Talking of Canada rarely anyone would think of it’s food. And those, who rarely think of anything other than food, would immediately see the massive glass jars with maple syrup and stacks of fluffy pancakes with bacon and sausages. Vice writes how difficult it is to get food in the north when the land is covered with thick quilt of snow. Discovery Channel shows the lives of the toughest guys - lorry drivers and lumber jacks. National Geographic publishes pictures of Inuit tribes. Always popular are holiday fishing trips. Canada offers much more though, and the culinary trip around this amazing country is exciting and surprising. Very often it moves us back in time and shows places that are very diverse.
NEWFOUNDLAND (pronounced like a land of FUN, rather than a one that was newly found)
Newfoundland is a huge island on the east coast of Canda. It is the most easterly land of Northern America and it was the first lands where the white conquerors have settled (not counting the irregular viking visits). St. John’s - the capital of the state - is the oldest city in English speaking America. No wonder why it is so rich in culture and history regardless of its small population (the island size of Great Britain is a home to less than half a million of people). Newfoundland is not the news topic, neither it is the top tourist destination. It is a stop on many cruises setting off from Boston, it is also known to professionals from the petrochemical industries as the sea bed around the island is very rich in oil. I have first heard about this somehow cold but exotic place after seeing the ‘Shipping News’. And it was then, more than 10 years ago, when I have promised myself a trip.
I have landed in the small St. John’s airport and the first stop on my way to the town was a small bakery beautifully located within woods at a lakeside, miles from the nearest settlements. On the porch there was a line with hand made woolen socks, on a small table exposed were hand made jumpers, hats, scarves and necklaces. Inside - uncounted home baked cakes (classic ones and gluten free ones too) decorated with berries I had no idea existed - cloud berries, tea berries, partridge berries or crow berries. Fascinated as usual, I have reached for two yeast rolls with different jams and I jumped in the car of my Newfie friends. We drove through an empty road cutting through land of a million ponds that reflected the blue skies. We have stopped at Portugal Cove - a small pebble beach where you could see Bell Island from. We have sat on rocks at the base of a small waterfall, and munching on the delicious snack made with sharp and sweet partridge berry, I was asking the locals about the best culinary experience.
The Wilderness and Woods
Newfoundland is in essence an island of unspoiled nature. More than half of its inhabitants live in the capital city, and there is only one main road that circles the island connecting small fishing villages. Some of villages don’t even have roads leading to and you can only reach them by boats or with snowmobiles over icy bays in winter. As you can imagine, shops are not greatly supplied here. To experience the life away from the capital, we have run off from the Avalon peninsula and spent couple of days around Bonavista Bay. We have hiked local tracks and talked to the villagers. We have stumbled across only two small stores - one was an eerie boutique with minerals and semi-precius stones, and the second one was a mini-mart at the gas station. Despite the fact that Newfies can not complain on the quality of life and the local economy does well, they are very much bound to their traditional cuisine and food that comes from the nature. The soils are shallow and not many vegetables grow around. In the home gardens most popular are cabbage, kale, spinach and fruit trees. Man are still very active hunters in here too - as soon as I had arrived I couldn't stop thinking about the famous flipper pie. I looked for it everywhere, but seal meat was not in the season. People of Newfoundland still relay on seal meat. Although there is plenty of moose and caribou and they are often killed for meat, the seal meat has irreplaceable nutritional values. After a long search, I have found a supermarket, just outside of St. John’s with a fantastic section of home made frozen foods - and I got what I wanted. Flipper pies, caribou sausages and moose pasty. I have put it all straight in the oven as soon as I came back home. After a small tasting, I have to say the seal meat is not a delicacy. The meat is black, the texture is close to the one of liver, and in taste it combines game with a strong fishy smell. I can see only desperate people reaching out for it, not great! So don't think that seals in NF are being killed for pleasure or out of a caprice for delicacy. With moose and caribou it went a bit smoother, but I have decided to abandon the meat trail and concentrate on berries and seafood.
Next thing was a two days hike along the East Coast Trail. I have seen many locals on the way who hiked with white plastic buckets striped to their back - foraging is like a national sport in here! It was a bit too late for the cloud berries, but I have never seen that many blueberries! There was quite a good supply of blackberries, juniper berries, partridge berries, crow berries and the cranberries were just about to ripe.
