By Richard McCarthy, Slow Food International
What is Newfoundland?
I have long been intrigued with Newfoundland — a large Island that juts out into the North Atlantic. Somehow, it has its own time zone (30 minutes ahead of Atlantic Time), and is Canada’s most recent addition (joining the Federation in 1949). I was born of a British mother and an American father: I’ve always felt mid-Atlantic. This place is truly Mid-Atlantic! In our Slow Travel partnership with Adventure Canada, I led a team of gastronauts for the Maiden Voyage in an October circumnavigation around this fascinating island.
Slow Travel: Definition
Our publishing house, Slow Food Editore, has provided travelers with useful navigation since the early Slow Food days: consider the Osteria Guide and the Slow Wine Guide. But while publishing and travel have since experienced major sectoral structural changes, a desire for meaningful travel still remains. Many Slow Food members recognize an important unspoken member benefit: no matter where you find yourself in the world, you can always look up Slow Food representatives to search for authentic experiences. Recently, we have welcomed the arrival of more formal travel partnerships: AirBnB’s social impact Food Experiences are set to launch, and a regional tourism project in Austria is rebranding a region as Slow.
For our part, together with Slow Food Canada, we launched an international partnership with famed Arctic explorers, Adventure Canada. It is developing a new program and operational focus, A Taste of Place. It seeks leading food advocates, leaders, chefs and travelers eager to partner in its evolution and impact.
Together, we are testing the theory that food experiences at sea and on land change people. They return home connected to people who heroically defend fragile parts of our planet. But there’s more: We are also attempting to transform complex procurement practices in the ship’s kitchen. Like school canteens and hotel catering, efficiency and food safety create formidable barriers to local sourcing. We first met key members of this family-owned Canadian travel company in Moncton, New Brunswick in 2017 and set our sails for Newfoundland.
When I arrived at the site of the earliest certified Viking settlement in North America at L’Anse aux Meadows, I came to discover that for many Canadians, a Newfoundland circumnavigation is a bucket list trip. Interestingly enough, this is also true for Newfoundlanders: The island is huge. Most locals do not venture far. Roads are limited and many of the small villages are only accessible by sea. It is a beautiful place. Rugged and sparsely populated, the landscape is reminiscent of other North Atlantic seafaring places I have visited. The largely Scottish-Irish population still speaks with distinctive accents. Have you ever spent time in Cornwall in the UK? I couldn’t help but think of Cornish for much of the voyage. Both places share long histories of extractive industry: For Newfoundland, fishing—mainly the catching of cod—is the narrative that lives through story and song. Mining, too, plays a role, but a lesser one. What happens when an extractive economy runs its course? Cod is the reason most people came to Newfoundland. Whaling and sealing have also played a role in luring seafarers, but it is cod that made Newfoundland the key to open England’s triangular trade with the Caribbean. Interestingly enough, the thirst for rum is evident in local drinking establishments. Apparently, the Provincial capitol, St. John’s, boasts more bars per capita than anywhere in North America. There is no question: St. John’s is a food town. Or maybe, it’s a bar town. It’s both.
When Cod Was King
At one point, fishing communities financially flourished. As a result, they devoted relatively little time to farming, and instead traded with the world for basic provisions. Nonetheless, there is a farming culture, albeit very small. Unfortunately, Newfoundland has seen an 89% decline in farms on the island. In 1951, there were 3,626 farms. Today, 400 farms struggle to survive. Since the 1992 cod moratorium, locals have struggled to find meaningful employment in their fishing communities. Unfortunately, this does not prevent foreign, long-line fishing factories from exploiting international waters (leaving little for inland Newfoundland fishers). We visited several small communities that face the difficult decision whether to close up shop or take government buy-outs and disburse.
The locals possess a remarkable fortitude and stubbornness. Understandably so: distrust of elected officials who make decisions about their livelihoods from the comfort of Canada’s capitol (Ottawa) works its way into a number of the songs performed by on-board experts and performers Tony Oxford, Gerry Strong and Alan Doyle. And while the sadness of cod and its demise hung was a prominent talking point, we also met inventive yet realistic leaders who are growing new food businesses, figuring out tourism, and are looking forward. Offshore oil has provided a different economic boom; however, benefits are Canadian (not specifically Newfoundland).
