Nora Didkowsky - Nova Scotia Has Something for Everyone!

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

On the eastern tip of Canada lies the province of Nova Scotia. This touristic gem of Canada is less known among the Europeans, although it is second-most densely populated province and the most populous of Canada’s three Maritime provinces and four Atlantic provinces.

Nova Scotia offers beautiful culture, stunning scenery and gorgeous coastline, boasts many heritage museums and music festivals, has 87 national historic sites and is the first certified UNESCO Starlight Tourist Destination. In our new project on gastronomic memories and stories told by friends worldwide, we start with Nova Scotia’s bright-smiling foodie Nora Didkowsky who is telling us about her childhood in Nova Scotia, province’s gastronomy, family heritage, and new life in Swiss Alps!

Nora, you are born in Nova Scotia, in a rural setting. Most Europeans envision Canada as a country with vast open and cold spaces. How would you describe the feeling of Nova Scotia in that sense?

Much of Nova Scotia is rural, with rolling hills, dense forests, coastal communities and farm land. As a peninsula, we are almost completely surrounded by the sea. Because of our proximity to the ocean, even during the hottest summer days there is a nice breeze. Our temperatures can sometimes get as low as -30 in the winter and + 30 or more in the summer.

When you get into the rural areas, the night skies are stunning and if you are lucky, you can even see the Northern lights. Our shoreline is quite spectacular - in some places windswept, wild and jagged, and in other places, you’ll find smooth, white sand beaches. I think the province has a special feel and smell - salt water on the breeze closer to the shore, the smell of wafting wild roses, cut grass, and pines more inland. The people are really what makes Nova Scotia feel warm and welcoming. People are friendly, down to earth, like a good laugh, and it isn’t uncommon for tourists to be invited to a kitchen party, or to be welcomed into someone’s home for a cup of tea and a good story. The general pace of life in Nova Scotia, even in the city, is relaxed.

Like most people in Canada, your background is varied. Still, your grandma is a special story. She came from Slovakia, had spectacular life stories, you call her babushka, and you’ve experienced a very Slavic gastronomy background. What did she cook for you when you were little and can you describe the table culture in your home?

Both of my grandmothers were a huge influence in my life. They were both fiery souls who taught me so much about keeping a sense of humour, the value of hard work, and resilience. On my Dad’s side, Babushka was an incredible cook. She would never waste a thing. She was a mushroom encyclopedia and loved to get into the bush to pick edible plants. We couldn’t wait to eat anything Babushka cooked for us. My favorites were ushki, piroshki, Hungarian paprikash, blinchikis, borscht, and sigiliski goulash. Babushka had a strong religious faith, so table culture at her house meant starting with prayer before filling our stomachs.

On my Mom’s side, my Grandma and her family were of Scottish heritage. I still remember that my great great uncles would wear kilts as their everyday clothes. Grandma made the best apple pies, butter tarts, homemade bread, baked beans, stuffed turkey, and biscuits. We are a very large family. Up to 40 of us would and still do get together to cook, play music, dance and eat. Before dinner, always happy hour with a few drinks, and then after dinner, always tea, dessert and more singing. At every meal we go around the table and give thanks, and say what the best part of our day was. We still do this.

Folks in Nova Scotia are crazy for lobster. You have so many lobster dishes and even lobster beer! Additionally, you have a plethora of sea dishes which is understandable because Nova Scotia is so open to the Atlantic Ocean. The largest scallop fishing fleet is located in Digby, and there are variety of ways how the Digby scallops are prepared. In the Bay of Fundy people harvest edible red seaweed that becomes a popular snack. And the Seafood trail in Nova Scotia cannot be traversed without Oyster Trail, which might be one of the most recognisable tastes of the region. Are you a seafood fan and can you tell us more about Nova Scotia’s love with the sea?

I can’t get enough of Nova Scotia’s seafood, which to me tastes the freshest and best of any the world over. I also eat a lot of freshwater and saltwater fish. Even though we are a small province, our coastline spans 7,400 kilometers, we have over 130 rivers, 6700 lakes, and no community in the province is more than 60 kilometres from the ocean. A lot of my favourite comfort foods are seafood based – seafood chowder, muscles in white wine or on the barbeque, lobster cooked on the beach, Digby scallops (you really did your research!). A family friend grows fresh scallops in Chester called Baytender Scallops. I just learned that some fishermen will use the heat from their muffler on their vehicles to quickly cook scallops!

