Cape Breton pt 4: Miners, Mussels & Marriage

hungover & dorky = good times

We went to Glace Bay last weekend to attend a wedding, with a full day before the ceremony to play tourist & get a feel for the town.  There are a number of museums there, but we skipped those and even Chicken Shack to go see the Miner’s Museum – stark and quiet at the edge of the water – and signed on for a tour in a real mineshaft 80 feet under the earth.

I was excited, but here’s the thing: mining is not in any way a heart-warming topic.  It’s actually pretty depressing, and I didn’t even know how difficult the life was in any intimate way until effusive storyteller Abby Michalik opened his mouth to speak and my blood stood at attention and the fatigue fell from my head and the story of mining – the real story of a man born into it like his father and uncles before him and still living it as a tour guide now – unfolded before me.  I’m not gonna try to impress upon you the coolness of the experience, actually, I just realized.  It wouldn’t work.  Suffice to say, I’m glad we got this guy to walk us around.  He was in Pit Pony and Margaret’s Museum, too, though he assured us he was no celebrity.

Turns out, back in 1903 the town of Glace Bay used to hold 30,000 residents, and 1,200 miners all under the exploitive thumb of the Dominion Coal Company (DOSCO) that received a 100 year lease from the Canadian government in 1894 on the sprawling veins of coal that extend out in eight layers under the Atlantic ocean.  They sent men down there to work and die in unstable shafts of blackness and gouged them for every possible scrap – all the town was owned by the Company and once hopeful immigrants landed looking for this promised equitable working man’s dream job, the hammer dropped down and they were trapped siphoning their paycheque off back to their employer just to get the basic amenities to survive.  It was, at it’s worse, more unfair than slavery, since they essentially worked solely on commission earning only 68c per tonne of coal sent eight miles up to the surface, and some like Abby’s family never seemed to make quite enough to eat properly or indeed live in a real house.

Yeah… Abby lived in a house made of outhouse planks.  For true!  His grandpa was super enterprising and bought all the lumber from the leftover loos in Glace Bay when the Company decided to install indoor plumbing in the sponsored houses and he built himself his own home – albeit one with huge gaps between the slats in the floor and no insulation and a funny smell.  Makes for a good story later, but essentially this is depressing stuff, no?  Oh, and is this when I tell you that the very coastline itself – in this town and others – is also crumbling into the sea, slowly but surely and taking houses with it in the landslides?  Jeez, this waterfront living stuff is pretty intense sometimes, not just ice cream shacks and wildflowers.

After a dank & dark (and yet awesome) tour like that we needed some cozy lunch like crazy, and thankfully there’s this uber-quaint restaurant that’s right on the museum grounds.  We warmed our bones with streams of black tea, some hot clam chowder, turkey, french fries, gravy, and fresh steamed mussels that were lyrical as mussels always are when they’re simply prepared, and felt really lucky for everything we had.  Got dressed up for a wedding.  Celebrated.  Reception-danced!  (congrats M & M!)

Cape Breton trip Pt 3: magic is crowning a shortcake with entirely foraged berries.

I went berry picking today, and if that’s putting it mildly, you haven’t been berry picking before.  At least, when you’re off the grid in the Judique woods and fending off errant wasps and trap-door spiders to get at the luscious midnight-black globules of forest candy you’re after… well, it feels like a bit of a triumph.  And moreso when you can use those berries in a hairspin turn just half a day later for a birthday girl who’s letting you stay on her lovely forest property.  We found them all, man… midst the birch trees and dayglo mosses and thorn bushes.

Blackberries, blueberries, rose-raspberries, juniper berries (not featured in the cake, mind you), and I even found a use for these teeny eeny red dots with pasty insides called teaberries.  Those got turned into a syrup that justified my forager’s belief in their not immediately apparent deliciousness.  A bit of honey and lemon and straining and boiling – and I do mean a bit – turned them into the nicest cake drizzle for a cream cake.  So natural and, well, tea-like.

I just gotta mention here – this is like, a normal backyard in Judique.

Cake itself?  A MIX from a BOX.  Ah-ha, yes, it was.  (Betty Crocker AGAIN, oh my lard). Gluten free constraints and a limited kitchen, plus being a guest, means deferring where it’s appropriate and taking the simple path more often than not.  The mix was mostly rice flour, sugar, and xanthan gum as far as I could tell, but if pressed in the future, and with my own pantry at my disposal, I would probably go for an egg white raised hazelnut sponge or something like that.  Which isn’t to say that it didn’t play the part of a biscuit rather well.  It did.  And I trusted that mix to carry the floofy clouds of whipped Breton cream and homemade golden meringue crumbs that I wrapped all around it, .. and the macerated Quebec strawberries, and the forest berries, and the syrup.  No probs.

