Young people with bold ideas make change. For this reason, New Brunswick’s reputation seems poised to transform. The province’s food community is filled with affable citizens in their 20s and 30s who endeavour to invigorate their home with more innovation and initiatives. Maxime Gauvin is one of their leaders. He is the executive director of Really Local Harvest, a farmers cooperative and an initiator of the Eating Heritage Symposium, a first-of-its-kind gathering of the province’s food community that took place in early November. Eating Heritage aims to be an annual event that develops ideas and networking collaborations that drive culinary-focused tourism. It should be a catalyst that boosts a destination historically viewed as lagging behind its neighbours, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, in the breadth and quality of experiences.
More than anything, what New Brunswick has lacked is an identity — a focus in marketing its culinary tourism to the world. Eating Heritage’s inaugural event in Moncton was partly about surfacing that identity.
“We started by seeing what other places are doing and saying we can be a food destination too. If you look at Norway and the other Scandinavian countries, they’re known for their food. People go there for the food, and that wasn’t always the case. And you kind of think, why can’t it be us?” Gauvin says about what inspired him and his colleagues to pull entrepreneurs and government stakeholders together to shape New Brunswick’s efforts to promote its farmers, fishing communities, restaurateurs, and culinary experiences tied to them.
To help build Eating Heritage’s program, Gauvin worked with Rebecca Mackenzie, a champion for culinary tourism and an expert on how food sharing fosters cultural understanding. She heads Ontario’s Culinary Tourism Alliance and has spent years creating cohesion among the provinces and territories to market the nation’s food experiences to the world. Mackenzie worked with Tourism New Brunswick in 2018 to craft a three-year food-tourism strategy for the province. The symposium was one of the those initiatives built into the plan. Mackenzie’s research has shown how culinary experiences impact tourism demand and contribute to community spirit.
“When you engage and develop a taste of place it will grow your bottom line and that’s what most of you here are concerned about, understandably, but as time goes on you’ll see that you are also building this incredible pride in place,” Mackenzie told Eating Heritage delegates at the Dieppe Market just outside of Moncton. “Part of getting to that point means educating yourselves of what you have. You have to be your own advocates.”
A 2019 report by market research firm Technavio estimates culinary tourism will grow at an annual rate of 9% and reach $82 billion in value within the next five years. While New Brunswick may be late in its food-tourism efforts, it has the benefit of assessing what does and doesn’t work for locations similar to it. The greatest indicator of success in culinary tourism is the level of eagerness among the destination’s stakeholders to sculpt a landscape that will attract and please travellers. Based on feedback at Eating Heritage, New Brunswickers are ready to catch up.
“For too long we had governments that didn’t invest in tourism. Other provinces did invest and we are behind because of it,” says Jesse Vergen, the talented executive chef at Saint John Ale House who has spearheaded a culinary movement in that city. “We have all of what Nova Scotia and PEI have, and there’s no reason in my mind why we can’t be doing what they’re doing. It’s taken a while, but I see things happening here and it’s awesome for us as a community to have the support.”
Vergen is among the exceptional talents in the province who know how to best utilize the bounty of seafood and fish in New Brunswick’s waters. In the coastal community of St. Andrews By-the-Sea, chef Chris Aerni has been operating the Rossmount Inn since 2001 and says he arrived in the province because of food tourism. Born in Switzerland, Aerni settled in Toronto when he immigrated to Canada and worked as a chef in the nation’s largest city, importing fish from all over the world for his clients. After 14 years, he and his wife wanted to own a country inn with a garden and without a commute.
“We mapped out everywhere in Canada where we could possibly go. Now, I still pinch myself every day when I think about where I live,” says Aerni, noting that the eclectic residents of St. Andrews, known for a rich arts and culture scene, and the appeal of the historic Rossmount Inn, located on a hill overlooking the Bay of Fundy, were compelling reasons to make the move. As were the oysters of New Brunswick.
“I was bringing them in all the time when I was in Toronto. Here, they’re right there, in these bays,” Aerni says. “I am an original New Brunswick food tourists. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the oysters.”
New Brunswick’s Beausoleil oysters are famous for their plump texture and briny taste, a result of minerality from seaweed and rockbeds, and consistent salinity. Whatever the future of food tourism in the province becomes, the Beausoleil will be a major part of the story. The industry sold 23 million oysters in 2017, resulting in $9.9 million in revenue, according to the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries. Visitors already can take oyster tours that reveal the distinction between the Beausoleil varieties that are harvested from four bays in the central part of New Brunswick.
Another experiential culinary journey can be enjoyed near Saint John, where Acadian Sturgeon founder Cornel Ceapa provides a one-of-a-kind aquatic “safari” that would hook any food tourist. The safari, offered only in July, includes outings to catch sturgeon, harvest caviar, tour the Acadian Sturgeon facilities, and savour a shoreline barbecue.
Tour operators provide similar experiences for lobster while community shellfish festivals are plentiful from spring to fall. The most famous of them is the Shediac Lobster Festival in July. Meanwhile, the province also celebrates its other well-known treat, maple syrup, with spring sugar shacks and events. The Maple Capital of Atlantic Canada Festival occurs in Saint-Quentin in early April.
Nationally recognized restaurants like the Saint John Ale House, and St. Andrews’ stalwarts Rossmount Inn and Savour in the Garden already attract diners who seek out the cuisine of a destination’s leading chefs. And the craft-beer scene is exploding with diversity and uniqueness — 53% of the province’s 60 breweries are in rural areas, which means they help to bring employment and visitation revenue to those out-of-the-way locales. One of the province’s best breweries is Holy Whale, located in a former United Church in the town of Alma, a gateway to Fundy National Park. “We’re building our own congregation,” brewery owner Pete Grandy says with a chuckle while pointing out that the brewery, and its attached coffee shop, Buddha Bear, have acquired a strong following.
Holy Whale is a microcosm of the changes in New Brunswick. Young entrepreneurs throughout the province are rejuvenating interest in their hometowns through businesses that appeal to their generation. That appeal is tied to local culture and flavours, which as Mackenzie points out are the ingredients that have proven to increase tourism interest in destinations with much less going for them than Canada’s Maritimes.
Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi was a visiting journalist of the Eating Harvest Symposium, as well as Destination New Brunswick, Visit Saint John, and Fredericton Tourism. This article is the second in an ongoing series on tourism in the province. Read the first article on New Brunswick’s attractive tourism experiences.