By Katherine Eisenhauer, as told to Nancy Fornasiero
Katherine Eisenhauer, a ninth-generation resident of Lunenburg, N.S., has been the chef-owner of The Savvy Sailor Cafe in her hometown since 2012. Her unassuming little restaurant, which boasts a view of Lunenburg’s historic UNESCO World Heritage Site waterfront, is a favourite with tourists and locals alike. Fresh locally sourced ingredients and a diverse menu that includes many of her own family’s favourite dishes are the secrets to her success.
Rhubarb is definitely a well-loved ingredient in Nova Scotia; it grows in many backyards, including my own. I still remember helping my grandmother—my dad’s mum, Josephine—pull rhubarb from the huge patch in the yard of the home she lived in with Gramps when I was a kid. I think they had the best rhubarb patch in town. We would have a great time together gathering it, washing it and chopping it up. Although she made different things with it, Gamma (as I always call her) was most famous for her rhubarb relish. I can hardly remember a family gathering where fish was served when it wasn’t on the table.
Hers is the exact recipe I still use today in the café. In fact, I followed it right from her own handwriting in the Dutch Oven cookbook just this morning! The Dutch Oven is a Lunenburg classic. It was first published in 1953 by Gamma and her friends in The Ladies Auxiliary of the Fishermen’s Memorial Hospital, and it’s full of traditional Nova Scotia recipes. When they created it as a fundraiser back then, the ladies sure didn’t expect it to remain popular all these years later. It’s now in its 21st printing.
Around here, rhubarb relish is typically eaten with whitefish, cod or haddock, or with other cod-based dishes, like fish cakes. That’s how we serve it at the café: alongside our famous fish cakes and baked beans as part of our “Lunenburg Breakfast.” It’s one of our most popular items, even though it’s pretty unusual for people to choose fish for breakfast. (I guess when they visit us, they figure: When in Rome…?) People really love the relish—they’re always asking me, “Can I buy some? Can I buy some?” So when I have enough on hand, I sell some to customers. When stored properly in the fridge, it lasts many months. We also serve it for dinner alongside fish cakes and salad or pan-seared Atlantic cod and salad.
This recipe has so many great personal connections for me, but what really stands out is our family’s annual “fish-cake brunch.” For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve been gathering for this event between Christmas and New Year’s—both sides of the family, as well as family friends. It’s the sort of meal where we prep about 50 pounds of potatoes and 15 pounds of cod! The relish is always a big part of that meal.
We’ve been in Lunenburg since 1753, when the three Eisenhauer brothers first arrived from Germany. Traditions mean a lot to us. Grandma’s 90 now, and though she still loves to cook, I make the relish these days and take my relish over to her. She’s given it her stamp of approval! I’m so happy to be keeping her tradition alive.
The Savvy Sailor’s Rhubarb Relish, courtesy of Katherine Eisenhauer
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 1 ½ hours (includes chilling time)
Yield: approx 8 cups
8 cups (2 L) chopped rhubarb
8 cups (2 L) onions, thinly sliced
7 cups (1.75 L) granulated sugar
3 cups (750 mL) cider vinegar
2 tsp (10 mL) salt
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cloves
2 tsp (10 mL) cinnamon
1. Chop rhubarb into rough dice; set asi1002de.
2. Add onions to separate bowl. Cover with boiling water; let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and discard water.
3. In heavy-bottomed pot, dissolve sugar in cider vinegar on medium heat. Add onions, rhubarb, salt, cloves and cinnamon. Stir well. Cook, stirring often, until it reaches a thick jam-like consistency, 40 minutes to 1 hour.
4. Remove from heat; let cool. Place in jar and refrigerate.
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