I think as any Maritime location knows, the sea provides, but the sea also takes away. What I mean is, our livlihoods in rural Nova Scotia are largely shaped by fishing, forestry and farming. This kind of work can be difficult and dangerous. Salt water is in our bones, but we also have immense respect for the power of the ocean. There are around 25,000 ship wrecks that lie under the waters off of our rocky coast. You can go diving to explore them. That is why Nova Scotia has so many working lighthouses – about 150, our most famous being Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse.

I grew up in Hants County along the red-mud Bay of Fundy, where we have the highest tides in the world. At Burntcoat Head, tides average 55.8 ft (17.0 m), and can get as high as 70.9 ft (21.6 m). 160 billion tonnes of water rush in and out of the Bay, twice a day. When the tide is coming in, you can tidal bore raft on the rapids. When the tide is out, you can walk on the ocean floor. There are companies which will cook you a 5-course, 5-star meal or lobster dinner, paired with delicious local wines or beer, all to be enjoyed at the same spot as the highest tides, on the ocean floor. It’s pretty special.

Though seafood is more traditional fare here, we also have a lot of great restaurants serving everything from Italian, Greek, Turkish and Mediterranean, to Thai, Ethiopian, and Mongolian. What I really like to see are all of the incredible vegetarian and vegan restaurants getting a strong following. There really is something for everyone.

Not only seafood, but fruits are also well known in your region. Oxford is known as Canada’s wild blueberry capital, and Annapolis Valley is famous for its apples. What the Nova Scotia’s culinary tradition does with fruits, and what are you favourite Canadian fruit?

In my area, wild blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and apples are plentiful. We make a lot of jellies and jams, and pies of course. My favourite ways to cook with our fruits are crumbles and crisps - you need to try blueberry crisp. Also, the best desserts in the spring are strawberry shortcake and rhubarb and strawberry crisp. People also like to make homemade wine with our fruit, which is delicious but dangerous (in a good way)! Also, we can’t forget another delicious product coming from a tree that our province is known for – maple syrup!

We also like to celebrate our fruit! For example, each spring there is an Apple Blossom Festival in the Valley, with food tasting, lives bands and parades. In fact, we like to celebrate a lot. There are over 750 events and festivals each year showcasing our food, music and history. Some other food celebrations to check out would be Rotary Club of Halifax Harbourside’s Ribfest, Digby Scallop Days, the Blueberry Festival, any of the many international food festivals, and in the spring, the Maple Syrup festivals. You can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride to see the tapped trees, and then eat maple syrup candy (maples syrup poured onto snow and then eaten).

Our province has a really vibrant food and music scene. Community-supported agriculture initiatives are happening across the province, and local markets with fresh local produce are abundant. I grew up on a small family farm (Birch Burn Farm) so we learned about planting, weeding, harvesting, and preserving food by doing it together as a family. Recently, a family friend has started a community supported agriculture initiative, using our fields as her home-base. Each of my family members contributes to the modest venture. It is an organic farming and distribution model that connects the producer and consumer more closely, while strengthening community connections, bolstering rural food security, supporting local markets, and preserving biodiversity in agriculture.

If any food would be a signature dish of Nova Scotia, most Canadians would point to the Donair. It is official food of region’s capital, Halifax. Spiced beef, cooked on a spit and shaved onto a pita, doused in a sweet garlic sauce and garnished with tomatoes and raw onions, Donair has its own cult in Halifax. At the same time, you say it is your least favourite food. Why is that and can you describe more about people’s love for Donair?

It is not a stretch to say that a lot of Nova Scotians love Donairs. It is a favourite late night, after-bar, ‘get rid of your hangover’ food. It really has its origins in Greece, but the key Halifax innovation is the spice and the sweet garlicky sauce. I love all of the other elements of the Donair, but the Donair sauce is too sweet for me. But it's no longer a bonafide Halifax Donair without the swee