A Cook's Garden in New Brunswick
I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Atlantic Canada. I tasted my way around New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia...all in six days!! It was an inspiring trip and I met loads of talented chefs, fishermen, and gardeners. As you can imagine, the seafood in the coastal areas was phenomenal. It seemed like everything I tasted–oysters, lobster, scallops, mussels, halibut, cod, or tuna–had just come off the boat that day. I got to taste Colville Bay oysters straight out of the ocean on Prince Edward Island and had fried cod tongues in Newfoundland. Lobster rolls were everywhere in Nova Scotia (even, I'm told, on the menu at McDonald's) and I had the best scallops of my life in New Brunswick.
Despite all of this amazing seafood–not to mention the wonderful wines in Nova Scotia–one of the things that impressed me the most were the beautiful gardens. It seemed like every chef I met had his or her own garden, growing all manner of vegetables, fruits, and herbs for their restaurants and families. I had a chance to spend an afternoon in the garden with Chris Aerni, the chef/owner of Rossmount Inn outside St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Originally from Bern, Switzerland, Aerni and his wife Graziella settled in New Brunswick over ten years ago after falling in love with the area on a family vacation. They bought the inn–an 18-room historic manor overlooking the Passamaquoddy Bay–and began serving seasonal dinners using produce from their garden, mushrooms and berries from the surrounding woods, and seafood from the nearby Bay of Fundy. It doesn't get much more local than this. Word about Aerni's simple, garden-to-table fare has definitely spread, and the Rossmount Inn is now considered one of the best restaurants in the area.
But back to the garden. Armed with a basket and a small paring knife, Aerni and I strolled through his 3-acre garden in the drizzling rain. He pointed out all sorts of unusual plants he grows, cutting off samples for me to try. "This is a chioga beet," he said as he cut the tip off a tiny beet, revealing a candy-striped interior. He pulled brightly colored carrots from the ground–not only orange, but purple and yellow. He dug up purple potatoes (which later turned up on a scallop dish that night, thinly sliced and fried) and let me taste golden raspberries (those made an appearance in the dessert). I tried lovage (which tastes a bit like celery), tart gooseberries, nasturtium flowers, and the sweetest tomatoes I've ever tasted, so dark they were nearly black. He showed me a huge bush of bergamot–"we steep it like tea to make a syrup for dessert," he explained as he handed me a few leaves to smell. Walking through the garden was like a culinary crash course for me. Every single plant could be used fresh, and most could be preserved as well. Aerni shared all sorts of tips as we walked like, "pickled shiso leaves are delicious served with salmon and chicken," and "you can make wonderfully aromatic oils from nasturtiums." Who knew?
"I like to grow things you can't buy," Aerni explained. Anything he doesn't grow himself, he buys from the local organic Bantry Bay Farm. Given that the seasons are slightly later there (they have a very short summer that doesn't really start until late June), tomatoes were in full swing and I have never seem more beautiful heirloom tomatoes in my life. He grows over ten varieties, mostly grown in a greenhouse to protect them from the elements. I was in for a treat that night with a beautiful heirloom tomato salad, simply dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette, basil, and a few edible flowers. Heaven.
After the garden tour, Aerni asked if I'd like to go look for some mushrooms in the nearby forest. "It's chanterelle season," he explained. "And if we're lucky we may find some bolletes." There was no consideration on my part...despite my soggy shoes and lack of warm clothing, my answer was a definitive yes. I've always been curious how to know which mushrooms are edible or not, and here was my chance to go foraging with an expert guide.
There were no paths in the woods (or at least if there were, we didn't take them). Aerni plunged ahead, under branches, over logs, with an eagle-eye vision for fungi. It was incredible–where all I saw was a sea of green and grey, he saw dots of orange and brown, and sprinted ahead to examine them. He said he grew up foraging for mushrooms as a kid in Switzerland with his mom and siblings and several other families. After they gathered their mushrooms, they'd take them to a "controller's" house in the village–basically the mushroom expert who would sort through them and say which ones were edible and which were poisonous. He learned how to identify the good ones from the bad ones by watching the controller.
Each time he spotted mushrooms, he'd take a close look and toss the ones that had been eaten by snails. He also showed me several that looked perfectly good to me, but that were actually quite poisonous. ("Either you know, or you die!" he joked.) Within an hour, we'd nearly filled a basket with chanterelles, horse mushrooms, a few bolletes, and even one King Bollete (porcini). Amazing. We headed back to the inn and a few hours later, he had prepared a fantastic dinner using many of the ingredients we had gathered that day. The mushrooms were phenomenal–so fresh, so earthy, and so simply prepared. He didn't attempt to mask the flavors in any way–he just quickly sautéed them in butter with some shallot and white wine, garnished them with chives, and served them over a lightly toasted slice of baguette. Absolute perfection.
Given that I live in a walk-up apartment in Manhattan, gardening and foraging aren't exactly feasible options for me right now. But I definitely have a whole new respect for the gardener, and the intimate connection between the cook and the garden (and the forest!). I had a ball learning how everything was grown, and getting to taste and smell things in the garden and in the woods that would appear–just a few hours later–on my plate.
I think next year, I'll just start with a few potted herbs on the roof. I'm sure I can manage that. As for the mushrooms, I'll leave that to the experts.
SAUTEED WILD MUSHROOMS Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds mixed wild mushrooms (such as chanterelle, porcini, crimini, or shiitake)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup minced shallots (about 2 large)
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (or parsley)
Brush any dirt off the mushrooms with a damp paper towel or a mushroom brush (yes, they actually exist!) and remove the stems. Do NOT rinse with water, as that will make them soggy.
Heat the butter in a large heavy bottomed saute pan over medium high heat, until melted. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally, about 3-4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper.
Cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until softened beginning to release some juices. Add the white wine and increase the heat; let simmer for 1-2 minutes until evaporated.
Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the chives (or parsley) and serve over toasted baguette slices as a starter, or as a side dish with roasted pork or game.
*Note: This is not Chris Aerni's exact recipe, but rather my adaptation based on his verbal instructions.