How to Eat Like a Real Acadian-No Butter Required
In New Brunswick, lobster is served straight up.
The lobster I’m about to eat is male. I know this because I’ve earned a degree in lobster eating the Acadian way. My professor is Captain Ron Cormier, who’s ferrying me to Shediac. Admittedly, I’m a very recent graduate-I landed in New Brunswick only three hours ago and was on-board this boat within minutes. I’m feeling like an expert, though. To eat a lobster like a real Acadian, you have to start with a claw. You lift it to your lips and suck out the salty brine from the joint between the slicer and the grinder-the perfect appetizer to the juicy flesh you’re about to pry out. Repeat with the other claw, and then go right for the tail. You’ll be tempted to bite, but take it easy-this is just the beginning. Patience is a virtue.
On the waterfront at 5 a.m. the next morning, I seem to be the only person struggling to keep my eyes open. In the parking lot behind the quay, pronounced “tchai” in Acadian, cars and SUVs are lined up like soldiers. Captain Claude Benoît, a burly old sea horse with hands the size of stingrays, welcomes me to Rosy III, the green-and-white fishing boat he steers up and down the Gulf of St. Lawrence to oversee his 300 traps. As light pierces the horizon, I spot fluorescent balls dotting the water, like a giant pearl necklace; each bead marks the location of a trap. Benoît and his crew methodically raise them out of the water using a hook and a winch, catching 13,500 kilos of lobster a year this way. Soon I hear a familiar sound: the seagulls are up, squawking as they follow in the boat’s wake, almost in formation against the sky turned pink by the sun. They aren’t here for the lobster, it turns out: Benoît explains they’re after the bouettes, the fish that serve as the lobsters’ bait and end up discarded in the water. Heading back to the dock, we prepare our day’s feast with surprisingly little ceremony. Once boiled, the lobsters are rinsed off with cold water to stop the cooking process, and we eat them off newspaper on the corner of a picnic table. No butter or cutlery in sight.
It’s not unusual for a New Brunswicker to consume lobster almost every day during the high season, which stretches from May to June in the Acadian Peninsula and from August to October in the province’s south end. And no fuss, please: it’s best simply boiled in the sea water it has spent its life in. The shellfish is flavoured without being overpowered by that iodine-y tang of table salt.
And don’t even think about adding lemon. There’s an economy of means here, a way of cutting through complications, that’s disarming-like at La Terrasse à Steve, on the quay in Île Miscou, at the northern extreme of the peninsula. From afar it looks like an explorers’ encampment in some terra incognita, a refuge in the midst of a wild, uncharted landscape-as if time had stopped on the day Jacques Cartier came across this bay in July 1534. Owner Steve Bezeau runs this unconventional casse-croûte (the tables are sheltered under tied-log pergolas) along with a retail seafood shack. He prepares lobster 10 different ways-among others, with melted cheese toppings or a secret sauce whose sweetness contrasts the natural saltiness of the meat, served on a disposable paper plate with a plastic cup of wine. “People tell me I should extend the terrace and add this or that to the menu, but no way,” Bezeau tells me. “I want you to feel as if I’ve invited you into my home. In fact, the restaurant’s kitchen is barely bigger than my own.”
It’s true that customers are made to feel right at home. While you wait for your table, Bezeau might invite you to open the fridge and grab yourself a beer. As I sip mine, I dig my feet into the sand and watch Bezeau’s most loyal regular, Fred, an extroverted heron who’s loitering on the beach as he waits for his daily treat. Apparently, Bezeau’s generosity extends to everyone.
My next destination: Caraquet, a small town at the edge of Chaleur Bay where Acadian culture is fiercely protected. Large wooden shacks with peaked roofs serve as everything from art galleries to restaurants. La Brôkerie, in a complex of maisonettes known as the Carrefour de la Mer, presents me a lip-smacking blueberry ale from the Moncton-based Pump House. “Broaking” in Acadian means “to preserve,” which is appropriate, since we’re drinking our local brews out of Mason jars. (Other drinks, like the award-winning spirits by the Fils du Roy distillery, are served in smaller goblets.) La Brôkerie pays tribute to fishermen who were in the habit of drinking from the first thing they set their hands on as soon as they hit dry land. In that spirit, the decor is industrial, raw wood and mix-and-match thrift-shop pieces-totally on trend for the crowd of artists who performs here.
My Mason jar empty, I walk down the street for dinner at La Vieille Brûlerie, a quaint café in a 100-year-old house. I order a delicious take on oyster soup prepared by the owner’s mother, Murielle Dugas, and adapted from her father’s recipe. None of that bland milky broth: this is a rich, creamy chowder featuring potato, shallots, butter and a special ingredient that Dugas won’t divulge. “The oyster fishers used to sleep on the beach, to start work at the crack of dawn,” she says. “Today we’ve lost that closeness to the raw ingredient; we never know where things come from, and we do any old thing with the ingredients we get. There are all sorts of oysters-we have to pay attention to each type and know how to bring out its charms.”
Even the modern Déjà BU!, where I settle in for the last meal on this gastronomic tour, respects the bounds of tradition. Much of the seafood here is served simply. I take a seat at the bar overlooking the open kitchen while mulling over the extensive wine list. Robert Noël, the restaurant’s owner and sommelier, brings me an appetizer of raw oysters full of briny goodness and a mind-blowing sandwich of lobster, prosciutto, melted Gruyère and truffle mayonnaise.
Watching the chefs busy themselves at the stoves, I remember Dugas’s words. We may be losing track of where our ingredients come from these days, but in New Brunswick, seafood is so ubiquitous and such a way of life that it’s practically part of the family. Chatting between bites of dinner, you can chart a course from the ocean to the table, tracing the people, places and producers behind the flavours through a genealogy of Acadian cuisine. Like a fish takes to water, these conversations always return to the sea.
In summer, chase the sun at Aboiteau Beach in Cap-Pelé. The water in the region is said to be the warmest north of Virginia. 1-83 Aboiteau Way, Cap-Pelé, N.B., cap-pele.com/aboiteau.
Pirate de la Mer may look like your typical diner, but it’s also a great spot to buy live lobster. 10 Industrielle St., Bouctouche, N.B., 506-743-5828.
Need a pit stop? La Homard Mobile is a lobster-red food truck that makes a mean lobster poutine during the season. 333 St. Pierre Blvd. W., Caraquet, N.B., 506-726-1127.
Built in 1911, Maison Tait is a Victorian hotel with fireplaces and four-poster beds. 293 Main St., Shediac, N.B., 506-532-4233, maisontaithouse.com.
© 2013 By Daviel Lazure Vieira, enRoute (November 2013) enroute.aircanada.com