Newfies relationship with ocean is indescribable. It was the ocean which brought their ancestors here and it is one of the main providers for them today. Each little bay has a small port, every respected family owns at least one small boat. Outside of St. John’s the boat is often more important than a car. Until 1991 the main industry was cod fishing, but because of the fish near extension status announced in 1992, Canadian government has closed all industrial scale fisheries. Today there is a limit of 15kg per boat daily. Cod is still, however the most important fish for Newfoundlanders. Actually, once they speak about ‘fish’ they actually speak about cod. So as soon as my friends suggested a fishing trip, without hesitation I have thrown my anorak on and jumped aboard a boat. We were given the lines wrapped around small wooden frames. Captain has turned his sonar on and soon we were above a school of healthy big fish. We have dropped the anchor, put some squid on the hooks and whoosh! The fish were catching like crazy! We have taken 15 fish in barely 20 minutes, and the smallest one we had was 50 cm long. We have turned the boat around and the fishermen did all the dirty job of gutting the fish for us - they have separated the tongues and cheeks - the prime cuts!
It goes without a question that the richness of the seafood here is like nowhere else. Apart of cod, there are heaps of local lobsters, crabs, scallops, langoustines and prawns. Tasting the freshness of it became my goal no. 1, so the next thing for me was a marathon through local restaurants, shops and markets in the capital.
There are only two big supermarkets in St. John’s and you can get almost anything there but the food is very expensive. The cheapest things are lobster and fish, and obviously cans and preserves. And despite delicious things such as brined moose meat, I have decided to taste as much food dining out as possible.
In Canada’s best restaurants ranking, the numbers 1 and 11 are taken by two restaurants from St. John’s. Mallard Cottage, the number 11, is a small homely restaurant in Quidi Vidi bay. The building is listed, as it is one of the oldest wooden cottages in North America. It belonged for decades to Mallards’ whose main business was… fishing, of course. In 2011 the cottage was bought by fascinated by local cuisine Todd Perrin. He has done a general refurbishment of the house and gave it second life. The biggest passion of Perrin is the food of the land, and he transfers this love into his menu that is changed daily. Perrin’s cooking style is simple, very much rooted in Newfoundland traditions. He is fascinated by game, fish and seafood. I have visited the cottage during a Sunday Brunch. I have started with a carrot bellini. There was a magnificent cake table in the middle of the restaurant. On the menu - many typical brunch dishes with eggs playing leading parts - eggs with braised pork, eggs on lamb burgers with crispy cheese scones. There were few meat dishes as well. All served in a very rustic style. The dinner offers a bit wider selection and there is usually much bigger choice of fish and meats, but each time it is a surprise. Chef Tod writes the daily menu by hand and it is simply copied and given out to the guests. There are many versions of the menu available online, and you can spot things such as shark served with beans and tomatoes, or roasted seal loin. Todd Perrin does not like to repeat himself. Seated on a table not far from the back door. I have managed to spot the chef preparing something unusual for dinner service - three people were setting up a massive roasting pan on wooden logs in the garden and one guy was bringing in fresh herbs and various twigs which he placed around the fireplace. I have asked what was being prepared, but the answers were very enigmatic, there was a private event planned for the evening and the staff didn’t really want to talk about it.
I have also booked a table in the best Canadian restaurant - Raymond’s - but I had to wait couple of days for the dinner. I have decided to kill the time with discoveries of local gems. The first one was the oldest in town Fish and Chips shop, opened in 1951 Chess’ Diner. Chess was a guy, who was getting up early each morning, getting out to the sea fishing. In the afternoons he was bringing his fish to the restaurant, gutting and prepping them only to cook them in the evening for the guests of a small diner. Chess’ imperium grew a bit within the past sixty years and today it counts seven venus all over Newfoundland. The flagship one in St. John’s is divided in dine in and take away parts. On the menu you will find such classics as cod tongues, clam chowder as well as a wide selection of deep fried fish, chicken and burgers. I went for the Chess’ classic - cod bites, prawns and scallops served in a basket lined with newspaper. On the table the seasonings - lemon salt, malt vinegar, ketchup and tartare sauce. Dish cooked in simpliest way possible, yet the fish and scallops literally melt in my mouth, and the prawns were incredibly juicy and full of flavour. So good, I didn’t want to spoil the last impression with sweets, so instead of dessert I have only asked for a cup of cloudberry tea.
