No taste like home

This weekend kicks off the IncrEdible Picnic series, an annual season's worth of celebrating the quality food coming out of Nova Scotia. But thanks to hard work and good eats, we're not the only ones craving a taste.

Geordan Moore

For the longest time, restaurateurs, chefs and food lovers would wax poetic about exotic and imported ingredients. They were considered to be the greatest and most wonderful products to grace the plates of diners. From the balsamic vinegar craze of the 1980s to Kobe beef in the '90s and jamon iberico di belotta (an entire leg of the acorn-fed ham that retails around the $1,000 mark) in the '00s, all that was outside was considered to be the utmost in gastronomica. But a change has been a-brewin' over the past few years, and now Nova Scotia's foodstuffs are the stars in the kitchen.

Restaurateurs make a point of touting seasonal and locally driven menus, making special mentions of the farmers who grew and raised the meats and vegetables on your plate. At the grocery store, consumers ask for locally produced foods, which are then provided with premium shelf space. There has been a cognitive culinary shift.

There is a sense of pride that is gaining traction amongst Nova Scotians about the food they produce. And we're not afraid to show it off. Local foods and products are garnering national and international attention, it's no longer just Digby scallops and Nova Scotia smoked salmon. Publications such as The Globe and Mail, The New York Times and Jamie Oliver's magazine have all taken an interest in what we are doing with food.

But we've also taken notice in our own food culture. We want it to be local. We want to buy from our own farms. This is why in 2007, the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture developed Select Nova Scotia, a program to promote Nova Scotian foodstuffs. According to it, one in three Nova Scotians are engaged in buying local products.

"We think that Select NS has helped inform the public as to what is available and people demand it, ensuring that retailers carry it," says John MacDonnell, minister of the Department of Agriculture. "Farmers get calls from suppliers asking for their product. We think that helps drive them into carrying local producers."

MacDonnell points out Select NS also does promotion amongst food conscious consumers: "We do as much as we can do to make local restaurateurs know that there is good quality in local products. We try and do anything we can through direct marketing, farmers markets and agritourism to promote Nova Scotian food."

Select NS was also instrumental in the creation of the IncrEdible Picnic, a series of summer picnics that showcase Nova Scotian food and food products throughout the province every summer, kicking off this weekend with the Picnic in the Past on Georges Island. It's through events like this that Nova Scotians have come to understand the value of the food that comes from here.

But food producers may not just want to satiate local appetites. There is often a desire to expand outside of provincial markets. And local food isn't just a Nova Scotian movement, it's everywhere. So how does one sell their wares in a way that makes it appealing to those seeking both the local and the exotic?

One of the organizations that has worked hard to promote Nova Scotian food, both within and outside the province, is Taste of Nova Scotia. It's been around since 1991, and promotes Nova Scotia's food and food culture on a local, national and international scale. Janice Ruddock is the executive director of ToNS. She likes to joke that she couldn't "take a red-eye and fly overnight and get into a place at seven and start talking at nine if I didn't believe in Nova Scotia."

Ruddock does believe in this place, and she believes in her membership, counting over 100 of them. She and the rest of the team at ToNS have a mandate to grow the business of their members, and they do so in all manner of ways. "We mostly structure our programs based on the interests of producers and processors, so for example, if we have two companies who come back, we structure it for two. If we have 20, we structure it for 20. It's up to them to see if the opportunity makes sense to them." Those opportunities have taken place in such far-flung locales as China, France, the Middle East and the UK.

But Ruddock doesn't want to just promote Nova Scotian food to an international market, she believes that ToNS should also speak to Nova Scotians. "When I started working for Taste of Nova Scotia, we had ticketed dinners, which were priced around $75 per person," she says. "On my way to one of them, I stopped in traffic next to a family of three, and I thought, 'This dinner has no relevance to these people, whatsoever,' and I wanted to stop doing things that aren't relevant to the average Nova Scotian family. I want our products to be promoted to the average person."

Last year, ToNS teamed up with Tall Ships 2012 and provided food at the event through locally food focused vendors. "People were blown away that we had all this in Nova Scotia," says Christine White, the director of communications and events for ToNS. "For us, Tall Ships was an epiphany that we got to a place where there was a price point for everyone."

Most recently, ToNS went around Ontario with a food truck called the Nova Scotia Eatery, serving lobster rolls, fresh haddock burgers and blueberry lemonade. "We saw these as our Nova Scotia signature items," says Ruddock. So far, the Eatery had sold over 1,000 lobster rolls at various fairs and events in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and London. "We chose festivals all around Ontario so we could be in front of as many eyeballs as possible," she says.

Another strategy ToNS has worked on over the past few years is in the use of its logo as an emblem of quality in restaurants and on certain products created by local artisans and producers. The logo isn't only a symbol of local pride, but an ambassador of Nova Scotian terroir to its consumers out of province. To obtain the use of this logo, businesses go through a screening process that includes such things as demonstrating using a minimum of 40 percent local products on their menus, being wholly owned in Nova Scotia, as well as how they promote the products.

"It is not a come one and come all for the restaurants and not everybody gets approved," says Ruddock.

Products that bear the ToNS logo go through their own application process, which details everything from food and safety handling, to sourcing of ingredients as well as onsite visits. In the case of a product that sources its main ingredient(s) from outside of the province, the board may look at whether the value-added is made or processed in the province. "For example, we have Just Us! coffee," says Ruddock. "And we haven't been growing coffee beans here, but the value added is done here, so just the raw product comes here. And it is produced here, and marketed here, all of the profit returns back to Nova Scotia and Nova Scotians, so we use that stipulation, and use that to ensure that all the value added is done in Nova Scotia."

