Down North! – Cape Breton Community Food North of Smokey

Fresh caught local mackerel destined for fish cakes at the Periwinkle Cafe (photo taken by  Caitlyn Purcell of Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Cafe)

If you call it “Up North” the locals know you’re not from here. “Up North is Nunavut!” laughs Yvette Rogers. “You know why they call it Down North? Because that’s the way the water flows. So when you head north, the water takes you down”. In a place where a bulk of the food has come from the sea, it seems to make perfect sense. The region called, “North of Smokey”, includes everything between Smokey Mountain and North Mountain.

And who are the locals? Besides those that have lived down north for generations, there is the wave of back-to-the-landers that brought with them a passion for homesteading. You see the remnants of this movement today, but there is a new wave of young folk trying to make a go of it. I asked a couple of locals, new and old, what the food system looks like in their region.

Brenna Phillips, chef at Periwinkle Cafe (taken by Sherri Poirier of Pear Tree Photography)

“What’s great about the food scene in this area is the do it yourself approach,” says “new” local, Brenna Phillips,  “Driving around you see a lot of well looked after container gardens, green houses, vegetable beds.  People seem to enjoy the slow pace here by growing their own food.  As in many areas, there is usually abundance from these “hobby” gardens and people are quick to share.  Numerous times last summer I would receive a knock at the back door and find a neighbour or friend with a bundle or bushel or basket of something they had grown.  There isn’t a huge commercial market for fresh produce or even fish which is a real shame, but the community enjoys the local fare all the same.”

“What is challenging is accessing local and fresh food on a regular basis.  The grocery store does not carry local produce, fish, or meat.  Our Farmers Market runs for only half of the year, and there are very few gardeners or farmers producing and selling on a commercial scale.  In fact only two tables at the Framers Market out of 20 are fresh food.”

Brenna is the chef at the Periwinkle Cafe in Ingonish. The Periwinkle Café has been a welcome addition to the food scene, along with their annual event, Winkle Fest. Want to camp out north of Smokey while enjoying live music and tasting the wares of local chefs? Check it out this fall!

Freshly baked and local at the Periwinkle Cafe ((photo taken by  Caitlyn Purcell of Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Cafe)

Claudia Gahlinger is a farmer and a food champion. She was instrumental in getting the Cape North Farmer’s Market off the ground, along with various spin-off projects such as the North Highlands Orchard Project. This past year the community had its first harvest from the 180 highbush blueberry bushes that were planted in Bay St. Lawrence three years ago. They have also purchased a community cider press to make use of all of the old orchards and wild berries. Next up? Maybe a community greenhouse to extend the seasonal availability of fresh, local foods.


Farm stand at the Cape North Farmer’s Market (photo by Brenna Phillips)

Claudia also started the Donkeys for Northern Cape Breton project at South Harbour Farm, which has raised almost $5000 to bring the first 2 donkeys to the area. Work has begun on clearing and fencing land, and building a barn. They have networked with donkey breeders and owners in the Maritimes and beyond in preparation.

According to Claudia, “For high quality, natural fresh food in season – seafood, wild fruits and foraged foods, local eggs, garden produce – nothing surpasses northern Cape Breton. But quantity and consistent availability, production, distribution and access to this food, are ongoing challenges, for many reasons. A shrinking population, a shortage of people to do the work of farming, especially young people with strong backs and an interest in the land, are all part of the challenge. Generally, most seafood is exported, while other foods are shared or bartered. South Harbour Farm is the only farm/market garden (that I’m aware of) in the regi

on. The Cape North Farmers Market is an effort to inspire more producers by offering an affordable, fun gathering spot for them and shoppers. It’s been a huge success.”

Other interesting food businesses and supporters of local food in the area:

Jody Nelson is the Community Food Coordinator for Cape Breton with the Our Food Project of the Ecology Action Centre.

Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre
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