Let’s Start with the Kitchen
If you’ve ever paid much attention to sea travel, stories of endless whipped cream desserts abound. Even on a smaller ship – The Ocean Endeavor carries 198 passengers – the quality of food experience is shaped by competing influences: most notably between cost, strict food handling, and procurement practices. When we began to explore how we might influence the food served aboard with Adventure Canada, we recognized that change comes slowly. Our goal during this first voyage was to stage one Slow Food Feast featuring key ingredients and traditional dishes. (One such dish, Jigg’s Dinner, is served in most homes and involves salted, stewed meat as a base for a split pea stew.) Thanks to a receptive and international culinary team – a Zambian administrator and an Indonesian chef – we began to chip away at how to prepare a high seas interpretation of a traditional Newfoundland dinner (on the third dinner on a 10-day expedition). It is worth noting that during the first few days aboard the ship, passengers who were interested in food found me. They wondered when the Slow experiment would begin. While the food was perfectly acceptable, dazzle it did not. To be fair, when traveling by ship to strange and fragile corners of the planet, we should be thankful we are fed at all. Needless to say, our role on board is to push boundaries and match the expectations of passengers who care. This we did.
Food Insecure or Land of Plenty?
Prior to dinner on this third evening, I delivered a Slow Food presentation (to a crowd of passengers who by now were wearing their wooly snail caps). Not familiar with Newfoundland? It is an Island with a reputation for ruggedness, a somewhat distant relationship with its mainland, and a desire to share all of its tragic sadness (about cod and other losses) in song. After an estranged relationship with Great Britain, it joined Canada in 1949 after a public referendum. In order to learn this context, we were lucky. Important authors and local musicians aboard served as crew and talent. According to governmental reports, Newfoundland fights chronic diseases, imports 90% of purchased consumer foods, and has relatively few full service grocery stores. One figure cited by local NGO, Food First Newfoundland, puts this figure at 89% of communities with no nearby groceries.
As expected, this formal view of an Island’s state of affairs provides provocative dinner table talk. It also contrasts sharply with the experience of those who hunt, fish and live on this North Atlantic rock. Remember, outside of the metropolis of St. John’s, most of Newfoundland lives off the land and sea. Consider the picture-perfect village of Francois (pronounced France-way); It clings to the rocks that crash down into the harbor. Approximately eighty residents have one general store. And yes, the liquor section dwarfs the produce section! On the other hand, the yeast (for baking) supply was noticeably robust. Also, onboard experts reminded me how most household protein comes from hunting and fishing. Throughout the expedition, it was as if author Marion Nestle was whispering in my ear: “If you want to spread chronic diseases fast, grocery stores are your carrier.” Outside of St. John’s, diets remain linked to the traditional hunting of moose, foraging for fish, berries, and small gardens of root crops. (Restaurateurs, check this out: Newfoundland allows for game meat to be served on menus.)
Cocktails and Seal Canapés
After the lecture, the bar team served up a memorable whiskey cocktail soaked in the local delicacy, scrunchions (pork fat), and blended with partridge berries (an important wild berry similar to a cranberry, harvested low to the ground). On-board Adventure Canada Taste of Place Scientist in-Residence, Anthony Caporale (Spirits Education Director at ICE – the Institute of Culinary Education) designed this and other specialty cocktails during the expedition. Accompanying the drink, the kitchen team served seal canapés. It took some convincing. After all, this is a controversial subject. Not only are seal products banned in the USA and Europe, the meat is also intense and difficult to work with. The sight of it is enough to scare off many a cook. It is black in color. Tony Oxford and filmmaker Barbara Doran guided the chef as how best to prepare the meat: soak in baking soda to soften the flesh. He also soaked it in soy sauce. For many passengers, this was their first taste of seal (a show of hands indicated 70%). Of these, approximately 20% enjoyed it. Needless to say, with food as our focus, we believe it is important to recognize this traditional Newfoundland staple. Amazingly, “flipper pie” can be found in grocery stores. For generations, fishers considered seals as formidable competitors for cod. Should seals be hunted? Since seals pay no attention to the government moratorium, they continue to consume cod. There are millions of harp seals. An adult seal consumes 40kg of cod each day, but the only piece of the fish that is consumed is its stomach. They leave the rest of the fish to sink to the ocean floor.
And What a Feast it Was!
