Dispatch: St. John’s, Newfoundland
Need meat for flipper stew or do moose sausages sound good for dinner? Flipper pie, a local favorite, was sold out by 11 am. Darn. Flippers from the harp seal are most widely available in Springtime, an Easter dinner treat in Newfoundland. Bidgood’s Grocery boasts the ‘authentic taste of Newfoundland,’ and provides an education about local customs that goes deeper than usual tourist fare.
The extensive use of seal products goes back hundreds of years in St. John’s, the most Easterly city in North America. Seal hunting is condemned by PETA and the Humane Society, but Newfoundlanders march to their own different drummer, not French, Portuguese nor Irish whose fishermen settled here and they’re not exactly Canadian either.
Seals number in the millions in a place where food deliveries are scarce when ice packs fill the harbors. It’s been illegal to hunt the white coat baby seals since 1987, but those a bit older are hunted for the tender meat, called the ‘veal of the sea’ and of course their skins. Why is baby calf consumable but an adolescent seal is not? Newfoundlanders use the entire animal. A local chef argues that gourmand seal dishes will increase demand for the meat.
Different kinds of berries, including blue, bakeapple and partridge as well as frozen rhubarb fill a freezer compartment at Bidgood’s. Tart partridgeberries made into a coulis provide a base for the Berry Picker Martini, a smooth libation. The color in the glass glistens like Malbec and warms diners at Bacalao Restaurant, a gourmet destination in the downtown area. (See recipe below).
The U. S. Department of Agriculture praises the partridgeberry shrub’s fall color and low-maintenance. The USDA states only birds eat partridgeberries that grow throughout the eastern U. S. Don’t tell Newfoundlanders who use these red berries are made into jams, pies and tarts, and … martinis. It’s not birds drinking these martinis.
The North Atlantic doesn’t have a long growing season. People depend on the sea for food and restrictions on the staple, cod which was overfished by mechanized Russian trawlers with canning ships accompanying them, have had an impact.Now they fish and harvest shellfish, halibut, and salmon. Newfoundlanders resent the reduction of cod and restrictions in fishing them but they also begrudge ships that never dock and contribute to the local economy.
When cod appears in a fisherman’s net, it becomes a legal catch and wild cod can be found. ‘Pot farming’ for cod has been marginally successful. Most of St. John’s mourns the difficulty of getting cods’ tongues (the smaller ones are more flavorful) for their appetizers, a tasty treat, like these served with aioli pictured below.
The fishery at Quidi Vidi has been converted into the Iceberg Beer Brewery and yes, the beer contains genuine iceberg water. Icebergs as high as fourteen stories have drifted near the coast providing an excellent base for this beer described as clear and refreshing like drinking a glacier.
Grocery shopping in St. John’s presents a logistic challenge in icy winters. Thus the store has a wide range of needed products not found in other urban areas (population: 150,000) for one-stop shopping. Sealskins, hand knit socks, caps, mittens and boot covers stock the aisles along with frozen moose sausage.
Belbin’s (1943), older than Bidgood’s by twenty years, sells pre-made dinners of shepherd’s or rabbit pie along with specialty items including chili peppers and mulligatawny soup for the tastes of diverse populations that continue to live here. If a shopper leaves a house key with the store, Belbin’s will deliver milk and place it in the refrigerator. If the door is unlocked as many are, there’s no need for a key.
A small town vibe coexists with a city that includes an impressive arts center and a first class medical school. Sophisticated fare at restaurants like Bacalao where owner, wine expert, and pastry chef, Andrea Maunder, gives meaning to farm/sea to table with her cod tongue appetizers and ginger cake covered with crème anglais. In spite of no flipper pie for dinner, Bacalao’s PartridgeBerry Picker Martini makes an agreeable alternative:
2 shots Iceberg Vodka
½ shot dry vermouth
½ shot lime cordial
1 shot of partridge berry coulis (substitute lingonberries or raspberries)
Shake with ice (preferably from a glacier)
Serve with floating berries
Thanks to Bernadette Walsh from St.John’s Division of Culture and Tourism for a terrific tour. We benefited from her introduction to St. John, including a fantastic meal at Bacalao.