Thursday, July 8, 2010

July: Newfoundland fare: berry, berry good

If any population can be said to have embraced the principles of Slow Food unconsciously, naturally, without paying dues, having meetings, or publishing columns or blogs, it’s the Newfoundlanders. People from The Rock are natural locovores, not just making do with what the unfriendly climate and poor soil can provide, but relishing it and making the rest of us envious for their enthusiasm and joy in consuming it. They are among the most convivial people on earth, and family meals are an ingrained tradition rather than a weekend special event; add a few guests, and the meal becomes a celebration.

A quick look through a Newfoundland cookbook reveals example after example of local food that people from a more privileged climate might never consider, but that Newfoundlanders have turned into an island gourmet delight. Cod, for example, is a delicious fish, and dipped in flour and fried in pork fat, it becomes a delicacy. But the Newfoundlanders, out of necessity, not only use every bit of meat on the fish, but turn those less gentile bits into celebrated treats: cod tongues, cod cheeks, and “britches” (cod roe) are sought-after gourmet items in Newfoundland restaurants.

Make flour, water, and salt into a hard slab and you have a dish that most of the world would find unpalatable; but give it to a Newfoundlander, and he’ll cook it in the same pork fat as his cod, add “scrunchions” (crisp bits of cooked pork back) and serve you a delicious meal of “cod and brewis”. Moose meat is a staple, thanks to the overabundance of moose on the island, and it turns up in roasts and stews, sausages, and even burgers. Bake apples or cloud berries are the local fruit, and there are so many savoury recipes for the preparation of these sweet berries (see below) that Newfoundlanders would never notice the lack of strawberries from Argentina or raspberries from California. Add “lassy mogs” (molasses cookies) and “jam jams” (cookies filled with jam) to the dessert tray, and why would you long for imported fare?

An aside: There’s a story that when the Queen Mother visited Newfoundland in 1967, she was taken to see the Purity Food plant where jam jams are produced. As she walked the production line, she paused and asked one of the workers, “And what are we making here?” To which the Newfoundlander replied, “Five-fifty an hour, Ma’am, five-fifty and hour.”

My most recent visit to Newfoundland and Labrador was last summer when Valerie and I had the fly-fishing trip of a lifetime to a remote fly-in camp in the interior of Labrador (“remote” doesn’t do it justice!) The camp cook provided amazing meals, including all breads and desserts from scratch, with a natural flair and expertise usually found in only the very best urban restaurants. Shawn is in the process of assembling his amazing repertoire into a cookbook, so I don’t think he’ll mind if I provide here his version of berry pie… the best I’ve ever eaten (including, I am sad to admit, my own). Bake apples are Shawn’s favorite, but in their absence, any berries will do.

½ C butter
1 C all purpose flour
1 tsp icing sugar
Roll out and place in pie dish. Bake at 350 degrees until light brown, using a fork to prick holes in the bottom during the first ten minutes.
(I find this crust difficult to work with. Use lots of flour and patience… the result is worth it.)
Mash ½ C berries and add ¼ C sugar. Bring to a boil. Add enough corn starch mixed in water to make the berry mixture very thick and heavy. Cool 5 minutes. Fold enough fresh whole berries into the mixture to fill the shell. Let set until firm in the fridge and top with whipped cream if desired.