Discovering Newfoundland Food and Historic Charm

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Fish and Chips with Dressing at Leo’s in St. John’s

In a cozy Newfoundland home, a sideboard filled with food I was about to try for the first time beckoned me. There was the jar of seal meat I was dying to try, and next to it was the moose pie. On the stove in a black Dutch oven was the fish stew with its super fresh cod, potatoes and brewis, which is what Newfoundlanders call hardtack, that is, ship’s biscuit made of durum wheat. This was Newfoundland food and I had never known or even thought about what that might be.

I was in Newfoundland in the cold late autumn of 2011 as a guest of the Early Modern Network, a group of Newfoundlanders interested in understanding and promoting the island’s history and forming the bedrock for a new Newfoundland consciousness. Newfoundland has been considered the slightly strange poor cousin of the other Canadian provinces. Its isolation and distance, and the fact that it was not even a part of Canada until 1949, has given Newfoundlanders an inferiority complex that the group hopes to overcome. Newfoundlanders not only didn’t have the right to vote until 1949, but for the last half century they’ve been poor and suffer from poverty-fatigue. It is time for Newfoundland pride.

The first thing you learn upon arrival in Newfoundland — because it happened to me at customs — is to “underSTAND, NewfoundLAND.” It’s decidedly not “Newfundlun.”

In Newfoundland, when you eat something “fresh,” it means only that it is not salted. Cod rules here, and I don’t think I’ve ever had better cod than that in Newfoundland. On Sundays, many families make “Jigg’s Dinner,” which consists of roast (usually beef), salt beef, collard greens and cabbage cooked with salt beef, boiled carrots, turnip and potatoes, doughballs, beets and mustard pickles, and pease pudding.

Fish and chips with gravy and dressing is a staple dish in St. John’s, the capital. Lightly battered fresh cod deep-fried are served with golden fried potatoes that are tasty and soft with brown gravy and a crumbly turkey-stuffing-type bread stuffing called “dressing” sprinkled on top. I ate this at two nearly identical, rustic and sparely decorated greasy spoons serving the same great food, Leo’s Restaurant and Take-out, 27 Freshwater Road, St. John’s, which is near the other famous fish and chips place Ches’s Fish and Chips, 9 Freshwater Road, St. John’s.

Newfoundland food’s colorful names

I ate some wonderful and fascinating food such as “toutons,” pieces of ripped up and reformed bread made into 5-inch diameter “pies” and fried in butter in a skillet until golden brown and served with molasses or a lightly fried runny egg.

At Blue on Water, 319 Water Street, St. John’s, I had an appetizer of the famous and delicious dish known as “cod sounds and scrunchions.” Cod sounds are the air bladder membrane on the back of the cod that inflate to equalize pressure when the fish dive. They are boiled then salted, pickled, lightly battered and fried in melted pork fatback. The diced pork fatback cracklings are called scrunchions. The cod sounds have a soft raw-oyster consistency.

I had to eat the obligatory “moose meat pie,” which is the stewed shoulder and neck meat of moose that comes out of a jar and is served with a relish made from tomato, apple, onion, vinegar and spices such as cloves, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon as well as “capelin with sliced almonds.” The capelin are the small fish that the cod eat and what brings them to Newfoundland. They are lightly floured and fried in canola oil surrounded by fried sliced almonds and eaten with a rhubarb relish made with half rhubarb and half onion with vinegar, brown sugar, cloves, allspice and cinnamon.

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Smoked capelins. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

I particularly liked flipper pie, made with the meat from seal flippers that came out of a jar, but couldn’t imagine the hassle of trying to bring that back to the States. Bakeapple was found in many desserts and jams, and it was only later I discovered that it’s the Newfoundland name for cloudberries. I also ate figgy duff, though I never figured out what that was.

Bay Bulls-Style Fish Stew

Bay Bulls is a small fishing village south of St. John’s. Here, “fish stew” means “cod stew.” This stew is made with a hardtack called brewis, which is typical in southern Newfoundland, but not in the north. Hardtack is rock hard biscuit made from durum wheat that must be soaked before using. Every Newfoundland market has Purity hard bread (hardtack or ship’s biscuit).

Serves 6

Ingredients

½ pound pork fatback, cut in three ¼-inch-thick pieces, each scored

1 large onion, sliced

4 Yukon gold potatoes (about 1¾ pounds), unpeeled and sliced ½-inch thick

2 cod heads

1 cup water

1½ pounds boneless cod steaks

3 hardtack biscuits (about ½ pound), soaked in water over night

Directions

1. In a Dutch oven or other cast iron stew pot, over medium heat, cook the pork fatback, turning and stirring until crispy brown, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until not quite soft, about 5 minutes.

3. Layer the potatoes and cod heads on top of the onions and add water.

4. Place the cod steaks on top, cover, and once the water starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until done, 30 minutes.

5. Drain the soaking hardtack biscuits, crumble with your hands and sprinkle on top of the cod, cover, and cook 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Fish and chips with dressing at Leo’s in St. John’s. Credit: Clifford A. Wright


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

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