My second discovery was another small wooden cottage, this time unassumingly squeezed between the fishermen houses in Petty Harbour. I have reached the restaurant just before noon and there was already a queue outside. As soon as the hosts opened the doors, people lined up waiting for a table. Just next to the reception where the tables were being allocated there was a shelf with jams made by local grannies with the foraged goods, few books with spooky ghost stories and local newspapers. Menu in Chef’s Landing Eatery is again very local and mirrors the life of the bay and offers only morning’s catch. Fish and seafood is being served in many different ways, starting with the usual deep fried in batter, through stewed in casseroles, steamed, cooked in soup, baked in dough, grilled and raw. This time I have chosen another simple classic - crab and lobster roll. Yeah, it is a very unassuming dish but there is a reason why it has become one of word’s most famous sandwitches, which is being served by many word’s famous chefs. There is nothing complicated in the dish, but the key to perfection is the quality of the bread and freshness of the crab (and as any proper foodie knows, Canadian waters home world’s best crabs - the king crab and newfoundland snow crab) and lobster meat - the need to be caught the same day and just lightly dressed with freshly made home made mayonnaise. Just add a drop of lemon juice, a touch of salt and pepper and you have heaven on the plate!
Finally came the day of Raymond’s experience. Around mid day I have popped in the local farmer market and skip lunch. I have not expected much as farming is almost non existent here. Around a small building there were small stalls - some with a small selection of local organic veg, on the other - home made reserves. Only one stall has caught my attention. On the table covered with a checkered cloth presented were small jars with salt. I have reached out to the smiley seller and asked wether his product was local as well. Straight away he told me the story of his small company - he was making the salt himself by evaporating the ocean water. His salt was organic and pure. He had some crystals smoked with the local juniper as well. What a passion - I thought! I have asked him where he had his production set up and with a big grin he answered - ‘in my kitchen! I am executive sous chef of Raymonds!’ I have just met the number two of Jeremy Charles - how awesome! The chef was Peter Burt, he was very happy to hear I was coming for dinner in the evening, and now I was thrilled to the bits. Upon arrival at the sea front dining room I was greeted like a VIP. Peter did not even allow me to choose my dishes, but he served the full tasting menu straight away - what a feast that was! Starting with the amuse local oyster and small moose sausage served on a massive slab of pine tree, he followed with the first appetiser - the duo of blue fin tuna, sustainably caught in local waters, served just like in the best sushi restaurant. Two slices from the same fillet - one very fatty and one lean. I have also tasted a hare ragout, local pheasant, unbelievable pork dish and an intriguing dessert made with parsnips. The wine menu in Raymonds was also unusual and carefully selected, and thanks to the amazing sommelier I have broaden up my horizons by trying many Canadian wines. By the end, Peter came out from the kitchen to make sure we liked it all. But we didn’t like it - we loved it! What an extraordinary experience, and what characters to admire! What a pity Michelin or San Pellegrino inspectors do not wander in this parts of the world!
My time in Newfoundland was getting to its close but I would not leave the place before paying a visit to one of the most interesting craft breweries in the world. In the small bay of Quidi Vidi, just a stone throw away from the Mallard Cottage, in an old cod sorting warehouse, two guys are making ‘Quidi Vidi’ brew. They met at the uni and what brought them together was their love for the beer and the lack of money to buy enough of it. They have first started brewing in mini kegs in their own rooms and they shared the produce with their mates. Slowly the production grew until at last they have become the biggest local beer producer in New Foundland. ‘Quidi Vidi’ is now the most popular beer on the island and they have quite a few different brews on offer, including a light one, honeyed one and few types of ale. The most unusual product thou is the ‘Iceberg’. They have won many international competitions with it. If only guys from Quidi Vidi wanted, they could have conquered the world with the blue bottle. They consciously refuse upscaling and industrialisation. That would not be their style. They want to have a limited production and a small brewery, but they want to make enough of it for all Newfies. What is so special about it then? It is the water!
Icebergs are often thousands years old and the water extracted from them is quintessentially the cleanest and highest quality of water on Earth. Years ago it was the wandering icebergs which floated in Quidi Vidi bay being melted down and brewed into beer. Today the local government has created the reservation area around St. John’s and the icebergs need to remain untouched. In the meantime the popularity of iceberg water has grown. St. Johns has now a distillery that produces iceberg vodka (Dan Acroyd’s Crystal Scull), Iceberg Gin and and Rum. Another company makes wine with local berries and the iceberg water. What do the guys from Quidi Vidi do then? They have invited all interested parties and once a year they all go iceberg hunting. Early spring they send special boats north. When the crew meets a beautiful example of a floating iceberg, they shot dynamite at it to break a piece of it. Then, using hooks and lines they transport the mountain to the town and melt it down.
As I was the only one visiting the Quidi Vidi brewery at the time, I was received in a great style. I was leaving it slightly lightheaded, I have bid my farewells with the young crew at the brewery and walked back to my friend’s home. H