ANNAPOLIS VALLEY, Nova Scotia — Back in the '80s, Beverly McClare read an article about herb jellies.
"I thought, 'Wow!'" she said. "It created an image in my mind and was a visual thing for me. It just planted a seed."
That seed sprouted, and today McClare and her small staff at the Tangled Garden (902-542-9811, tangledgarden.ns.ca) crank out roughly 100 jars a day of sometimes savory, sometimes hot jellies such as ginger lime thyme, raspberry with lavender, strawberry with tarragon, horseradish and currant thyme. More than 60 varieties, as a matter of fact, along with vinegars and oils, ice creams, honeys, mustards and more.
I visited last summer, and now is a good time to start making plans to catch the fertile Annapolis Valley in high season.
On my visit, McClare had just come in with a pail of currants. Most of the ingredients for her creations come from the 3-acre, herb- and fruit-filled garden that sits out back from the shop, providing a harvest from spring to early winter.
While McClare's business sprouted from an unusual source, the notion of making nature a business partner is a common one in the valley, in the northwestern part of the province.
Drive the length of the valley or wander off the main drag to the coast, and you'll find a wealth of farmers markets, a coffee roaster, a fromagerie and white-tablecloth restaurants. There also are more down-to-earth eats such as at Halls Harbour Lobster Pound (902-679-5299, hallsharbourlobster.com). There you pick out your fresh-caught lobster, if you can bear looking it in the eye, and have it cooked and served to you on an outdoor picnic table where you can see the incredible tides of the Bay of Fundy leave boats sitting on the bottom of the harbor.
And, then there are the wineries. Back about the same time McClare started her herb-infused culinary journey, budding vintners started planting grapes in the valley, whose soil and climate love the fruit of the vine. Today the Annapolis Valley is Nova Scotia's wine country and home to more than a dozen wineries, all using locally grown grapes.
Over a terrific dinner at the Blomidon Inn (800-565-2291, blomidon.ns.ca), Michael Laceby, innkeeper/sommelier and a member of the family that owns the inn, gave me my first lesson in Nova Scotia wines. Many of the wines from the valley are whites, and Laceby served me a very good, slightly dry L'Acadie blanc from Gaspereau Vineyards.
"L'Acadie is the signature grape of Nova Scotia," he said, "and virtually every winery in the province does a L'Acadie Blanc," though naturally each has its own approach.
L'Acadie, by the way, refers to the province's Acadian history. The wrenching deportation of the Acadians by the British in the 1700s is chronicled at the Grand-Pre National Historic Site here. And, though L'Acadie is French, in a bow to the British influence in these parts, it's pronounced as LACK-a-dee.
Laceby followed the L'Acadie blanc with a glass of Tidal Bay from Luckett Vineyards, in production since only 2010 and a venture of Pete Luckett, a Brit who is somewhat of a legend in Nova Scotia for his Pete's Frootique stores. The one in Wolfville might make you think you'd wandered into a Whole Foods.
While L'Acadie is Nova Scotia's signature grape, Tidal Bay, a blend of grapes, is its signature wine. When I visited Luckett Vineyards the next day, retail manager Stephanie Maillet showed me the three-page list of standards set down by the Winery Association of Nova Scotia that wineries must meet to use the Tidal Bay appellation.
While at Luckett (902-542-2600, luckettvineyards.com), which includes a casual restaurant where alfresco diners enjoyed the blue-sky day and terrific views, I sampled a blackberry port and an apple ice cider, along with an Ortega that, despite its Spanish-sounding name, has a German heritage.
Not far away, I visited the smaller Gaspereau Vineyards (902-542-1455, gaspereauwine.com), chosen winery of the year in the 2011 Atlantic Canadian Wine Awards. At Gaspereau's complimentary tasting bar (some wineries, such as Luckett, charge for samples), retail manager Katie Barbour told us the 35 acres of grapes produce about 3,500 12-bottle cases a year.
Seventy-five percent are sold on location, and the remainder are sold through the province's restaurants, wine stores and markets. None of Nova's Scotia's wines is exported, so you have to enjoy them while you're there or take them home.
Farther west, tiny Bear River Vineyards (902-467-4156, wine.travel) has the distinction of being the province's sole winery using only its own grapes. Others supplement their plantings with other locally grown grapes, and Bear River is among those suppliers.
Chris Hawes planted grapes "as a curiosity," said his wife, Peggy, and he's a self-taught vintner. With just 7.3 acres planted in grapes, it's the smallest in Nova Scotia.
"We don't do a Tidal Bay," Peggy said. "We would rather grow varietals and have them assessed on their own merits."
The winery also uses only 500 milliliter bottles, as opposed to the 750s used by many.