Story by Cinda Chavich
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
MONCTON, NEW BRUNSWICK — They claim the lobster sculpture next to the highway in Shediac is the largest in the world, it’s massive, anatomically correct claws and antennae making a killer background for the family holiday photo-op.
But this scenic coastal strip of sandy beaches and cottages is also home to the country’s largest population of Acadians, a maritime French-Canadian subculture, known for its long history, unique language, culture and joie de vivre.
That’s why I’m heading off along the 300-kilometre Acadian Coastal Drive from Moncton north to Caraquet on the Baie des Chaleurs. It’s the place where many of Canada’s original French settlers returned after the bloody deportations of 1755 — Le Grand Derangement immortalized in the epic poem Evangeline — and the place that the two million Acadians (or Cajuns/Cadiens) living around the world today still consider their homeland.
But I’m here for the food, and even before we leave the Moncton city limits I’ve encountered both classic and contemporary Acadian cuisine, from the fine Belgian-style blueberry ale at The Pumphouse, the local brew pub, to big bowl of chunky lobster chowder at City Grill.
Scenic Route 15 hugs the eastern shore and is marked with starfish signs but it’s hardly necessary — gold-starred Acadian flags flap outside homes in the small French-speaking communities all along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The original Acadian settlers were farmers — immigrants from northeastern France and experts at building specialized dykes to reclaim low-lying coastal salt marshes for agriculture. But when Acadians returned to the region years after the deportations, their farms were occupied by British settlers and many turned to fishing, which is why you’ll find so many French-speaking fish villages on this rugged coast.
The food out here in rural New Brunswick ranges from simple lobster suppers to the creative cuisine of fine local chefs. Of course there’s the local New Brunswick bounty — potatoes, wild blueberries, and seafood from scallops to fat Maritime mussels, bar clams and tiny, briny Beausoleil oysters — and everywhere the famed Maritime lobster. Locals argue over which is best — the Bay of Fundy lobster or the eastern shore, but for a lobster-deprived westerner, it’s all decadently delicious.
It’s lobster season so we opt for a messy lesson in eating a whole specimen — “belly up, it keeps the juices in” — on a Croisières Shediac Bay family dinner cruise.
LOBSTER — ANY WAY YOU LIKE IT IN NEW BRUNSWICK
Our chipper young hosts start with a course in lobster anatomy — males have the hard pointy bits — and a look at a lobster trap just pulled from the sea. But soon the paper plates topped with steamy little canner lobsters and plastic cups of coleslaw are ferried up from the galley and we’re into the business of removing as much of the sweet meat as we can.
“Pull against the articulation and break off the legs at the joint — then hold the body and tail, and twist, twist, pull — do it over your plate,” advises the guide as we attempt to dislodge our dinner from its spiny shell. “The red bits are the caviar — the green is the liver, the tomalley, very good.”
I opt for this fiery crustacean whenever possible on our travels, whether it’s piled high on a lobster club in The Wharf Village, in chef Stefan Meuller’s unusually addictive white chocolate and lobster appetizer at the Delta Beauséjour, or stuffed into a plain white bun with mayonnaise at McDonald’s (yes, they serve lobster rolls at Golden Arches locations in the east coast).
But we’re also here for authentic Acadian cuisine, so we head north to Bouctouche and Le Pays de la Sagouine, a fictional “village” where the characters from Acadian author Antonine Maillet’s celebrated stories come to life. Maillet’s La Sagouine, a witty and wise old washer woman played by actor Viola Léger, is the star of this literary theme park, but there’s also plenty of food, drink, dancing and genuine Acadian kitchen party fun.
We wander from “the mainland” along a raised boardwalk to “the island” where the house band strikes up an Acadian tune while we attempt to keep time on the spoons. After a shot of la bagosse (a rum, fruit juice and maple syrup concoction mimicking Acadian moonshine) and a look inside some of the period homes from Maillet’s stories, it’s straight to the Acadian buffet at Restaurant l’Ordre du Bon Temps. The lunch menu runs from Acadian classics like potato pancakes with molasses to apple dumplings and sweet pastries dubbed pets-de soeur (nun’s farts).
