London describing the fact that there were so many lobsters all over the beaches of this area that farmers were picking them up by the thousands and using them as fertilizer.  Hm-um.  Boy, how times have changed.

It as the introduction of high-speed transportation that gave fresh lobster a much bigger audience ... and increased both its popularity ... and unfortunately its price.

It's important, however, that lobsters be alive when they're cooked.  As soon as a lobster dies ... its uncooked flesh begins to attract the bacteria that can be very dangerous.  Lobsters should be moving about when you start the cooking process.  The restaurant lobster tank is a really great idea.

Nutritionally, lobsters are a good source of low-fat protein ... they contain some calcium ... and much less cholesterol then we used to think.  Good stuff!

An American statesman named John Hay once pointed out that he believed politicians were very similar to crabs.  They both seem to be coming when they're actually going ... and seem to be going when they're actually coming.

There are over four thousand different species of crab ... and the one thing they all have in common is that they are all edible.  North America's fortunate in having more different types of crab than anywhere else in the world ... and we respond to that bit of good luck by making crab our second most popular shellfish.  The only shellfish that we eat more of is shrimp.

Most of the crab that we get at home is pre-cooked and pre-cleaned.  But it always isn't as pre-cleaned as we'd like it to be.  It's a good idea to sift through your pre-cooked crab meat ... and make sure that all of the bits of shell are out of it before you start using it in a recipe.

If you're going to buy live crab in your supermarket ... always pick out the ones that are more active.  And the heavier the crab the better.  Make sure the claws are bound and can't grab at you.  And remember, crabs are cannibals and will eat each other ... so don't leave two of them alone in the same place. 

And like lobster, crab must be cooked while it is still alive in order to be safe to eat.

The waters of Nova Scotia produce an enormous amount of seafood.  The vast majority comes from the clear, clean seas ... just the way Mother Nature set things up.  There's also a farm- raised source.  British farms have been around for thousands of years ... and the people of Nova Scotia put them to good use. And so do the local cooks.

Alan Johnson is the executive chef at the Upper Deck Restaurant in Halifax.  Today he's using the local seafood to make a chowder.  A little butter goes into a saucepan ... followed by chopped celery, chopped onions, and chopped pre-cooked bacon.  That's cooked together for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, in another saucepan, stock is heated and used to cook some haddock, baby shrimp and baby clams.  A little flour goes into the vegetable mixture to absorb the butter.  That's cooked for a moment ... then the fish-cooking liquid is added to the vegetables and whisked in.  Three cooked potatoes go in ... the fish goes in ... some parsley ... white pepper ... paprika ... and cayenne.  That's it!


By the middle of the 1700s, it was apparent that France and England were about to go into a final contest for the posession of North America.  In preparation for this military conflict, the British founded the city of Halifax, and the Halifax Citadel was constructed on a hill overlooking the town.

It was built in four stages.  The first one was constructed as a defense against the French and the local native tribes.  The second one was set up to defend against the troops and the American Revolution.  The third one was actually installed in the fear that the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte might show up in the New World.  And the fourth one was once again to defend against American troops who might come up here during the war of 1812.

My favorite piece of equipment at the Halifax Citadel is this stove which would sit out on the ramparts next to the cannons.  A convenient little hot plate for preparing a quick cup of tea?  Not quite.  That stove was used to heat a cannonball until it was red hot.  And the hot ball would be fired at a wooden target.  The heat of the ball would set the target on fire.  It was perfect for a ship.  The wooden decks ... the sails ... the masts... they'd burst into flame.

The heated cannonball was called a Hotshot.  And that's where we got the word “hotshot” from.

In 1794 England's Prince Edward was installed as Commander of the Halifax Citadel in Nova Scotia.  By far, his most important military project was the improvement of the Citadel's defenses. 

In order to get the job done, they imported a group of workers from the British colony of Jamaican in the Caribbean.  They were known as the Maroons.  When Canadian historians think about the Maroons, they think about a group of people with such extraordinary strength that they could move these huge stones and construct the Citadel. 

When I think about the Maroons I think about an even more important achievement.  An achievement which is still affecting tens of thousands of people in the United States of America.

When the British arrived in Jamaica, they were greeted by the guns of the Maroons.  Slaves that had escaped from the Spanish.  The Maroons were fabulous fighters ... and no one has ever been able to fully subdue them.

Between battles with the British the Maroons would hunt for wild pig.  When they caught one they would cook some of it right away ... but preserve the remainder in a mixture of very hot peppers wrapped in a banana leaf.  Next time there was a break in the battle ... they'd take some out and cook it over some hot coals. 

