"Going out on a mushroom-hunting foray with Vaughn," a fellow visitor to Trout Point Lodge says to me at lunch, "is like stepping delicately through a minefield." He gets up from the table--temporarily abandoning his roasted garlic soup, a very hard thing to do--and hops from foot to foot to demonstrate. "You have to pick your way through the mosses and ferns, careful not to step on some precious thing, and Vaughn will swoop in triumphantly with a cluster of cèpes in his hand, or something else only he will recognize."
By Vaughn, he means Vaughn Perret, who opened Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia last summer with his partners Charles Leary and Daniel Abel. An extraordinary combination of inn, restaurant, dairy farm, cooking school and wilderness retreat, the lodge sits on 200 acres that are next to a wilderness preserve--which is itself adjacent to Kejimikujik, a huge national park where the stands of old-growth timber are protected from loggers and miners.
"Vaughn's a lawyer, but he should have been a botanist," Leary says, poking his head out of the kitchen. And to prove his point, the two men gather up the guests after lunch and take us for a walk to point out what they're growing on the grounds: an herb garden at the front of the lodge, a blueberry patch and raspberry thatch in the back. We wander out to the lawn that slopes down to the Tusket River, flowing by only a few yards from the lodge. All around are beeches and birches and maples and spruces growing in uncontrolled profusion among streams that are drinking-quality clear. The lodge fits so seamlessly into the landscape that it seems to have always been there. Constructed from giant eastern spruce logs, chiseled granite and sandstone, it was built in the style of the Great Camps erected along the eastern seaboard of North America in the early twentieth century. The 10 guest suites have a similarly haute-rustic style--tables and chairs made of tree branches, deep sofas, handsome stone fireplaces, antique lamps and warm, richly colored rugs and blankets.
We go back inside and into the kitchen, a large room with three different cooking stations and gleaming countertops, big enough for at least a dozen people. Which is partly the point. The lodge offers "culinary vacations," where guests can spend a morning with Perret gathering mushrooms or fiddleheads, or visiting local lobster pounds, smokehouses, oyster farms and clam beds. Leary, the cheesemaker, often takes visitors on the 40-minute drive to the seaside adjunct, a dairy farm called La Ferme de l'Acadie on the nearby Chebogue Peninsula, to observe the cheesemaking operation and pick up some chèvre or a wheel of blue.
Afterward, the cooking students use the ingredients they gathered to make supper under the instruction of either visiting chefs or the lodge's three partners and Sharon Doucette, a specialist in Acadian cuisine who helps manage the lodge and creamery. Perret's passions are seafood and "wild foods," such as sea beans and mushrooms. Leary lived in China for several years, which influences his choice of dishes. And Abel, who grew up working in Cajun restaurants, specializes in Cajun and Creole cuisines.
How did three Americans, who between them acquired a cluster of academic degrees in subjects ranging from Chinese history and linguistics to law and cultural anthropology, end up as chefs, innkeepers, cheesemakers and cooking teachers in Canada? Their story starts in Louisiana: In 1990, the three men bought land near New Orleans that had never been farmed (and therefore had not been exposed to pesticides) to start Chicory Farm, which supplied the best restaurants in New Orleans with organic mushrooms and unusual salad greens, such as wild sorrel and greenbrier shoots. After a while, they bought some goats and sheep to start a dairy operation, whose cheeses were served by top New York City restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Picholine. From there it seemed like a short step to open Chicory Farm Café, a Creole vegetarian restaurant in New Orleans that was widely praised.
The trio had a farm, a creamery and a restaurant, but to create a wilderness retreat that also included an inn and a cooking school, they had to move to Nova Scotia. This Canadian maritime province still offers pristine land at attractive prices, and its access to fresh seafood and produce is unsurpassed in North America. Plus, there is "the Cajun connection," as Abel explains succinctly. In the eighteenth century, the British expelled the French-speaking Catholics from Nova Scotia, then known as Acadia, or l'Acadie in French. Many of them ended up in Louisiana and became known as Cajuns (from "Acadians"). A close emotional connection persists between the two communities.
The menu at Trout Point Lodge reflects this bond. Louisiana dishes like smoked fish jambalaya get as much emphasis as Nova Scotia specialties, such as Rappie Pie, a traditional Acadian dish of scallops and clams baked between layers of grated potatoes.
But more than anything, the owners are inspired by the fresh ingredients around them. On the kitchen counter is a chèvre from the farm. I pick up a knife and scoop off a piece. It is silky-smooth, unexpectedly creamy.
"Supper," Perret says. He points at a bunch of fennel in a rinsing sink. "We'll roast the fennel for a warm chèvre and fennel salad."
"Try the blue," Leary urges, shaving a slice from a wheel. It is mature, aged for two years, every bit as good as a high-end Stilton. The cheese is made from unpasteurized local milk and from molds that exist naturally on the farm, giving the cheese a unique character.
"What else for supper?" I ask, still thinking of my substantial lunch.
"We have some fresh salmon, not from our own river but local," Perret says. "We'll grill them rare, with a red wine reduction."
"That's all?" I ask, facetiously, already thinking it was time for another serious hike in the woods.
"Oh, no," he says, grinning. "We like all our guests to walk away from the table knowing they've had a real meal. Danny will make a wild duck étouffée. One of our neighbors gave us a pair of ducks from the marshes near Chebogue. And the glades around here are a carpet of blueberries, so we'll make a blueberry bread pudding..."
"Should do," I say. Off to the right, a small bridge leads to an island in the Tusket River where there are glades perfect for an afternoon snooze. Or perhaps I'll spend an hour or two with a book from the lodge's library--Trout Point is a retreat, so there are no television sets on the property or phones in the rooms. I think of my comfortable room and remember that the loudest noise I heard at night was the gurgling of the river. I think of the sandstone fireplaces in the Great Room, which would chase the chill on a rainy day. I think of the aging-room at the dairy farm with its racks of blue cheese, and the nearby marshes where Perret gathers mussels and clams. Then I think of that blueberry bread pudding.
"Oh, it'll do," I say again.
Marq de Villiers, who lives in Nova Scotia, is the author, most recently, of Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource.