Imagine growing up in a town where nearly everyone has the same name!
My guide, Calvin d’Entremont, cheerfully tells me: “I once counted the d’Entremonts in the local phone book. There were more than 600 entries and the population is only just over 2,000!”
He lives in West Pubnico, N.S., first settled in 1653 by Sieur Philippe Mius d’Entremont and his followers who bore his name.
When the Acadians were swept from their lands by the British during The Expulsion in the mid-1700s, many settled in Louisiana, and became known as Cajuns. But of all the exiles, only those from this tiny village returned to their original homes. Perhaps because no one else wanted to live in such inhospitable surroundings, their lands hadn’t been confiscated.
Calvin, like most locals, makes his living as a fisherman.
He fishes for lobsters, but scallops, herring, cod and haddock are also pulled out of the waters here. Many huge fish plants once dotted the shore, but today only five remain.
Nonetheless, fishing is still vital.
On the last Monday in November — Dumping Day — the lobster boats line up early. At 5 a.m., to cheers from the entire town (no one sleeps in on Dumping Day), the boats rush out of the harbour to drop their lobster traps for the first time.
It’s a race to get the best spots. For the next six months, through icy winter weather, these intrepid fishermen go out to lift the traps and collect the luscious crustaceans which find their way onto menus all over North America.
Now, you might have thought that a people born and bred by the sea might lay claim to a traditional dish of lobster or fish. But for these Acadians it’s rapûre, fondly known as “rappie pie”, that makes them long for home.
In fact, René d’Entremont confessed: “It’s the one thing I really miss. You just can’t get it anywhere else.”
It looks simple enough to make yourself, and you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a chicken version of traditional shepherd’s pie.
But it takes a dedicated cook to go through all the work required to properly prepare rappie pie.
D’Eon’s in West Pubnico is counting on that fact. It makes and sells the Acadian specialty throughout the province.
Rappie pie’s origins aren’t really known, but the name comes from the French word râper — to grate.
Aptly, the dish starts with grated potatoes, which has led some to speculate that it shares origins with German potato pancakes or Polish placki kartoflane, but there’s probably no other cuisine that takes the next step. Once grated, the potatoes are gathered in cheesecloth and drained of all their liquid, which is carefully measured.
Helène Leblanc, owner of the Red Cap Restaurant in West Pubnico, demonstrates the process for me.
She fills a pillow slip with the grated potatoes, then twists it tighter and tighter, squeezing out the last drops of liquid. According to one historian, this was used to starch the crisp white linens of the good Acadian housewife.
(It would be typical of the thrifty Acadians to find a wonderful use for what would otherwise be wasted.)
What’s left inside the pillow slip is a dry, grayish mass that looks particularly unappetizing.
Meanwhile in a large pot, several chickens are cooked in enough water with salt, pepper, onions and celery to create plenty of broth. Note the word “several”, for rappie pie isn’t a dish for family dinner.
It’s generally made in quantity for a celebration. The birds are removed, cooled, then completely de-boned by hand.
Are you starting to see the scope of the project?
The drained broth is brought back to a boil and the hot liquid slowly added to the dehydrated potatoes in exactly the same quantity as that which was removed.
Some people add chopped onions to this mixture, but Leblanc is a purist — only salt and pepper allowed.
“You beat and you beat and you beat,” she explains, wielding a large potato masher. “You have to get the consistency exactly right.”
To my eye, this is creamy and almost gluey, when she suddenly stops and announces: “Like this.”
A deep pie dish is filled with half the potato-stock blend. This is topped with generous strips of cooked chicken (there’s no effort to maintain consistent size) and this is topped with more large, frothy mounds of the potatoes.
The next step is individual. Leblanc prefers dotting the potatoes with small knobs of butter; others use pieces of bacon or lard. The aim is to provide some sort of fat which crisps the surface of the pie as it bakes in the oven.
My first bite is a revelation. Shepherd’s pie never tasted so succulent and rich.
The chicken broth gives the potatoes a gorgeous flavor and the crisping on the surface is so good that “there’s usually a battle to get the crusty parts,” laughs Leblanc.
Rappie pie is always made for get-togethers — a wedding, a christening, a party, a family gathering, or even a wake.
“It’s just a given,” says Leblanc.
That might explain why, with the hectic lifestyle of modern day Acadians, the commercially produced version, D’Eon’s Rappie Pie, is gaining such popularity.
Still handmade, D’Eon use two pieces of equipment traditional Acadian women would not. The first is an electric potato peeler to peel the spuds, though the last of the eyes are still removed by hand.
The second is the way the company extracts liquid from the potatoes. They’ve eschewed pillow slips for the spin cycle on a standard washing machine.
D’Eon’s pies are available in stores around the area but nowhere outside Nova Scotia.
Indeed, there are many reasons to visit the Acadian Shore. Along this western Nova Scotia coastline, ocean and land come together with spectacular confluence.
The Acadian people remember their beleaguered history without rancor, and retain the same welcoming bonhomie and joie de vivre so evident in the Cajuns of Louisiana.
And then there’s rappie pie.