Anita Stewart’s Canada: Circumnavigating Newfoundland
Story & photos by Anita Stewart
“Come over for a scoff and a scuff. “
It was an invitation to a meal and a very real party. It was also the beginning of a voyage into the heart and culinary soul of one of Canada’s most captivating regions.
With the North Atlantic as its often gale-blown, iceberg-strewn cradle, it’s impossible to separate the sea from the story of the island of Newfoundland and Labrador, a territory about the same size as Italy on the mainland of the continent.
Rimmed by thousands of miles of rocky shoreline, indented by countless hidden coves; crowned with high berry-covered hills, it’s from the sea that one can best begin to understand this extraordinary Province.
Newfoundland’s history, indeed North America’s history of non-native settlement came first from the northeast when the Norse landed in the 11th century at what’s now known as L’Anse aux Meadows. A few centuries later the Basques and later the French fished the shoals and the banks, drying their catches on shore in temporary camps before sailing home with salt cod and furs and whale oil from Labrador destined to light the lamps of most of Europe. They were itinerant fishermen and little remains of their presence outside of the historic sites other than stories and a good number of place names.
Like them, though, the early settlers, many from the British Isles, were resilient, tenacious and creative. Frankly, they still are. For centuries, the wilderness and the sea have been the twin larders, the very real pantries of entire communities, many of which still have no road access. It was these foodways that Adventure Canada has set out to explore aboard the surprisingly nimble Ocean Endeavour.
By circumnavigating the island visiting one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another and going ashore as often as possible to visit the livyers (locals), the goal was to provide those on board with as genuine a “taste of place” as possible. It was an ambitious undertaking, especially with an internationally-hired crew. It worked, largely because the family-owned company engaged experts in the food traditions of Newfoundland like forager/chef Lori McCarthy of Cod Sounds and her culinary sidekick, cousin and mixologist, Alexandra Blagdon. She and Bill Swan, one of the company’s co-founders curated an absolutely terrific all Canadian wine, beer, and spirits list. Ever try seaweed gin?
Throughout the voyage, Lori’s recipes sparked the menus from her Mom’s pickled beets to her Nan’s gingerbread. Throughout the year she bottled (preserved) rabbit and moose and, just before sailing, ensured that fresh seal loin was on board to serve with her partridgeberry (lingonberry) chutney. There were crispy-fried cod tongues, one of the very real delicacies of Newfoundland cuisine and Jiggs Dinner, a boiled meal of salt beef, carrots, cabbage and split peas simmered in the traditional cloth bag, as close to the Provincial dish as it gets.
Onshore each landing had its own food story all tied to the early isolation and resolute determination of the inhabitants. The community of Elliston boasts more root cellars than anywhere else in North America. Bonavista provided a glimpse of how huge gardens are cordoned off from the harsh ocean winds by rows of tightly bound branches. The Salting Feast in Conche was a testimony to pure Newfoundland hospitality. Even the parish priest opened his home for tea before a full-on fish dinner (fish=cod in Newfoundland) was served forth. Fiddle music and step-dancing went on long into the night.
But in the bays and coves all around the island, all is not sweetness and light and naming some of the issues is, to me, a real feather in the cap of Adventure Canada who routinely brings experts on board. Musician/ culturalist Tony Oxford observed that “scores of villages are on life support because there’s no way to make a living and the population is aging.” The reason? The collapse of the cod fishery, the foreign over-fishing of the Grand Banks and the overpopulation of harp seals that feast on cod liver and nothing else. That the inshore fishermen and their families are the casualties of “clumsy” regulations and “shaky science” is a harsh reality for many of the outports.
Other fisheries have sprung up – snow crab, amazing lobster, whelks that look like giant escargot and farmed mussels…and these, too, were on the Adventure Canada menu. On St. Pierre et Miquelon, the final stop on the voyage and France’s singular outpost in North America replete with good French wines, they’re even harvesting sea cucumbers which are shipped to Asia.
It reminded me of the trip ashore to Gros Morne National Park when, as a blisteringly cold wind funneled down the valley from the north, the interpreter described how the earth’s mantle pushed up as the continents shifted and collided leaving a rock-strewn tableland where only the strongest and most adaptable survived. This is the essence of the province, all bound together by a belief in the future and a deep sense of the past.
Adventure Canada’s Circumnavigation of Newfoundland has been honored with a Canadian Signature Experiences accreditation by Destination Canada. The Swan and Freeze families who founded the company are still deeply involved only it’s now the vital second generation who are taking on the roles. Daniel Freeze and MJ Swan are Expedition Leaders, Cedar Swan is the CEO and Alana Bradley-Swan is the VP-Operations. They care deeply and it shows. The Ocean Endeavour is outfitted with twenty Zodiacs, advanced navigation equipment, multiple lounges, and a top-deck observation room. She is purpose-built for passenger experiences in remote environments. The Ocean Endeavour is 450 feet in length and boasts a 1B ice class, enabling her to explore throughout the Arctic summer.
Lori McCarthy’s company, Cod Sounds, provides an extraordinary array of food experiences from bushcraft and trapping to wild game cookery and foraging by the ocean. Few are as expert or as enthusiastic.
The Indigenous Presence
The arrival of the Europeans marked the final chapter in the lives of the original inhabitants of the region, the Beothuk. They were decimated by disease and isolated from their traditional hunting and fishing grounds by the dominance of both the English and the French. In 1822, the Mi’kmaq, a wide-ranging, largely nomadic people who were familiar with European ways (the great chief Membertou was an ally of Champlain and helped found The Order of Good Cheer), settled on the island in the community known as Miawpukek, near Conne River on the south coast and became Newfoundland’s only First Nations settlement. A very successful community that has retained many of the Mi’kmaq traditions, it is sometimes visited by Adventure Canada.
Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland & Labrador by Jeremy Charles A lavish book with deeply personal commentary by a chef who cooks with his heart and his head. Charles’ restaurant, Raymond’s and it’s more casual cousin, Merchant Tavern are absolutely essential stops in any Newfoundland trip.
Dictionary of Newfoundland English by W.J. Kirwin (Editor), G. M. Story (Editor), J.D.A. Widdowson (Editor) First published in 1982 to regional, national and international acclaim, is a historical dictionary that gives the pronunciations and definitions for words that the editors have called “Newfoundland English”. The varieties of English spoken in Newfoundland date back four centuries, mainly to the early seventeenth century migratory English fishermen of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, and to the seventeenth to the nineteenth-century immigrants chiefly from south-eastern Ireland.
Anita Stewart is the Food Laureate for the University of Guelph and founder of Food Day Canada. She holds a graduate degree in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu/University of Adelaide and is a Member of the Order of Canada. She lives in Ontario.