Blog by: Colette O’Hara
It was a routine summer occurrence in my house when I was growing up. The phone would ring and on the other end would be my grandmother calling to tell my mom that they had an overflow of beans, peas, potatoes, tomatoes or raspberries. Did we want any? Which really meant that if we didn’t take them, they were likely to go to waste.
For me, home-grown, sun-drenched, well-loved fruits and vegetables was just part of summer in the Annapolis Valley. This produce was so organic we didn’t even know to call it organic. Truth be told, it didn’t feel very special as a teenaged kid. Even more truthfully, it often felt like a bit of a nuisance. More green beans?! Twenty years later and I frequently find myself scavenging the markets, paying top dollar for organic goods. People don’t just drop off a bounty at your back door like they once did.
So when my mom and I visited the Digby Pines for supper and brunch, I was beyond delighted to hear about how executive chef Dale Nichols sources much of his summer produce.
“Most of what we serve comes from locals who are only a few minutes down the road,” he explains. “Murray, from around the corner just brought me 20 pounds of plums and Louis, who gardens in his backyard will show up with strawberries, zucchini, beans and romaine lettuce. Very few people know just how much we have access to around here.”
This large dining room, that could more easily and more predictably have its produce delivered via a food supply truck, sources the vast majority of its summer produce from local residents who simply grow more tomatoes or zucchini in their home garden than they can personally consume. Sometimes they call ahead of time, other times they just show up at the restaurant with a carload of gems to see if Dale wants what they’ve got. This is sourcing local and “organic” eating in the way my grandparents used to do it.
Nearly every time someone calls, Dale takes their harvest, knowing that he’ll find a way to use whatever they have. Sometimes he and his team create a dinner special, other times the goodies appear at the breakfast buffet, like the beautiful bowl of high-bush blueberries that were there the morning we ate in the restaurant.
This approach felt really special to me. Maybe it made me a bit nostalgic, perhaps I found it idyllic, but as Dale spoke nonchalantly about his 10 pm surprise deliveries from his friend Louis, I was enamored. Despite sitting in a beautiful, grand dining room filled with dozens of diners, I felt as though I was eating in a farm kitchen, enjoying a beautifully-prepared meal that just came from the backyard garden.
Our meals were exquisite. Each ingredient was used in a manner that allowed it to shine. In my appetizer of crostini with Hug Your Nanny goat cheese and Tiny Tim tomatoes, each element was presented separately, ensuring that you could experience the flavours independently and together. The tomatoes couldn’t have been any brighter or sweeter than if I had gone to the vine and picked them myself.
My mom’s appetizer, Scallaps Natasha, featured Digby’s signature scallop prepared with a delicious juniper-laced tomato cream and served in a scallop shell, topped with puff pastry. Both the presentation and the taste were simply perfect.
For our main, my mom and I both had the 100-Kilometre Experience, which includes only ingredients that can be sourced within 100-kilometres of the restaurant. This dish is always on the menu, but the plate changes from season-to-season, week-to-week as different local produce becomes available. The centerpiece of this dish was the Thousand Hills free range chicken that was simply prepared with a delicious crispy skin. The dish was both beautiful to view and to eat.
Every bite of our entire meal was pure pleasure. But the highlight of was our company. We were extremely fortunate to have Chef Dale dine with us that evening. Over the course of the night, he talked about his impressive career, his commitment to training the next generation of chefs and the disciplined, low-drama manner in which he runs his kitchen.
Dale isn’t a showy chef. In fact, he likely hasn’t appeared on many Nova Scotians’ radars, and he’s unnecessarily humble. But he is without a doubt one of the finest chefs I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And the Digby Pines is one of the finest restaurants I’ve dined in…anywhere in the world.
My family has lived in the Annapolis Valley for more than 25 years and until this visit, I had never been to the Digby Pines. Shameful, really. But I can promise that I will be in a hurry to get back. My memories of our overnight getaway and our meals at Churchill’s Restaurant are warm, wonderful and lasting.