For the French, English and Irish fishers who first settled in Newfoundland starting in the 1500s, food was synonymous with sustenance. Cod, seal, wild game, hardy plants and berries—for the most part, it was the island’s natural bounty that kept men, women and children going as they toiled on the land, on the wharfs and at sea. These early Newfoundlanders used preserving techniques, from salting and pickling to jam-making on wood-burning stoves, to make it through seemingly endless winters and days-long fishing trips away from home.
Today, Newfoundland chefs still draw from this traditional repertoire, and, just like their kitchen predecessors, they embrace the elemental: harnessing the unique qualities of fire, air, water and earth to make delicious food that speaks to this place with its survivalist culinary traditions.
Earth: The Merchant Tavern
As Nick Walters, chef de cuisine at The Merchant Tavern in St. John’s, plates food in the restaurant’s bright, open-concept kitchen, he observes diners’ reactions to some of the more surprising menu items.
“People ask ‘Why would you make a dessert with vinegar?’” he says, referring to the vinegar pie that the restaurant’s pastry chef, Celeste Mah, originally developed from an old recipe. “It’s a 1920s dish invented because lemons were too expensive,” says Walters. “It’s delicious, but as citrus became more readily available, it fell out of fashion.”
An updated version, the vinegar pie at The Merchant Tavern has a buttery sagamite (heritage-corn) crust and a filling that combines house-made apple-cider vinegar with smoky maple syrup and sweet cinnamon. “It’s creamy, with a custard-type texture—something like lemon meringue pie,” explains Walters. “Newfoundlanders [love] lemon meringue pie, but we thought it would be lovely to do this throwback and educate people about a forgotten dessert.”
Originally from St. John’s, Walters trained in Toronto for five years under celebrated chef Jamie Kennedy (a pioneer of farm-to-table dining in Ontario). And Vancouver-born Mah learned from West Restaurant’s Rhonda Viani, a pastry chef committed to using indigenous herbs and seasonal ingredients. Today, working for northern food icon Jeremy Charles in St. John’s, both Walters and Mah are dedicated to using Newfoundland-grown ingredients in new ways.
Newfoundland, however, is known as the Rock for good reason—its post-glacial rock landscape has the sparsest of soils, which are typically stony and acidic, making it difficult to farm in many parts. Nonetheless, across the bogs, barrens and hills, hundreds of hardy edible plants do thrive. While European settlers here historically picked the island’s wild berries—like sweet-tart partridgeberries and plump wild blueberries—Newfoundland’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Beothuk, consumed many of the other-dense roots and plants that still carpet the ground.
And such wild ingredients add the finishing touch to Merchant Tavern’s bestselling dessert. On a single triangle of vinegar pie, local wildflowers are showcased through a sprinkled blend of sugar and pulverized dandelion petals, and then a silky scoop of dandelion-infused ice cream.
And what happens when the dandelions run out? “We use wild chamomile,” Walters says. “Then after that, we use this really pretty green-topped plant called pineapple weed,” adds Mah. “It actually smells and tastes like pineapple,” says Walters, “which is just amazing for something that grows so far north.”
In Newfoundland, resourcefulness is always in season.
Air: Chinched Bistro
Take a summer walk through outport Newfoundland, even today, and you’ll likely see salt cod air-drying on racks known as flakes, the sun and wind sucking out its moisture. Over a period of days, the fresh, plump and headless fish transforms into a bat-shaped strip of leather. This five-centuries-old technique makes the cod perfect for storing, months at a time, to reconstitute in a pail of cold water as required.
And air-drying wasn’t a technique reserved solely for cod. “Newfoundlanders would dry squid, too, or even capelin, pegged on the clothesline,” says Shaun Hussey, chef and co-owner of Chinched Bistro in St. John’s. “And, on the West Coast, where there was more Native influence, they did pemmican-style dried game meats.” This snack made of dried and pulverized lean meat, rendered fat and dried berries could sustain a hunter or sealer for days at a time.
Ruddy-cheeked under his fisher’s hat, Hussey uses the same indigenous ingredients as his forebears at Chinched—only his techniques are more Italian charcuterie-inspired.
Today, for example, the chef is making moose culatello.
