Story by Mary Alice Downie
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Tucked away in the north end of Halifax is the Hydrostone Market, a short block of galleries, restaurants and craft shops, with half-timbered architecture and gabled dormers. In 2011, it was ranked second in the top 10 “best neighbourhoods in Canada” by the Institute of Urban Planning. Rue Petit Champlain in Quebec City came first, so it’s in good company. The Hydrostone is also a Federal Heritage Site.
The north end of Halifax was one of the areas destroyed in the great explosion of December 6, 1917. By 1920, the district had been rescued from the ashes by the Scottish town planner Thomas Adams. Designed as an “English-style garden suburb,” there were townhouses, and two-storey family homes, all made of the distinctive “Hydrostone”- blocks of hollow concrete, with grassy boulevards and back laneways.
During previous visits to the city, I made quick trips to the neighbourhood to pick up subs and pizza, “the best in Halifax” from Salvatore’s. But I was keen to see more and finally managed to make a day of it recently, wandering about, sampling the gentle pleasures of this “retail theatre.”
LK Yarns: Behind a sheepish window mural, all manner of yarns: “Silk and Milk” (60% milk fibre, 30% silk, 10% cashmere) bamboo from Turkey. A rainbow of skeins dangles temptingly, beside a festival of mohair and locally hand-painted, patterns, books and buttons. It’s enough to make me want to take up knitting again.
Henhouse: Nova Scotia is a hotbed of craftsmen and artists. There are strange decorative balls, wooden boards, kitchen stuff. They’ll design you a kitchen too or provide custom-built furniture. I was tempted by the cutting board oil and beeswax polish.
Bogside Gallery: Jewellery, pottery, baskets, more wood. Bogside Gallery stocks Dark Tickle products from Newfoundland, should you be longing for a fix of bakeapple or partridgeberry jam. The store’s motto – “Just one step removed from the artist” – comes true as two women enter, lugging large IKEA bags. Sue Smith and Eleanor Wyand of Timberdoodle Artworks, inspired by “sun, sea, sand, fog and friends” design, whittle and paint Nova Scotia pine into such entertaining works of art as shaggy-haired musicians and wacky birds.
Liquid Gold Tasting Bar: Mustn’t play favourites, but this had to be the highlight, a whole store devoted to EVOO (Extra Virgin olive oil) — more than 30 varieties — and a dozen vinegars. The owners, inspired by similar shops in Arizona, work with a supplier who brings the product, direct from the vineyards where the olives are crushed six hours after harvesting. It’s seasonal; in winter and spring the oils come from the Mediterranean and California, in summer and fall, from Argentina, Chile and Australia.
The Olio Fresco is held in stainless steel fusti, which protect it from the sun. “Don’t keep it over the stove,” advised David Burn of Liquid Gold. “It‘s best stored in a large container where it will be fine for a year. Vinegars last and last.
“Go from the lightest to the most robust,” he said, “ease your way in.”
Rather nervously, I took a cube of bread and dipped it into a tiny spoonful of Ogliarola. Encouraged, I moved on to Blood Orange, then Wild Mushroom and Sage with a grand finale of White Truffle.
On to testing the vinegar. Now I was really apprehensive. “It’s like the dessert bar after the main course,” Burn said. The traditional Balsamic was delicious, Peach was a revelation. Wild Blueberry, Blackberry Ginger. It was hard to stop.
Once you have sipped and slurped your way through, you make a selection and the store will bottle it for you. It also stocks pestos, tapenades and olives, of course. Yet another reason to visit the Maritimes.
Julien’s Bakery: Julien Didier came for six months to Halifax 18 years ago — and has been here since, creating European breads and pastries for grateful Haligonians. Who could resist Marguerite, bread in the shape of a flower, or apricot hazelnut sour dough? Multi-grain Good Hearth is the bakery’s most popular loaf and there are also vegan and gluten-free options. I was tempted by all manner of pastries and succumbed to almond croissant, delicate tiramisu, and carrot cake with a delicate little carota on top, which made me very popular when I got home. Outside, there is a secret garden among the vines where you can drink coffee, savour pastry and dream of France.
It was time for lunch, but with five highly-regarded restaurants on offer, how to choose? I settled on:
Epicurious Morsels: It smokes its own salmon, Atlantic, natch, in-house: It was hard to choose from an imaginative menu, but Curried Carrot Soup, Lobster Strudel, a mix of lobster, spinach and chevre rolled in pastry, with tomato and Armagnac Sauce did not disappoint. For dessert, a perfect crème brûlée.
Afterwards, I sat in the sunshine in small park across the road, admiring the streetscape before heading for:
Chrysalis Spa & Skin Care Centre: The cozy waiting room is small, but like Dr. Who’s Tardis, there’s considerable space behind and all services are offered. After an hour massage, I emerged, if not quite a butterfly, totally relaxed.
Clutching bread, pastries, vinegar and oil, I headed back to my B&B. I have a confession, I was so busy sampling the delights that I didn’t explore the district itself or Needham Park with its Memorial Bell Tower for those who died in the explosion. Another time I plan to try Hamachi Kita (sushi, tempura ad other Asian foods), Little Europe bistro and Gourmet to Go. I’ll treat myself to more oil and vinegar — and have another massage.