Earth's Bounty

A Cape Breton restaurant celebrates earth-to-table dining

Cherie Swift has been growing things her whole life.

As a young child, she tended a garden alongside her parents in rural Ontario. As a mother with young children, she grew flowers even when time did not allow for a proper vegetable garden.

She is now getting her hands dirty again on a 150-acre sustainable farm, located on the shores of Bras d'Or Lake on Cape Breton Island. On her beautiful property, Cherie raises chickens and pigs and grows a variety of produce.

"There's nothing more special than growing something and then eating it," Cherie says. "You pull a carrot out of the ground, you take a tomato off a vine that wasn't under plastic, that was out in the elements and it's magic. You can't buy that at a grocery store because even if it's grown locally, it's not as fresh as when it is just picked."

Beyond just growing the ingredients, Cherie is spreading her love of earth-to-table food with guests at her seasonal, on-the-farm restaurant, GRÁ.

Grá is the Gaelic word for love and it is a reminder of Cherie's passion for sharing what she has grown with her own hands and transforming it into a six-course, ingredient-led menu.

"I truly believe that everybody should have access to produce that is freshly picked," she says.

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Set inside her farmhouse, GRÁ is not your typical restaurant.

Reservations are not just recommended – they are required. Cherie always knows well ahead of time how many will be dining in her restaurant each night and she prepares her food accordingly.

"There is very little food waste," she says.

When you know the sweat and tears that go into growing produce, you have a respect for that food, she adds.

"I cried over that tomato vine, so I will not waste any part of that tomato."

Inside Cherie's kitchen, you will find just a regular household-sized fridge and pull-out freezer. There is no big walk-in because Cherie doesn't store food.

It is picked, cooked, served and eaten all in one day.

"When I start, my fridge is full and when I'm done my fridge is empty," she says. "I know exactly how many people are coming the day before. I only make what I need for that many people."

Her set menu changes with the availability of ingredients, driven by what is ready to pick on her farm, her fellow farmers down the road or locally grown in Nova Scotia.

Sometimes it will change every night and other times it will remain the same for the week.

"I don't pre-make it, I don't even have a microwave in my kitchen. Everything is made to order while you're here," Cherie says. "This is a different way to eat."

To demonstrate just how local the ingredients that appear in GRÁ's six-course nightly menu are, we asked Cherie to trace the ingredients of her lobster dish.

The beautifully poached lobster comes from Little River, caught and handpicked for the GRÁ kitchens by Jamie Dauphney. It is harvested, cooked and served on the same day.

"He calls me as he's finishing fishing for the day and we meet 20 minutes later just down the road from the farm. So the lobsters have only been out of the water for maybe an hour. They come right in here and I cook them for that evening," she says.

The lobster is poached in house-made butter, churned using cream from the local dairy, Skye Glen Creamery in Cape Breton.

The lobster is served with Wild Asparagus Puree, harvested from GRÁ's own farm.

The White Wine & Lilac Foam is make from lilac trees that grow on the GRÁ property and Tidal Bay organic wine from local Nova Scotia winery Lightfoot & Wolfville in the Annapolis Valley.

Black Radish, Sorrel, Sweet Pea and Dill Microgreens are all grown in-house and cut minutes before serving.

Every night, Cherie cooks and plates a six-course meal. People arrive at 6 pm and stay until 9:30 or 10 pm. The pace of her meals is set deliberately slow to allow lingering over a candle-lit table.

"Everyone is always in a hurry to get somewhere and then in a hurry to go somewhere right after. It is a continuous rush to do everything," Cherie says.

"When they come here, they have the table all night, no one is standing waiting for them to finish up. So they can relax and have a conversation with the people they came with.

And as I stand in the kitchen, I can hear and feel the vibration of their voices and their laughter and I smile because that's exactly why I'm doing this."

GRÁ is open seasonally from June to December. It is located just off the Seal Island Bridge along the shores of the Bras d'Or Lake. To make a reservation and for driving directions, please click here.

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