The Italians make culatello with the calf muscle of a pig. “They call it the king of prosciutto,” says Hussey, as he rolls that same prized cut of moose in a curing blend of salt, sugar, peppercorns, foraged juniper and pine buds, and house-dried organic chili flakes made from hot peppers grown at an organic farm on the edge of St. John’s.
Once it has been cured, rinsed and bound, the culatello will air-dry for several months, until 30 per cent of its moisture evaporates and its rich, gamey flavour has really intensified.
Later, during evening dinner service, Hussey heaps a charcuterie platter with house-cured Newfoundland meats, candied nuts, local cheeses, house-made pickles, sticky condiments and house-made bread sticks and crackers. “I don’t feel I have to be making my grandmother’s recipes to do locally focused cuisine, but I definitely take from tradition,” he says. “What I love here is that spirit of preserving everything you can get your hands on to survive the winter.”
Fire: Fogo Island Inn
Fogo Island Inn’s stilt legs appear to undulate as heat rises from Murray McDonald’s bonfire. Six hours from dinner service, the bushy-bearded Newfoundlander is outside, charring leeks and black garlic mustard-rubbed pork on a grate balanced between rocks. It’s the setup you’d expect from beach campers, not the executive chef of the luxe hotel off Newfoundland’s northeast coast.
But bonfire cooking is a signature technique for McDonald, who has fond childhood memories of family cookouts around a campfire while growing up on the Rock. “We’d be on the beach during capelin-spawning season, and something about our bonfire flames had the fish literally leaping into the pan. Pre-salted—just add butter!”
Over the years, McDonald’s career has taken him all over the globe; he was working in Vancouver when he decided it was time to return to his home province. “By then, I had two little kids, and I was starting to wish that they had something of the freedom and access to nature that I had growing up in Newfoundland,” he says.
Fogo Island fit the bill: it’s a place where McDonald’s kids can roam and where he, too, can find a deeper connection to nature—and to nature’s ingredients, thanks to easy access to at least 20 kinds of berries and dozens of edible plants and roots growing wild on the island’s hills and shoreline.
Come evening on a typical workday, McDonald can be found back in his kitchen, preparing that flame-started dish to order. He finishes his leeks and pork in the smoker and garnishes the plate with wild celery, its bitterness playing off the sweet charring; purple chive and oyster leaf flowers for colour; and succulent-like oyster leaves for some surprising bivalve notes. To finish: island-grown mustard and wasabi greens—hot and peppery grace notes to underline that this dish is all about the fire.
Water: Grates Cove Studios and Café
“I’ve developed my own Bay sushi,” says Terrence Howell as he walks around the dry-stone walls delineating long-forgotten subsistence gardens in the community of Grates Cove on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.
The self-taught chef grew up nearby in Trinity Bay. While working in Korea in his 30s, he met his wife, Courtney. They began married life in her native Louisiana, but moved back to the Rock seven years ago to embrace a nature-based lifestyle.
Together, they converted a former schoolhouse into Grates Cove Studios and Café—a gallery, performance space and restaurant. The community quickly embraced the couple’s ever-expanding menu, which includes locally caught fish that was, until very recently, a challenge to serve on the island.
Newfoundland was built on the cod industry. When this industry collapsed due to overfishing in 1992, laws around processing and distributing fish tightened. It was no longer legal to buy whole fish fresh off the boat from your local fisher and, thanks to global exports of up to 90 per cent of the catch, the species choices were restricted for local diners.
This was a source of great frustration for Newfoundland chefs looking to offer fresh Atlantic catch in their restaurants. Fortunately, just last year, officials relaxed the laws restricting direct wharf-to-restaurant seafood sales. More diversified Atlantic Ocean offerings are finally represented on menus.
“We’ve partnered with a fisherman here who saves his bycatch for us,” says Courtney. “We make sushi with his flounder, monkfish, sea urchin and sculpin.”
Terrence also incorporates sorrel, lovage and wild peas in his sushi rolls, and uses locally harvested seaweed to infuse his sushi rice with savoury flavour. Why? “It tastes and feels like the ocean,” he says.
[This story appears in the August 2016 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated]