The fact that restaurant dining and travel has changed over the past couple of years is an ever-present part of our lives. That coulda/woulda/shoulda feeling washes over me when I think of the places I didn’t visit because I thought: there is always next time. Well, the sting of this thought is only soothed when I pick up a cookbook to vicariously enjoy whatever I’ve missed. One of the cookbooks published this year, Bite House: Cooking on Cape Breton Island by Bryan Picard, offers the home cook a way to enjoy this renowned restaurant despite the limitations of the pandemic. Pandemic, not withstanding, the fact that the 2020 bookings for Bite House filled up in less than a minute goes to show its popularity but also cements the fact that if you can’t enjoy an in-dining experience there, you always have the cookbook.
Cape Breton Island is one of the most beautiful places in Nova Scotia (quite possibly in all of Canada), and part of the experience of cooking from the book is being able to indirectly enjoy this place through the playlist, notes, ingredients, and photographs. Picard also gives a detailed list of producers whose delectable goods end up on the tables (along with the skillfully made pottery and wooden plates) in Bite House and whose efforts have been woven into this community that Picard has fostered. I love that the first dozen pages of the book are dedicated to photographs of Picard’s century-old farmhouse that houses the 16-seat restaurant as well as being his home. There are beautiful photos of places around Big Baddeck (where the farmhouse is located) as well as images of flora and fauna. Part of what I think makes Bite House so special is the natural and remote beauty of Cape Breton, which Picard captures so well.
Is it strange that I’m drawn to a cookbook in which most of the recipes use meat/poultry/seafood/fish while being a vegetarian? In the case of the Bite House cookbook, I would tell you that it’s not strange because I’ve found the recipes to be more of a guide. Bite House is a restaurant that lets the terrain and season speak to how a dish or recipe should be composed rather than being technique driven. Seasonal flavours and textures are fleeting, and at times delicate, and as I flip through the cookbook and look at the pictures of each dish, I see them composed in beautiful and minimal ways. The ingredients are prepared in a way to maximize flavour without being overly processed. There is a humbleness to Picard’s approach, a reverence shown to the ingredients and to the place.
One of the recipes that has become a fast favourite are the Buckwheat Pancakes — or ploye — an Acadian pancake made with buckwheat flour and cooked on only one side. Rooted in New Brunswick (where Picard is from) and Nova Scotia, the ploye are also popular in Maine. While he made his smaller and served them topped with snow crab and chives, I made mine a little bigger and served them for breakfast (my daughter has also taken to requesting them in her lunch). I like that I can make parts of recipes without worrying about not making the whole recipe — in this way, I understand the unfussy vibe Picard is aiming at.
As some of you already know, my husband firmly believes in the motto: If it’s not chocolate, it’s not dessert, so I knew that baking the Buttermilk Pie Brulée recipe was risky. I was strategic in my planning because I chose to make it for (Canadian) Thanksgiving (if you’re not having a pie at this holiday, then what are you even doing?). This is a classic custard pie made with buttermilk, sugar, heavy cream, cornstarch, eggs, and yolks and when it’s finished baking, the top gets torched so that it develops that noteworthy charred (brulée) top. Since I don’t own a kitchen torch, I just stuck the pie under the broiler and was still able to achieve a nicely mottled top. Definitely not too sweet with the best tang from the buttermilk, it came as a shock to me how much my husband loved the pie — my daughter too. I just served it as-is, but Picard also offers the suggestion of serving it garnished with fruits in syrup.
My friend, Melody Hillman (whose beautiful ceramic pieces grace the pages of the Bite House book), has eaten at the restaurant and spoken fondly of how delicious the bread is, which inspired me to give the recipe for Rye & Flax Sourdough a try, along with the Bee Pollen Butter. Such a hearty and toothsome boule — it tasted great slathered in the creamy and earthy buttermilk-whipped butter and bee pollen. While Melody was correct about how wonderful this bread is, I fell head-over-heels for the Brioche Buns. Delightful in their butteriness, these buns are perfect. With soup, as a vehicle for a veggie burger, or as a snack — these buns taste great. So much so that I’ve already baked 2.5 dozen!
The experience of a cookbook is so crucial, especially when a book is trying to convey what it’s like to dine-in at a restaurant. Bryan Picard has done such a wonderful job of giving the Bite House experience to the home cook. With almost 50 recipes, organized by season and using uniquely local produce.
(Note: I purchased my copy of Bite House: Cooking on Cape Breton Island from the Bite House website here. If you’re looking to purchase some of Melody Hillman’s beautiful work, then mark November 27, 2021 on your calendars! She’ll be at the Holiday Handmade Market at Seven Bays (Gottingen Street) from 4-8pm along with some other really amazing makers and crafters!)