After the aperitivo, dinner was served—and with much fanfare. We worked for it: Adventure Canada’s Taste of Place Scientist in-residence Kelly McGlinchey (co-chair for Slow Food NYC) and other local experts devoted meeting upon meeting to work through the logistics of the ingredients. Similarly, Adventure Canada’s co-founder (and Slow Food member) Bill Swan had been sourcing and investing in ground contacts, procurement sources, working with the ship’s food and hotel provider and food education partners for months in advance. He enlisted local foragers, like CodSounds’s Lori McCarthy (to purchase root crops); Tony Cobb at Fogo Island Fish to deliver (hand-line-caught) cod and snow crab; and Barbara Doran to procure wild berries.
It is one thing to source the product (at a reasonable price). It’s quite another to do the quality products justice and in a way that reflects traditional recipes. Barbara Doran spent countless hours in the kitchen with the cooks to trust her instincts. Do you know how to make a partridgeberry duff? We learned that the key for this cranberry that grows like groundcover is not too much sugar. While I cannot attest to this recipe for the duff, you can gauge the general concept. In our quest for authenticity, we even broke into a cabin to “liberate” dark rum. And what about Jigg’s Dinner (salt beef and pea soup without the necessary split peas)? And how does one prepare the Ark of Taste Red Fife wheatberries for the salad course? When at sea, improvise, improvise, improvise! Speaking of wheatberries, who could have anticipated that they would have brought such drama to the high seas? For days, we were under impression that the wheatberries had not made it on board. Yet, right before dinner prep, we learned that the berries had been found. Apparently unfamiliar with wheatberries, kitchen staff was madly searching for berries in the refrigerator. After online searches, they discovered that the missing product was actually a grain. This speaks to what challenges there are to deviate from the norm.
The Slow Food Feast menu was, as it turned out, something of a game changer. Eaters genuinely enjoyed learning and tasting Newfoundland fare. To great delight, tables of new acquaintances opted for ordering family style. They did not want to miss out on any dish. A personal highlight was for local hero and musician Alan Doyle exclaim how the salt beef was like being back home! The wines – British Columbian and suggested by Slow Food Canada – were also a welcome set of new flavors and reflective of Canada’s burgeoning wine industry. Perhaps even more encouraging, the quality of the food improved after the Feast. Mind you, the food was okay up until then. Nowhere near a Slow Food experience, it was fine. Afterwards, the chef really leaned into the fact that passengers were paying attention. We experienced more of his Indonesian dishes, a smattering of other Newfoundland ones, and greater care and attention to the details that make for better meals. For instance, we purchased carrots in St. John’s harbor from Lester’s Farm (a Centenarian operation). They came with carrot tops. Eaters loved noticing the use of carrot tops: fried, as garnish for soups and other entrées long after the Slow Feast. But does one Slow Feast make the change we desire? Not quite. However, it is an important beginning on the last expedition of the season. Fortunately, the stars are aligning: Adventure Canada’s desire to incorporate the taste of place into their highly coveted voyages to fragile places is a central tenant to their 2019 expeditions. We are excited to collaborate on these next steps. Import substitution on board will yield better, cleaner and fair food and drink onboard.
The Element of Surprise in Planned Excursions
On every Adventure Canada expedition, every passenger is assigned to a group for day excursions (coded by color). Passengers were then assigned to food groups, named for important local foods: I was a Jam-Jam. These are beloved teatime cookie produced by Newfoundland’s Purity Foods. Others were Flummies (akin to a flapjack), Scrunchions (fried pork fat), and Summer Savory (an original ingredient in Herbs de Provence, it has become an important herb in Maritime Canada and resides on the Ark of Taste). On many days, I joined my Jam-Jams to hike to UNESCO World Heritage sites or, as we did in Elliston, visit historic root cellars. We learned how these earthen structures have long enabled (over 100 years!) the storage of potatoes, parsnips, carrots, cabbage and milk throughout long winters. While hardly unique, the wisdom of the town leaders is such that they determined that they plausibly possess the highest concentration of root cellars on planet Earth. As a result, they proclaim the small community of Elliston as the Root Cellar Capital of the World and boast an autumn festival of food and preservation. This is an inspiring example of how small communities, struggling to maintain populations in the wake of the fading of cod, deploy creativity to put themselves on the map. At the conclusion of the tour, passengers tasted the wild berries that had since become the talk of the ship: Bakeapples (cloudberry in Nordic countries), Patridgeberries (Arctic cranberry), and crowberries (dark black berry filled with seeds).