It was rather a triumph of theme, and I think it’s becoming apparent that my favourite cake to give to people is a whipped cream and fruit thing.  Decadence has it’s place, but if anything’s become my calling card over the years, this is it.  Well, that and jammy jars, but that’s another story and another style of fruit obsession…..

Oh yeah.  And we found a Millenium Falcon.

For more photos, check out the Flickr set.

Cape Breton trip Pt 2: Butterscotch pudding, Hootenany-ing, and the most beautiful beach in the world.

There are enormous windows around me letting the virulent green of pine trees into my morning, rain drip-dripping on grey earth, like the waters rising up from the very Atlantic to say hello to this out-of-town newcomer.  We’re staying in the Ninja’s mother’s bedroom right now, though I think at first opportunity I’d like to return it back to her and see if we can’t camp out in the saffron yellow guest room.  I always hate displacing people from their space, but it’s also kinda important to let them give you something first thing as you walk in the door.  Personally, I’m wont to offer still-warm biscuits, but that’s just me. ;)

My very first night in Cape Breton was kind of akin to being thrown fully clothed in the ocean, if by ocean I actually should have said country dance with a live performance by blues-er Matt Minglewood in a tennis court populated by this whole small town, about 30% is related to my boyfriend in some way and 90% of whom are druuuuuunk.   I was also drunk.  Tee!  It was AWESOME.  And people here dance, like *really* dance, from the core of their being, just having fun, it’s great.  I got showed around a bit, “oh, this is the girlfriend?” and generally felt like an inadvertent city girl, but surreality aside, it was one of the most unique saturday nights I’ve had in ages.  Reminds me terribly of the four years I spent living in rural Ontario, but…. different.

Later, after nursing some mild hangovers, we went to Little Judique Harbour for a shot of paradise and even got all totally nudist on some remote and private wave-crashing rock-lagoon.  Ocean swimming ensued naturally, and after all that, we worked up a powerful hunger but were too lazy to really make food (like this 3$ blood sausage I picked up at the one food co-op for miles around), so we just ate peanut noodles instead.

His mom is gluten free, so my busy fingers are on a particular mission and I found a stash of old Betty Crocker cookbooks that seemed a reasonable way to kill time and wait for my hair to dry off.  Aging bananas on the counter led me banana bread thoughts.. and then Australian banana cake… but then!  Oh, Betty Crocker, thank heavens for your comprehensive scope – I found a basic recipe for vanilla pudding (something totally missing from my iPod recipe database), turned it into a butterscotch pudding, and caramelized those bananas with whiskey and poured it on top.  Ahhhhh time well spent.  (Ed’s note: caramelized stuff + butterscotch turned out to be a bit sweet – who would have guessed? – so I’m not suggesting that you do what I did with the bananas.  The pudding is great though, that gets a pass on it’s own!)

I really don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, but there’s a strawberry birthday cake to make for Tuesday (also gluten free), and if I can collect enough wild cranberries from the craggy oceanside, I might figure out a way to incorporate those into the mix.

Anyhoo, here’s Betty’s take on the deal, slightly paraphrased:

Butterscotch Pudding

Ingredient ratios from the Betty Crocker cookbook circa pinafore era.  Method by me.

  • 2 cups milk / 500 g
  • 3 tbsp cornstarch / 16 g
  • 2 tbsp softened butter / 30 g
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar / 100 g
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 egg yolks / 40 g
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk the milk and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan to make a smooth slurry.  Heat gently on low until the milk thickens slightly, whisking often and scraping the sides and bottom.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the brown sugar and stir to dissolve.  Heat the mixture to a gentle bubble and cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Gradually whisk in the hot milk & cornstarch.  Take off the heat and let cool slightly, until it feels hot, not burning, to touch..

In a large bowl set over a damp towel, whisk the eggs until liquid.  Strain the hot milk slowly into the eggs, then pour everything back into the pan.  Whisk the mixture on medium heat until it thickens and bubbles appear, then cook for 1 minute more, stirring constantly.

Take off the heat, add the vanilla, pour into serving dishes and chill for at least 4 hours before serving.

For more photos, check out the Flickr set.

Cape Breton trip Pt 1: Sangria muffins & brined chicken sandwiches

Staring out the window, nestled with my whole spinal region melting into a backseat pillow, bumping and floating my way towards Cape Breton… yet another time (a gifted time) where the rigeurs and the rigidity of everyday life are left behind like so many un-needed sneakers and bargain books on silly things like the Kabbalah I’m never going to read anyway.  Not to mention, my job, my house, the city of Montreal, and a regularly scheduled program.