“Each Acadian family had a couple of cows, hens for eggs, pork to salt for winter,” explains Irene Maillet-Belley (in character as Dorine), passing me la poutine rapées, a gooey poached dumpling made with shredded potatoes and salt pork, and a bowl of chicken stew (aka fricot). “For fricot, we boiled a hen with potatoes and turnips and summer savoury, and at Christmas Eve gatherings we would add potato dumplings.”
It’s real old-fashioned Acadian fare but in the fishing village of Bouctouche, you can still buy these dumplings to-go at Poutine à Léa on Main Street, made fresh every day, or in cans at the supermarket.
“Myself, I still make them at home, but most of the young generation, they don’t know how,” admits Maillet-Belley. “The night before Christmas Eve the daughters and daughters-in-law went to the elders house to peel 150 pounds of potatoes — it was all done by hand.”
Families will find lots of motels and campgrounds close to the beaches along the Acadian coast, but there are also a few high-end, historic inns. The elegant Tait House in Shediac has nine rooms and a fine dining room – the kind of place where you can have your Beausoleil oysters au gratin with roasted red pepper and Parmesan, or your blue mussels braised in local Magnetic Hill rhubarb wine.
We admire the white sand of La Dune du Bouctouche, where the endangered piping plover nests, spot the mottled vase-shaped blooms of carnivorous pitcher plants in the peat bogs, and bob in a small boat among islands of seal colonies at Kouchibouguac National Park en route to the north shore. In Miramichi, our fishing-themed hotel sits next to the wide river and we dine on planked Atlantic salmon and apple crumble in the Angler’s Reel Restaurant while the sun sets.
Outside Caraquet, “the capital of Acadia”, the 80-acre Village Historique Acadien is dotted with authentic homes and farmsteads from the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s — collected from across the province to give us a taste of how early Acadians lived on this wind-swept shore.
We join kids at Acadian summer camp — dressed in long aprons and bonnets, suspenders and wooden shoes — outside and 1850’s farmstead where a woman offers us warm loaves of rustic bread from a wood-fired oven. Turkeys gobble in pens next to rows of kale and potatoes in the garden, and inside the tidy house they’re sitting down to a lunch of hearty trout stew and wild blueberry pudding.
Down the rutted roads we find women harvesting flax to spin into linen and a man whittling an “Indian broom” from a piece of green birch. At the circa 1855 Dugas house — now the village’s restaurant — we lunch on plain poached cod and boiled potatoes, as they might have 150 years ago.
It’s a sharp contrast to the sushi restaurant, gourmet food shop, busy bakery, and killer cappuccino we find in the quaint town of Caraquet.
At the historic Hotel Paulin, chef/innkeeper Karin Mersereau feeds us multi-course locavore meals and teaches us about the coastal foods in her pantry, from foraged samphire (sea asparagus) and cattails to local lobster, creamy Le Blanc d’Acadie cheese, local foie gras and wild Dugas oysters.
“We do tasting menus every night,” says Mersereau, who takes her guests on “edible adventures”, digging clams or foraging for mushrooms, and when we ask, whips up a wicked lobster poutine swimming in a creamy pink gravy reminiscent of lobster bisque.
Acadians still make up nearly one-third of New Brunswick’s population and their unique culture remains alive and well here on the Acadian Coast. On August 15 — the Acadian National Day — Acadians gather in places like Caraquet for Tintamarre, a noisy, hour-long parade of crazy cacophony in the street, to remind the world that despite a difficult past, they’re still here, and they’re still having fun.
MORE ABOUT THE ACADIAN COAST
Driving Distance: From Moncton to Caraquet takes about three hours along the Trans-Canada Highway or Route 115. You’ll pass Shediac, Miramichi, Kouchibouguac National Park, Bouctouche and more sights related to Acadian history.
For More Information: Visit Tourism New Brunswick’s website.
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