During other days ashore, I would take small groups of passengers aside to search for these berries (literally at our feet – as these late season, Northern climate berries grow close to the ground) and other wild vegetables. Several coastal vegetables won our hearts: Sea Rocket (if not related to arugula, it shares a similar look and taste – with succulent buds that taste of wasabi), Beach Lovage, mint and various seaweeds. On others, our small group of fearless foragers would stray from the path in search of excursions for future expeditions. Highlights included a sea salt business in the metropolis of Bonavista. At the time, the town seemed tiny. But by the end of the 10 days, my perspective adjusted accordingly. It is a major town. The public-private partnership (Bonavista Creative) has the vision to buy up abandoned, historic buildings, refurnish them, and cultivate a community of innovation (much of these youthful businesses center around food). Newfoundland Salt Company’s Peter Burt and his wife Robin Crane are Newfoundland natives whose careers took them far and wide. Now in their 30s, they have returned home. Peter worked as a chef in the influential farm-to-table St. John’s restaurant, Raymond’s. From there, he asked the question: “Why don’t we harvest salt from these clean arctic waters?” From this question, a business has been born. He showed us around his facility, sampled delicious salt beer (from a partnership with Port Rexton Brewing Company), and sold us smoked salt, cool swag and stories of navigating regulatory agencies and forging a customer base all over the world.
I am delighted to report that Peter and Robin are not alone. Next door, a soap maker forages seaweed and other wild products (including the salt) to deliver a wild apothecary, East Coast Glow. A french fry truck sets up during peak season and features Newfoundland salt. After foraging for seaweed on the beach, we hopped into a taxi and had a most memorable lunch in a hidden spot: The Bonavista Social Club. I met young entrepreneur Katie Hayes, who built the restaurant and beautifully terraced vegetable garden on her family’s property with her husband Shane. This destination is worth the drive: pizza oven, great breads, and moose burgers. The homemade pasta with garden vegetables may have been the best meal on the island. Seaweed-infused gin and tonic did not hurt either! And this is just one-half day of one stop. There are many more stories to tell: from the cordials and fresh cheeses we found in French St. Pierre Island (and yes, an actual French territory with Euros et al.), a locals lunch in the hospital in St. Anthony, and Screech (local rum) hot toddy to warm us up after a frigid archeological walk in Gros Morne National Park. We kept the Surprises Coming The Mudroom Chocolate Martini surprised passengers who returned from their zodiac experience, cold and ready to be warmed with alcohol, but I believe the real surprise was scallops. Ocean Quest’s Debbie and Rick Stanley kept a team of diving enthusiasts happy for most of the journey. Their days were spent underwater. During our stop in Francois, Rick, Debbie and Tony Oxford dove to 20-foot depths to harvest 300 scallops from the ocean floor. While many passengers may have ordered scallops in a restaurant, they had no idea how old (many 10+ years of age), how large, or how to shuck these creatures. We set up a pop-up shucking demonstration at the stern of the ship; and then grilled them for lunch.
We entered into this partnership with Adventure Canada to test theories, learn with a trusted partner, and offer authentic travel experiences to those who follow and trust Slow Food. With one expedition under our belts, I encourage you to give the October 2019 Newfoundland Circumnavigation a serious look. If you’re more of a loner who roams, please remember: This is not cruising the Caribbean on mega-ocean liners with hordes of tourists. For one, the experience is far less formal than I had anticipated. When the winds were too high for a landing, changes to the itinerary were made. The entertainment on board, however, made this trip very special. Local author, musician (ever heard of Great Big Sea?) and actor Alan Doyle performed often with his guitar. And when he was without his instrument, he was hauling luggage and helping folks on and off zodiacs. Passengers were approximately 70% Canadian and 30% American. Somewhere in there, British and Australian nationals also joined. The programming was informal and educational. It was surprising too: The talent night and the evening of storytelling delivered great surprises.
To learn more:
- Video preview of our partnership. Slow Food Feast video coming soon!
- Adventure Canada expedition details
- Look for details about the NYC Slow Food/Adventure Canada Taste of Place event early in 2019
- Authors to read in advance: Kevin Major’s crime thriller, One for the Rock
Films to watch in advance: