“They're probably still talking about it,” says Nancy Lohnes, owner of Magnolia's Grill in Lunenburg, NS.
She's referring to a group of American tourists who visited her funky little café near the town's famous waterfront a few summers back. What they're probably still talking about is the dramatic delivery by local fisherman Peter Tanner of a barely-out-of-the-water halibut. “Mr. Tanner roared through the front door like a fast-moving tide,” Lohnes recalls with a big laugh. “He was wearing his rain gear and rubber boots, and you could smell the salt and seaweed as he brushed past the tourists carrying this big plastic bag with a halibut's tail sticking out.
“I had just finished serving them seafood chowder, so I was close enough to see their faces when Peter and the fish surged past. Their eyes almost popped out of their heads. I said, ‘When we say fresh seafood, we mean fresh seafood.’”
For many Maritimers and foodie-minded visitors, sampling local chowders in communities along Canada’s Atlantic coast is a ritual akin to savouring Scotland's single-malt whiskies. And that's the way it should be, say “chowderheads,” the true chowder enthusiasts who follow their taste buds in a quest for the best blend of tender seafood, cream, potatoes, onions, butter and herbs. Though chowderheads have differing views on the ideal texture, colour and ingredients for the perfect chowder, they agree that the seafood has to be fresh—the fresher the better.
Driving through any Maritime fishing village, what traveller with a love of seafood wouldn't be lured by the siren song of a creamy chowder chock full of scallops, shrimp, lobster, salmon, clams and haddock?
For Austin Clement, a chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, PEI, making seafood chowder is a spiritual journey that fills him with a passion for perfection. He teaches his students that well-made chowder reflects the beauty and harmony of the Maritime landscape, and is something that needs to be taken seriously. He ought to know. He’s the 2002 Provincial and International Chowder Champion.
“I always get my seafood from people who know seafood and treat it with respect,” Clement says. “I even get many of my other ingredients—potatoes, onions and herbs—from local farmers. For me, the best cuisine is food you make for yourself and the ones you love, using only the best that the land, sea and sky have to offer."
Chowder making is an art form for Clement, and he believes it should be kept simple. “The finest chowders are basic, traditional chowders,” he declares, “made the way they’ve been made for hundreds of years, with plenty of fresh seafood, lots of heavy cream, butter, salt and pepper, onions, celery and herbs. I add a touch of tarragon and basil.”
He advises visitors to sniff out the chowders each locale has to offer by asking around. In every oceanside village, town and city, there are people who know where to find the best. “We have some of the finest quality seafood on the planet right here in the Maritimes, and we have many chowder makers who know how to use it properly,” Clement says. “This is a wonderful advantage for cuisine in this part of Canada.”
Case in point: it's another busy morning at The Pilot House in Charlottetown, PEI, where Guy LeClair is chopping onions, potatoes and celery for one of his renowned chowders. Like Clement, LeClair is an award-winning chowder maestro who believes the best chowders are simple and traditional. “There’s a danger of making chowder too fancy,” LeClair observes. “Originally, it was intended to be a full meal, not an entrée, and that's how I like to serve it.”
On the stove behind him, fresh seafood is poaching in a large, heavy pan. Soon, the aroma filling the kitchen will drift into the dining area, as it does each day, tempting visitors and residents alike with the poetry of perfection.
Far to the west, on the edge of the Bay of Fundy in Saint John, NB, a similar scent is wafting through the kitchen at the Inn on The Cove as innkeepers Ross and Willa Mavis prepare the day’s menu. Ross Mavis says making chowder is one of the pleasures of living so close to the ocean. “The name chowder comes from the French word chaudière, a heavy pot French fishermen used to cook soups and stews,” Mavis explains. “Each locality along the Atlantic coast has its favourite recipe based on the kinds of fish and vegetables available.
“You should be able to taste the seafood in good chowder immediately, without hunting around for it. I can usually size up an establishment's level of quality by tasting its chowder. Unfortunately, some cooks think chowder has to be so thick you can stand a fork in it. So they load it down with flour or cornstarch, and it winds up tasting like wallpaper paste.”
Mavis continues: “Chowder doesn't have to be thick. It has to be rich and flavourful to be good. You can tell right away, from that first taste, if the chef has given it the necessary care and attention and knows what he or she is doing.”
“And of course,” he concludes emphatically, “the seafood must be fresh!”
Down on the Lunenburg wharf, fisherman Tanner beams at a large Atlantic halibut. It weighs at least 18 kilos and has been out of the water only a few hours. He knows Magnolia’s Lohnes will want it. He grabs a big green plastic bag and shoves the fish in headfirst. Several streets up from the waterfront, visitors are peering into the front window of Magnolia's Grill and wonder aloud if the seafood is fresh. Back in the kitchen, Lohnes slips a spoonful of butter into the big chowder pot simmering on the stove and stirs it gently. Another day at Magnolia's Grill. Another day in the Maritimes.
Chowderheads’ delights Magnolia's Grill, Lunenburg, NS: 902-634-3287. Inn on the Cove and Day Spa, Saint John, NB: 1-877-257-8080, www.innonthecove.com. The Pilot House, Charlottetown, PEI: 902-894-4800. The Culinary Institute of Canada: 902-894-6805, www.hollandcollege.com. Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival: in early autumn on the Charlottetown waterfront. www.peishellfish.com
www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca www.novascotia.com www.gentleisland.com