By Laura Aiken
A perfect pie is one part beautiful pastry to one part delightful
filling, all lovingly finished with a dollop of good old-fashioned
A perfect pie is one part beautiful pastry to one part delightful filling, all lovingly finished with a dollop of good old-fashioned story. The inaugural winner of Bakers Journal’s Ultimate Pie contest sponsored by BakeMark lives up to this pie promise with its Atlantic Canadian Seafood Pie, but such mastery does not happen overnight.
|Chef Megan Anatol says trial and error was a key process in developing the pie’s creamy, chowder-like filling.|
Masstown Market started as a farm stand in 1969 as a place for Eric Jennings to sell his produce. Over the next 40 years, bakery, deli, dairy, fish, alcohol, restaurant and gift sections hatched to form what is now a full-fledged food paradise for Nova Scotia locals and tourists alike. While Masstown may have grown, its roots haven’t changed. The market is focused on procuring and selling local fare that is stamped with the high quality of small-batch craftsmanship.
The bakery at Masstown has a storied history, at one point disappearing before making an impressive comeback. In 2009, the bakery expanded in size and equipment with the intention of boosting production, says Eric’s son Laurie Jennings, who owns and operates Masstown with his wife, Lisa (Eric is still very active in the business). The bakery is the second biggest department, he says (produce is first). Six bakers a day work seven days a week to create the still-from-scratch breads, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and hundreds of other unique products made with local ingredients. Brenda Mcmullen, who has been with Masstown over 20 years and bakery manager for the last 10, and Jonie Johnson, are the hands behind the seafood pie pastry crust that pleased the Ultimate Pie judges so much. Mcmullen says the secret to her vegetable-based pie crust is all in the touch.
“It’s how the dough feels in my hands, there’s a special feel.” Although, she says it took a while for her to master her magic touch. “The first few years, the way I was mixing, you could stretch it from me to you,” she says with a chuckle.
Masstown was selling about 30 to 40 seafood pies a week until it won the Ultimate Pie crown. Now, Jennings says, the market sells about 300 a week. The local media, Atlantic television and Canada AM picked up the story. Jennings had a special new label made for the pie declaring it a winner.
|Mike DeSaulniers, seafood manager, and Megan Anatol with Masstown’s award-winning seafood pie. |
When Jennings first saw the pie contest advertised in Bakers Journal, he got to talking with his seafood manager Mike DeSaulniers, about what might make a winner. The market had a good pie-making reputation in Nova Scotia, making use of abundant Apple Valley apples and showcasing mincemeat at Christmas. Their seafood pie was inspired by the thoughtful act of a gentleman named Gerald Legere, who owned a fish market and sold a lot of jarred clams to DeSaulniers. Legere, who has since passed on, brought a processed seafood pie to him to try and it sparked the idea for Masstown to make its own based on a local theme of fresh, quality ingredients. Seafood at Masstown is 90 per cent local, says DeSaulniers, with deliveries coming five to seven days a week if needed. The market’s location near the Bay of Fundy means that seasonally they can sell lobster, flounder, clams and some haddock nearly from their backyard. The Bay of Fundy is home to the Minas Basin, an inlet that boasts the highest tides on the planet. The Catch of the Bay fish market is a pretty new addition to the Masstown stable, having opened about a year and a half ago. DeSaulniers joined the team two years ago to help with the launch, which involved building a 75-foot-high lighthouse that also features an interactive area where visitors can learn more about Nova Scotia.
Megan Anatol, manager of Masstown’s Catch of the Day Fish & Chip Boat, is the chef behind the seafood pie’s hearty filling. When it comes to recipe development, she says she likes to start with an idea or ingredient and work backwards. In the case of their seafood pie, the thought was to base it on traditional seafood chowder. On the technical side, Anatol found it challenging to nail down a seafood filling that could be baked and set yet remain creamy.
“It took trial and error,” she says. “Small batches, at most 12 pies at a time . . . It’s very rewarding to have a product that people buy as a gift or for a special occasion. Tastes are different here and I’m from Ontario so it’s great to come up with something that is crowd pleaser here.”
|Masstown was selling 30 to 40 seafood pies a week prior to winning the Ultimate Pie contest. Jennings says the market sells about 300 a week since being crowned the Ultimate Pie.|
For Masstown, the seafood pie is more than just tasty. It represents the mandate of the business that started as a farm stand and grew to about 120 employees. Jennings was born in 1965 so he was just a tot when his father started out, but he learned about business early.
“I always had a little vegetable garden as a kid that I sold to Dad,” says Jennings. “I worked at the market but when I got out of high school I thought ‘no way’ and went to university.”
Jennings got a degree in science and biology and went to work in the corporate world, but came back in 1989 and married Lisa, who looks after the gift shop. He has teenage boys now, the first in university. Jennings loves the story behind things, perhaps a part of his nature evident in his early pursuit of science, but it’s certainly become a hallmark of his business acumen.
“The story and the quality and the story that goes along with it is something that somebody can’t replicate. Anybody can beat you on price or product any given day. Supermarkets used to sell bread for 99 cents and we’re not in that game.”
Jennings is surely succeeding at the game he’s in. Last year he counted over a million customers (by transaction), most of those families of some kind. The eastern economy is notoriously difficult to survive in these days, but Jennings is thriving. He knows you need to give people reasons to come and that’s why he dedicated space in the lighthouse to providing information about the area.
“My tongue in cheek notion of customer service is that the longer you stay here the more money you spend. Most people know about Cape Breton and Peggy’s Cove, so we have the opportunity to teach them something more.”
|Mike DeSaulniers, Masstown’s seafood manager, prepares the pie’s filling.|
Jennings takes every opportunity to turn a trip to the market into a story about Nova Scotia for people when products are ripe for the picking. At the height of apple season he brings out an old press from 1904 Eaton’s catalogue and makes juice from the 20 or so varieties Nova Scotia produces, brings in a band and has suppliers come in to sample their wares.
“The ultimate goal is to send people away with something they didn’t expect to get, whether it’s a smile, idea or recipe; that’s what they talk about and that’s what they tell their family and friends.”
What customers can always expect at Masstown is a commitment to local. It’s what the market has done since Day 1, and Jennings sees it as good business sense.
“I’d like you to experience the artisanship of the farm but it’s not always convenient. So, you can come here. We’ve got good quality products at a fair price that are unique and you can’t get just anywhere. It makes a lot of sense not just ‘cause we’re nice guys . . . . There should always be a win-win-win. We have to make some money, customers have to not mind leaving some money behind and our suppliers have to make some money. You don’t gain much by taking one of those out in the long term.”
Masstown’s seafood pie has become a bonus win for the team, who are basking in the success of a truly ultimate pie.