The result of this technique is something called jerk pork... rapidly becoming one of the most popular foods in North America.  And we owe it all to the Maroons.

The Maroons were not the only non-British group that the British put to work in order to develop their North American colonies.  The British liked to do the concept ... and have someone else do the work.

Accordingly, it was an English nobleman named George Dunk who drew up the plans for the British settlement of Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s.  Thankfully, his name was not used for the city.  Instead, they chose his title:  Lord Halifax.

But the British subjects who colonized the area were not very good at farming and so they sent word back to the King of England and asked him to ship over some German farmers who had a reputation for doing things right agriculturally.  As a result ... during the 1750's a couple of hundred German farmers moved to Nova Scotia and settled down in an area ... just south of Halifax known as Lunenberg.

The Germans proved to be excellent farmers and equally good ship builders.  During the days of sail, Lunenberg was famous as the village of wooden ships and iron men.  Today, Lunenberg is one of the most picturesque seaside towns in North America.  Still carrying on its nautical traditions ... looking much as it has for the past two hundred years ... and cooking with a distinctly German accent.

Potato salads, herring dishes, sauerkraut ... and rye breads.  The rye breads come with a local superstition.  A Lunenberg baker would never turn a rye bread over.  They feel that it would temp fate to capsize a ship at sea.  And ... uh . that's not so good for the bread either.

Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland.  It's the ancestral home of the Native American Micmac tribe ... the original French colony in North America ... a major colonial outpost for the English ... and a welcome residence for tens of thousands of immigrants from the United States.  And  a joyous haven for Germans who escaped world poverty to come here in the mid-1700s.

The only group that had a consistently terrible time coming to New Scotland were the Scots.  They were forced to come here in the middle of the 1800s when the clan system in Scotland just collapsed.  They were poor ... they were uneducated... and they had a really difficult time adjusting to the New World.

But with traditional Scottish determination and frugality ... they managed to hang on, and eventually they brought their traditional foods to the area.

Their beloved oats took hold in the soil ... mills were built ... and before long, oatmeal ... oat cakes ... oat breads ... and any other oat-based recipe that you could think of became part of the cooking of Nova Scotia. 

The Scottish are well known for their open hospitality ... and that affects the kinds of recipes they like to use.  Particularly true when it comes to baking.   They like to use quick cakes and quick breads that are made with baking soda.

I once spent some time with a famous Scottish cook who said that she would only do cakes and recipes that could be prepared in the time that it took someone to come up her driveway and sit down in the living room.  And she didn't even have a very long driveway.

I came through the door ... the cake went into the oven ... and fifteen minutes later we sat down to tea.  Scottish hospitality.

The Silver Spoon Restaurant in Halifax is famous for its warm and hospitable atmosphere.  It's owned by Deanna Silver ... who was forced into the restaurant business because her friends loved her baking.  A good example is her blueberry oatmeal muffins.

A cup of oatmeal goes into a bowl, plus a cup of hot water.  Zest of an orange and a cup of orange juice.  A little vegetable oil is sprayed into a muffin tin ... then paper cups go in.  Five ounces of butter or margarine go into an electric mixer and are creamed together with one cup of brown sugar.  Four eggs are added.  And the oatmeal / juice mixture. 

The dry ingredients are mixed together.  Two and a half cups of flour ... two teaspoons of baking soda ... two teaspoons of baking powder ... and tablespoon of salt . .two tablespoons of vanilla extract.  The dry ingredients go in ... two cups of blueberries ... everything is gently mixed together ... and spooned out into the muffin tin.  That bakes at 350 degree for twenty-five minutes and the muffins are ready.

Oats are the berries of a cultivated grass that is native to Central Europe.  They've been grown by European farmers since about 1500 B.C.  Oats grow best in cool wet climates like England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  In Scotland, oats are the staff of life.  Scottish cooks will take oats and put them into cookies and cakes and breads and stuffings and just about anything else they can think of.

I knew a Scottish cook who would toast oats and put it on her children's ice cream.  The madness for oats in North America got started a number of years ago when a study at Northwestern University outside of Chicago indicated that two ounces of oats or oat bran each day would reduce your cholesterol.  It's actually the soluble fiber in the oats that does the job.  It turns into a gel as it passes through your body and reduces your cholesterol.

Two cups of breakfast style oatmeal ... or two medium-sized oat muffins contain the two ounces of oat fiber that you need.

But remember, if you're getting your oat bran in the form of oat muffins ... you want oat muffins that are made with a low level of saturated fat.  Saturated fat can increase the cholesterol in your body and cancel out the effect of the oat bran.  Oat bran only works as part of a low saturated fat diet.

