Cape Breton Tea Biscuits
“‘Yes…’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes…’ / A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that.…’” So Elizabeth Bishop describes a habit of speech from Nova Scotia in her poem “The Moose,” and it’s true. This particular verbal gesture, this custom of saying “yes” as if swallowing it, or it’s consuming you, and not necessarily a response to any question, but simply a way to let the person you are speaking with know that you’re listening, that you’re with them, you’re there, this peculiar “yes” was one of the surprises for me when I visited the province. I was also surprised to see a moose, multiple moose, in fact, but unlike Bishop’s moose, the ones I saw were on Cape Breton. The biggest shock was not the discovery of a “sweet / sensation of joy” at the encounter with the “grand, otherworldly,” and curious creatures. No, it was the herd of not-so-brilliant humans getting out of their cars and playing paparazzi, and being just as reckless to everyone involved, beasts and bystanders included. We had come to Nova Scotia to visit Holly’s relatives, but with the additional intentions of seeing the place Bishop had mapped so descriptively in her many Nova Scotian poems and to learn to like eating fish. More precisely, cooked fish. To help with that, we booked a few days at the end of our trip in the south end of Nova Scotia at the Trout Point Lodge. This idyllic, luxury hotel specializes in local seafood, with preparations paying homage to the Acadian history of the province. It’s a beautiful retreat, perched along a river surrounded by woods, and the wonderful flowers and vegetables from the gardens will end up on your table.
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides” is how Bishop opens “The Moose,” with that generative, propagating, localizing preposition, “From,” and the poem begins its cinematic sweep. Like a tracking shot in a movie, a single sentence carries us across a landscape over six stanzas, telescoping down from a bird’s-eye view to join a journey in progress, where “a bus journeys west,” the main clause of the sentence that finally arrives after we’ve been held in suspension for twenty-five lines. It’s a breathtaking sentence, and though Bishop travels west, presumably from her childhood home of Great Village, following along an inlet of the Bay of Fundy and tributaries, “where if the river / enters or retreats / in a wall of brown foam / depends on if it meets / the bay coming in / the bay not at home,” before she turns north to New Brunswick and her moose, Holly and I travelled west, too, but then south, on the North Atlantic Ocean side. While the Trout Point Lodge fish-fest didn’t quite take, I did learn a little something about the Acadian style of cooking, particularly some techniques for incorporating the holy trinity of onion-celery-green pepper with your roux in making gumbo. Yet the biggest culinary surprise on that trip to the province “of fish and bread and tea” was the Cape Breton tea biscuit. Every home we stayed at had their own version of this tasty cross between a flaky, buttery biscuit and a scone. The relatives who graciously opened their doors and guest-rooms to us also generously made Cape Breton tea biscuits to have in the morning with jam and butter and coffee. I devoured them gratefully over our conversations around the table. Morning can have its own form of “dreamy divagation,” and the scene on Bishop’s bus is a social one not distant from the hearth or family table, hosting its talk of “names being mentioned, / things cleared up finally; / what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; // deaths, deaths and sicknesses; / the year he remarried; / the year (something) happened.” When I discovered the biscuits at the ubiquitous Tim Hortons as we drove across Nova Scotia, I couldn’t resist them.
The first thing we did once getting back on the main road to Halifax after our stay at the Trout Point Lodge was to stop at Tim Hortons where I purchased a few of their ham and cheese variety. When we returned home, I decided to test my ineptitude with baking by making these biscuits for myself. I was craving them. I was able to get some help from the family, fitting for the spirit of these biscuits. I’ve been making these biscuits ever since. Modified a little from the family secrets, here is the recipe.
Cape Breton Tea Biscuits:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk, or substituted with 1 cup skim and a tbsp. cider vinegar
Sift the dry ingredients together and place in food processor. Add chilled butter (I place mine in the freezer for about 30 minutes), and pulse 8-10 times to combine. Remove mixture to large bowl and add the milk. Combine, but don’t over-mix. Roll out on a floured surface, and cut out biscuits with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a lined, rimmed sheet at 425 °F for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. This makes about a dozen biscuits.