Newfoundland: Food from the Wild

By Liz Campbell

My taxi driver cheerfully chats as we drive in from the airport at Deer Lake, his sentences sprinkled with phrases like, “m’love” or “You knows yourself”.

This is Newfoundland English. It has its own dictionary and a wide variety of expressions that can challenge the most agile mind. I’m so intrigued that I start writing these down. My favourite is his hilarious description of a particularly parsimonious lady: “She could fry a fart to make gravy.” It undoubtedly says it all.

The people of Newfoundland, with their distinctive blend of West Country English/ Irish/Scots accent, are charming, a bit of the Blarney Stone’s effects having come along with the Irish genes.

Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, their province is a mixture of bogs, barrens, rocky outcrops, mineral soil and water. Locals have traditionally depended on the ocean’s bounty as much of the island doesn’t easily support agriculture. Indeed, nothing at all grows on the iron and mineral rich rock of The Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park. This unique geological feature, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is some of the oldest rock on the planet – one of a very few places where the earth’s mantle has actually pushed up through the outer crust.

Small wonder then that Newfoundlanders have become adept at fishing and foraging. I’m going to learn to do both.

From Cox’s Cove in Western Newfoundland Wayne Parsons of Four Seasons Tours, takes us out in a traditional dory. Bay of Islands is smooth today and it isn’t long before we’re cod jigging – line fishing. I catch two tiddlers and one larger cod – just call me the cod whisperer.

In an effort to preserve the stock, Newfoundland law only permits us to keep cod caught on the weekend. But I’m surprised when Parsons tosses each fi sh back in a large arc far from our boat. Then I understand. A magnificent eagle dives to swoop up one of our rejected fi sh and takes it to a nearby rocky beach.

Once a fisherman, Parsons takes his new role as guide seriously. He talks knowledgeably about the geology of the magnificent rocky coastline. “Because of the rocks in Newfoundland, scientists discovered plate tectonics,” he explains, pointing. “The rock here actually comes from two continents which collided millions of years ago, creating North Africa and Europe and pushing up the Appalachian Mountains in North America.”

Perhaps the best part of this day is the beach boil up, a Newfoundland tradition. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as nibbling mussels straight out of a pot bubbling over an open fire. Inside Parsons’ pot: fresh mussels and “just a drop of sea water” – the traditional Newfoundland recipe for these succulent molluscs. The sweet, salty flavour is irresistible.

While the sea has blessed Newfoundlanders with plenty of good nourishment, the growing season is short so they supplemented the ocean’s bounty with what they could find on the land. Moose and caribou still provide meat, while foraging provides herbs, greens, an amazing assortment of berries, and more.

At nearby Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse in Rocky Harbour, a National Parks Canada site, we’re foraging with Ian Stone. He and partner, Rebecca Brushett, have created A Taste of Gros Morne. They lead progressive tasting tours around inns and restaurants in the area, a lovely way to sample the fare of several chefs. But we’re heading out on one of their hikes, which include tastings from the wild.

Ours takes us through tangled woods near the lighthouse, and brings a treasure of fat, orange chanterelles, easy to spot on the brown earth. Stone hands us each a small knife, explaining how to carefully remove the head and leave the rest of the plant to grow again. What a treat! Few of us actually see these wonderful mushrooms growing in the wild, let alone get to taste them.

Back in St. John’s, we enjoy another beach boil-up. (I could get used to this al fresco dining.) We’re on the beach with Lori McCarthy of Cod Sounds, chef turned forager and champion of her province’s culture and culinary traditions. She takes us to a deserted beach on the Avalon Peninsula. This is her supermarket.

Surely there’s nothing edible here, I think, but in 20 minutes we have collected sea rocket, fresh chuckly pear (Saskatoon berries), bake apples (cloudberries), blueberries, beach peas, goose tongue (which tastes like asparagus), and much more. Our boil-up starts with a cup of wild mint tea. Thin slices of fresh sweet scallops are just warmed through on a hot rock over the flames, and given a gourmet touch with the tiny blue blossoms of the heal-all plant. Strips of wild moose steak skewered on branches of sweet gale (bayberry ) are grilled over the flames, giving the meat a wonderful sage flavour.

McCarthy is careful to explain some of the rules of foraging. “Only take a third of one plant and a third of the plants in the area as far as your eyes can see,” she says. “That way, you don’t deplete them.”

Foraged foods like these and the fi sh we caught were traditional fare for hardy Newfoundlanders. It’s not unusual to find ingredients like chanterelles, nettles, wild greens and real wild moose in many restaurants around the province, as more and more chefs strive for authentic local flavours. Reviving these traditions is not only a source of food, but has also provided income for many in an oft beleaguered provincial economy.

As we nibble delicious wild berries, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that foraging undoubtedly takes a little longer than a trip to the supermarket. But look at the benefits: nibbling is frowned upon in supermarkets; we’re outdoors breathing fresh sea air; and best of all, there’s no line-up at the cash!