Halifax was founded by the English in 1749. Shortly thereafter, a law was passed which forbade the immigration of Irish to the colony.  Nevertheless, within ten years, one out of every three people living in Halifax was of Irish ancestry.

By the end of the 1700's, virtually all of the anti-Irish legislation had disappeared.  As a matter of fact, British royalty was attending the local St. Patrick's Day celebrations.  On August 31st, 1843 the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows was erected in one day.  Two thousand parishioners showed up and built the entire structure by dinner time. 

Today, ten percent of Nova Scotia's citizens are of Irish ancestry and their foods are eaten throughout the community.  Besides the potatoes, corn beef and cabbage, soda bread ... and green colored St. Patrick's Day specialties ... the Irish were responsible for many of the really good beef and pork recipes.  And the idea of having porridge for breakfast, which is a really good idea.  Because breakfast is still our most important meal.

At the Compass Rose Inn in the town of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia ... Roger Pike and his wife Susanne have taken an old recipe from Susanne's Irish heritage ... and used it to give new meaning to the St. Patrick's Day idea of “the wearing of the green.”

It's an ice cream cake and it's quite frankly irresistible.  Start with a cup of oreo cookie crumbs ... add two tablespoons of melted margarine and mix the two together with a fork.  That mixture gets pressed into the bottom of springform pan to make a crust.  And in goes a quart of chocolate chip mint ice cream ... green of course.  That gets patted down to form a layer.  A little creme de menthe -- optional.  A second layer made from one quart of ice cream ... into the freezer for three hours.  When it comes out, run a knife along the inside edge ... remove the pan ... put your slices onto a plate ... and decorate the serving with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.  Fabulous!  And that's no blarney!

The word “mint” comes from an ancient Greek legend about a nymph named Mintha.  She was kissing the god Pluto when Pluto's wife came in and discovered them.  Pluto's wife, by the way, was a goddess of considerable power in her own right ... and she was furious.  And so she crushed Mintha into the earth.

Pluto took pity on Mintha and saw that she survived in the sweet smell of the plant.  Elizabethans in England love this story ... and they planted mint along their garden paths.  As they walked along, their feet would crush the mint and perfume the area in which they walked.  That perfume, by the way, comes from a chemical called menthol which is found in the stems and leaves of the plant.

If I remember my menthol commercials properly, that meant that the Elizabethans had feet that were kissing sweet.

In 1970 ... the City of Halifax had a plan to demolish the old waterfront buildings here ... and construct an expressway.  What their plan didn't plan for were the walls of the building behind me.  That's the old Privateers’ Warehouse.  And the walls are over two feet thick.  The wrecker's ball ... it just bounced off them like they were a backboard at an NBA game. 

Instead, the citizens of Halifax constructed what is known as the Historic Properties.  It preserves the look and feel of the place as it was in the 1800's ... and seven of the oldest structures on the waterfront.  This was the city's commercial center during the 1800's.  Today, it's home to a maritime museum that tells  the story of this area's four hundred year old relationship to the sea.

There's a shopping area ... some excellent restaurants ... the dock for Bluenose II...  a replica of the most famous Grand Banks fishing vessel, and so powerful a symbol of Canada's relationship to the sea ... that you find a picture of it on the Canadian dime. 

They've also held on to the last remaining Korvette...  The H.M.C.S. Sackville.  It was this class of ship that escorted the supply convoys across the Atlantic during the Second World War.  And it tried to protect them from the German U-boats.


As part of preserving its past, the Historic Properties have included a town crier.

TOWN CRIER:   Oyez... oyez...

BURT WOLF:   The idea of a town crier has been around for well over a thousand years.  They were the original anchormen ... Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, Shaw ... the town criers were there first.  They gave people the news ... but most importantly, they warned everyone about impending dangers ... and with each new danger they altered their warning.

Peter Cox is the town crier for the city of Halifax ... and he is sending out the word on what Nova Scotia can tell us about the relationship of good food to good health.

TOWN CRIER:   Take heed up ... and listen.  Many small meals during the day ... especially for you ... than just two or three big ones.  Try and get more than half your daily calories from fresh fruits and vegetables ... grains ... and cereals.  Lobsters ... hm ... excellent low-fat protein with much less cholesterol than we once thought.  Soluble fibers from oat bran or any other source can help control cholesterol levels.  But remember ... there are no magic foods ... oats only do their job effectively when they are part of a proper balanced low-fat diet.


BURT WOLF:   That's all from Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.