IN THE TOBEATIC WILDERNESS, N.S. – Into the forest we went with a mushroom hunter and guide, in search of edibles in the speckled light of a summer afternoon. The finds: golden chanterelles peeking through the moss, reed-thin cucumber root and the grand prize, a brown-capped bolete, which became one of the mushrooms in the beef soup we consumed that evening.
Yes, the evening meal. It is the exclamation point for a day’s agenda at Trout Point Lodge, a five-star “ecotourism” resort accessible by a gravel and dirt road in southwestern Nova Scotia 40 miles from the coastal port of Yarmouth. Chefs Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret, two of the lodge’s partners, create a nightly table d’hote for guests that is inspired by Cajun cooking in faraway New Orleans. That, in turn, was inspired by the food of Nova Scotia’s French Acadian settlers who were displaced in the 18th century by British conquerors.
Instead of flying to Halifax 170 miles (274 kilometres) away or driving through New Brunswick Province, we travelled from Portland, Maine, via the overnight Nova Star ferry, in an ocean-view cabin in the huge ship’s bow, then disembarked at Yarmouth for the brief journey by rental car to Trout Point. With roads becoming narrower, we turned with rising curiosity onto a canopied lane that ended at Trout Point’s main house of massive logs and granite.
The concept of “gourmet meets wilderness” was established right away, it being lunchtime. Our server, Kara Crowell, in a starched white waiter’s coat, brought bowls of chunky shrimp and bean soup in the cozy downstairs dining hall, followed by the main course, fresh mussels steamed in saffron, garlic and butter. We would see the same server later in a much different outfit.
“The vegetables and herbs are grown on site,” says co-owner Leary. “The wild foods are collected by hand, the salmon is smoked a few yards from the kitchen, the bread is baked each day. The fish is caught on the nearby coast, the yogurt firms sitting on a high kitchen shelf.”
This is not surprising, considering his and partner Perret’s background. They emigrated from Louisiana, where they helped found Chicory Farm in 1990 to provide sustainable cheeses, produce and wild foods first to customers of New Orleans’ French Market and then to restaurants like Commander’s Palace and Emeril’s. Though food service was part of Perret’s background, he was a lawyer and Leary was a Chinese historian when they took a flier on Chicory Farm.
That brought them in 1996 to the historic homeland of Acadians in Nova Scotia and the purchase of 200 acres (81 hectares) of untouched woodlands, bisected by the Tusket and Napier Rivers. “It’s actually not so easy to find land that was not within eyeshot of a major timber holding, but we succeeded,” says Leary. “We also like the dynamism of the river, as opposed, for example, to being on a lake.”
Almost two decades later, the Tusket still flows and gurgles below the lodge and out-buildings, ready for kayakers, canoeists, and – in late summer – swimmers. It is home to beavers, trout, waterfowl and wild cranberry bushes. A wood-burning above-ground spa is a counterpoint to a crisp dip in the Tusket. An elevated walkway ends at a raised platform in a calming pool of the river with a 360-degree view of shoreline thickets and stands of white birch, ash, maple, hemlock and pine. By day, the solitude and silence there is encompassing; on a clear night, some of the darkest skies in North America reveal a sparkly dome of countless stars.
Pack swim suits, hiking boots, outdoor apparel, an appetite and perhaps a book to read on the spacious veranda where the only interruptions are darting chipmunks and an occasional hummingbird. Off-road bicycles, fly rods, waders, the kayaks and canoes and other equipment are already part of Trout Point’s inventory. The multi-tasking staff cooks, waits tables, collects foodstuffs from the gardens and takes drink orders before dinner. Besides being the edible hike guide, our mushroom hunter Brendon Smith is a massage therapist and a classical guitarist who offers lessons on site and plays for guests in the evening.
The owners may pitch in to staff the front desk, where oatmeal cookies and white wine await new arrivals, but their primary focus is on cuisine. Each afternoon, the menu is determined by the day’s shopping and discoveries of “wild delicacies.” The day doesn’t conclude until the last of the meals are served and the paperwork – invoices for tomorrow’s checkouts and the like – is done.
Which brings us back to Crowell, our food server and an ebullient mother of two who lives nearby. After lunch on the first day, the next time she was seen in lumberjack gear, having wielded a chain saw to clear trails cluttered with fallen logs from a hurricane two weeks before.