Hello Cape Breton!  Well, hello Edmunston, so far.  I’m here with my love and his brother who’s been so kind to drive us the whole way and have the good taste enough to play Guided By Voices, and Monty Python and CBC.  We left yesterday afternoon, after a good 3 hours of Food Packing (read: AWESOME FUNTIME LIZ-INDULGENCE CAR-PIC-NIC CHEFFERY) and 20 minutes of Regular Things Packing (yes, I remembered everything.  Underwear, computer,

not vanilla pods but BEANS! Magic garden beans.

toothbrush, check).  On the road, I’ve already discovered that dairy creamers stolen from highway cafes are a cereal addict’s best friend, and that flakey varieties of cereal are verily muncheable out of anything kinda resembling a bowl, and with chopsticks no less.  I have dreamy plans of making a sticky toffee pudding for my BF’s toffee loving mom-with-a-birthday-on-Tuesday (which will bring the heritage score to Brits: a zillion / Scots: well, also a zillion).

The trick is to use cardboard as a plate. S.M.R.T.

But, being a food-centered blog, I’d be remiss to skip a bit of recap on the car-picnic making action.  It wasn’t hard at all, really.  I needed to rescue some things, so I harvested the last of our current vegetable garden production to twizzle together some ace & spicy peanut noodles with fried peanuts and summer beans and mint.  Haven’t even cracked that yet (it’s still in the motel fridge), but we for SURE started into the mega pesto chicken sandwich of Awesome.  The pesto was also a bit of a garden rescue, after I plucked all the tops off our basil plants and cradled the crunchy leaves in my fists all the way to the kitchen to make that most luridly green spread.  I brined two chicken breasts overnight in a salt and sugar solution.

PS, How to Brine a Chicken Breast:

take: 1 quart of water / 4 cups

1/2 cup sea salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 chicken breasts (about 1.5 pounds, bone in, but really whatever will fit in the water)

…. let it sit in the brine solution for 6 hours, or overnight, then cook as usual.  SO MADNESS JUICY, OMG.  Thank you Serious Eats yet again for your so useful secrets.

Once chicken is roasted, get all the meat parts off the bone, then mix with the fresh pesto, spread a big rosemary foccacia on both sides with thick herbed tzatziki, and mound things in this order: Bread, spread, 2 tbsp finely chopped kalamata olives, 3 tbsp finely diced marinated red onions, 1 big avocado sliced thick, salt & lemon, pesto chicken, tomatoes, and fresh spinach dressed with a bit more lemon & salt & olive oil.  Wrap the whole thing tight in plastic and press it tight for a while (I just packed it on the bottom of the bag, under a flat book that ended up doubling as a totally essential cutting board).  YUM.

I threw some meat pies I made a long time in the oven, too (I love my freezer stash).  They were kind of a riff on a pastilla pastry, which is usually made with chicken (I used lamb instead), but the idea of finely shredded meat cooked with lots of butter, fried almonds, cumin, cinnamon and onions, until it tastes like something sultans should eat, then that’s tucked into a crisp-but-sturdy cornmeal pastry shell, and these are so addictive, man, seriously… wow.

Also convenient: I invented a muffin! Well, sort of.  It’s got a cute name.  I ran out of milk while making blueberry granola muffins so I subbed in some sangria I made the other day and it worked SO WELL.  Yes, there is technically rum in those muffins.  And, 80% whole wheat flour, although you’d never be able to tell, they are fluffy as heck.  I’m a huge fan of using granola in muffins, it just seems to give it a texture and taste that totally distinguishes it from cake in any form – craggy and hearty and toasted-sweet, and it never gets claggy the way using straight oats does sometimes.  I even have the recipe memorized, oho.

don’t forget to bring your road-knife!

Blueberry Sangr-ianola Muffins

2 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup granola

3/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground ginger

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

1 1/2 cups sangria (you can use orange juice instead, of course!)

1 tsp vanilla

1/3 cup mild oil

1 1/2 cups blueberries, or a mix of blueberries and peaches

3/4 cup granola (for topping)


1.  Preheat oven to 400 F.  Line a muffin tray with papers, or grease the cups.

2. In a large bowl, stir together the wet ingredients (sugar through oil).  In a medium bowl, sift together the dry ingredients (flour through granola).  In another bowl, put all your fruit in that, and toss with 1 tbsp of flour – this ensures that the fruit stays suspended in the batter and doesn’t sink to the bottom.

3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir just enough to combine.  Fill 12 muffins cups high with batter – there will be lots – sprinkle with the 3/4 cup granola and bake until they are firm, golden and toasty.  18-22 minutes perhaps, but check after 15 minutes because every oven is different, and don’t forget to rotate the pan.

Guess that’s it for now.  Now I’m just contemplating the wonders that is the potential complementary breakfast at a motel, and if I should maybe with pour myself another nice bowl of Frosted Flakes and eat it outside in the surprisingly chilly pre-dawn air in the parking lot overlooking the vista of Edmunston.   More updates later!