Although Just Us! may begin with an international starting point, the real success stories are arguably those that finish at international destinations. Van Dyk's Wild Blueberry Juice, based out of Caledonia, is an example of a product that has found very specific markets outside of this province. "When we started, we knew we would have to sell outside of Nova Scotia," says Randy MacDonald, the business manager for Van Dyk's Health Juice Products Ltd. "Our international market is the highest-growing one."

Van Dyk's currently sells its products across the province and the country in such retailers as Loblaw and Sobeys. MacDonald says that 85 percent of the product goes outside of the province, and 15 percent of that goes to the international market to such places as Taiwan, China, Japan and South Korea. "The export market is where the growth is for us."

A couple years ago, ToNS and Van Dyk participated at the Fancy Food Fair in New York City. It was there that the owner of Fairview Markets, an upscale retail merchant discovered and "fell in love" with the juice and decided he wanted it in his stores. Fast forward to February of 2011, and Florence Fabricant of The New York Times is mentioning the "rich, intense Van Dyk's Wild Blueberry Juice from Nova Scotia." Interest in the product picked up, and continues to grow.

Currently, Ruddock's logo is found on dozens of products from wine to salty caramel spreads. "We have been working really hard for the last five years that the logo means something," says Ruddock, "and that the consumer can have an enormous amount of confidence that the product has been vetted."

But sometimes the taste of Nova Scotia is more than just a name or a logo. Sometimes it's an idea, a concept and a selling point. When it comes to seafood, it can mean having clients who are willing to pay more for your product because it is from Nova Scotia. Nick Budreski knows this. He runs CANESP, a seafood distributor, and is a partner in waterfront oyster bar The Shack. He sells all sorts of seafood to all sorts of places, including oysters to New York's Le Cirque, and tuna to Japan.

"There is no question that there is a positive connotation between seafood and Nova Scotia," he says. "People want to make sure that what they get is from here. In Toronto, the fact that they can say they can get albacore or bay scallops or oysters from here is great." Budreski sells seafood from all over Atlantic Canada, but right now, it's all about oysters. "I have sold them to people who have tried oysters from all over the world and find that Atlantic Canadian oysters are some of the best of the world."

Of those, the ones that stand out right now are Black Point oysters, from Pictou.

Budreski is pretty discerning about what he buys. If you're a small-time buyer and distributor, it only makes sense to offer the best. For him, part of that is educating both himself and the people he buys from about how to maintain the best quality for the best price. "Certain products don't have the same variability in quality," he points out that with lobsters, oysters and salmon, the degrees of variability in quality are much smaller. Tuna, however, is a different story. "On the international market, there is this perception that there has to be a further refinement. It's not a slam-dunk."

The Japanese market for tuna is full of high prices and high volumes. But it's also an exacting market. He describes how he once saw a tuna that had been caught and dragged behind a boat. It had released lactic acid into its musculature as it fought to get free. When the animal was cut open, the flesh of the tuna had been cooked by the acid. It was worthless.

But things have changed. Budreski is seeing how fishers treat their product now that they know what kind of price it can fetch if properly handled. He describes how when tuna's caught, fishers have to be careful in how they reel it in, as well as how they kill and lay the animal so that the minimum amount of damage is done: "If you hook a tuna in its belly when you're bringing it aboard, you've possibly lost anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of your fish, and a possibly larger portion of the price attainable for its sale."

No matter who the client---whether it's his own business on the waterfront with Renée Lavallée, a Japanese client or a Toronto-based restaurant---Budreski still has to get fish, just like everyone else. However, his buying power is small compared to larger companies, so it can be a little problematic for him and the people he buys from.

"If you're a fisherman, you want to sell to the most efficient market," he explains. "So you get small vendors like me who only want a small amount. The problem with that is that the fisherman is now doing extra work for me to take a bit aside." But he believes that "extra work" can become a benefit rather than an issue for everyone from the person he buys the fish from, to the people he sells the fish to.

Budreski has made some inroads with certain companies (his father sells cultivated mussels, and he likes to joke that he's his dad's biggest client), it can be a tough slog for the little guy. "It's a chicken and egg thing where you have to go through the tough time to grow the market," he says. But he believes that it is a market worth growing, if only for the quality of seafood available here.

"Right now there is a ridiculous amount of blue fin tuna going to Japan," says Budreski. "Why? Because it is some of the best quality in the world. Our uni"---sea urchin roe---"is small, but it is some of the best quality of the world. Once you show that the good stuff is out there, it is addictive. You know how good it can be."

Now more and more people inside and outside of this country are discovering how good it can be. "You see the other products, and you know you're in the upper echelon," says Taste of Nova Scotia's Janice Ruddock with pride. And she's right. Nova Scotia is no longer a quiet secret traded amongst a culinary cognoscenti. The secret is out, and it's time for everyone to know. Nova Scotian food producers are selling their wares within their own province and out to the world. However, there may still be a bit of work to be done at home. "Nova Scotia has a mystique about it," says Ruddock. "When you go outside, it has excellent brand awareness. But we may have a hard time appreciating it when we're here and living it."

But with organizations like Select NS and ToNS---and a growing number of local producers, farmers and processors producing internationally recognized and sought-after products---the future looks bright for Nova Scotia as a gastronomical delight, both for those who live within its borders, and those outside them. And there's enough for everyone.

Simon Thibault is a food writer and journalist, a Coast contributor and radio producer in Halifax.

Picnic in the Past
Saturday July 20 and Sunday July 21 10am-5pm, $15/$10
Georges Island

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