Sunday, May 27. I had booked a tour called Bergs and Birds with the CLA conference. With several librarians, I travelled south from St. John’s to Bay Bulls to board a boat and to explore some islands that are home to puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and razor-billed auks. The icebergs had not arrived yet, and the tour hosts were checking everyday for the humpback whales to arrive from the Caribbean. After gazing with awe at the surprise arrival of a northern gannet soaring over the bitter cold North Atlantic, a cry went out: Whales! A mother humpback whale with a 2-year old baby whale had been spotted. I took a few photos as the boat raced alongside the whales.
Puffins dwell in two-holed dwellings (one hole for eggs; one for guano) in the grassy area where they live comfortable and sheltered lives compared to the other birds. The murres lay their eggs on the precarious rocks below. A few kittiwakes (a type of gull) were spotted as well.
Deirdre Williams, our tour guide, sang songs about her love of Newfoundland and growing up in the village of Bay Bulls. In this photo she is on the lookout for the humpback whales.
The tell-tale spray from the blow hole of the humpback whale.
The village of Bay Bulls, just south of St. John’s.
A taste of Newfoundland
I tried a few of the local dishes, starting with fish and chips. I was surprised that the chips were served with gravy and dressing! I tried a bit of moose soup, but I didn’t partake of the seal flipper pie. I had “fish ‘n’ brewis” at one outing. This is one of the oldest traditional dishes in Newfoundland. The fish is salt cod and the brewis is hardtack, which is longlasting hard bread made from a special winter wheat flour and without shortening or yeast. All moisture in the hardtack is removed in the baking process, but it’s moistened in the fish ‘n’ brewis. The dish also includes scrunchions, which are fried bits of salt pork.
The CLA pub crawl included some screech-ins, which is the ceremony that makes a “come-from-away” an honorary Newfie. Unfortunately I missed watching this event because of overcrowding at the pub holding the ceremony. Screech is Jamaican rum. The screech-in ceremony involves downing some screech, saying some phrases in a Newfoundland dialect, and kissing a cod (or a puffin’s bum, from what I heard). On another occasion I did have a partridgeberry duff with screech sauce. Partridgeberry is the same as lingonberry, which is found in the restaurants at Ikea. I missed out on the bakeapple (from the French ‘baie qu’appelle…’ meaning ‘what is this berry called..?’). Bakeapple is also known as cloudberry, and it looks like an orange/yellow raspberry, but it has a honey/apricot taste. Wild blueberries are also big in Newfoundland.
One of my tour guides pointed out an innovation in Newfoundland farming. Corn is normally difficult to grow in the short growing season in Newfoundland, but local researchers developed a method where corn seeds are covered by plastic mulch to keep them warm. I saw some farm fields covered in this strange white plastic which disappears as the growing corn pops through it. Corn is now a viable crop in Newfoundland, and it is used in feed for dairy cattle.
A few days after my return to Guelph I came across a Globe and Mail article on cod tongues, another Newfoundland dish. The article had some extra significance because of the quote from a man names Loyola O’Brien. This man was the pilot of the boat during my puffins and whale watching excursion!
The article from the Globe and Mail (May 30, 2007):
Cod got your tongue?
ST. JOHN’S — If cod could use their tongues to talk, they might ask you why anyone would want to eat them.
Unlike anything in the seafood world, the tongue of the Atlantic cod (actually a gelatinous bit of flesh from the fish’s throat) is an acquired taste.
But here in Newfoundland – where they say the cod were once so thick you could walk across the bay on their backs – it’s a local delicacy as iconic as moose nose or seal-flipper pie.
Like the latter, the tongue of the cod was first consumed out of necessity – a tidbit that could be had for nothing by anyone willing to sift through the piles of discarded fish heads on the docks and cut it out.
Cod tongues are everywhere in St. John’s, from small restaurants to the Fairmont Newfoundland.
In fact, almost every Newfoundlander of a certain vintage can remember when heading to the docks to collect cod tongues was a “job” for kids – a way to make some pocket money for the Saturday matinees or simply to feed the family.
“We used to get 15 cents a dozen,” remembers Loyola O’Brien, a former cod fisherman turned guide, as we share a plate in his Bay Bulls tour company café.
But with the collapse of the Eastern cod fishery, cod tongues are no longer considered discards.
At St. John’s food stores like the historic Belbin’s Grocery or the massive Bidgood’s, both known for their selection of local ingredients, cod tongues are available fresh or frozen for about $8.50 a pound.
Walk down Water Street in St. John’s today, from Velma’s, a local café, to what locals simply call “The Hotel” (the fancy Fairmont Newfoundland) and you’ll see these coveted little morsels on the menu – lightly battered and fried, topped with everything from the traditional scrunchions (crispy bits of salted side pork) to fruit salsa and aioli in upscale eateries featuring regional cuisine.
At the Fairmont, executive chef Roary MacPherson delivers the mother of all dishes: fat crispy tongues piled high with scrunchions for $13.
“All of a sudden they’re like gold,” he says.
At his cooking school in a historic house just outside downtown St. John’s, chef Bob Arniel provides a quick lesson in cooking the cod’s tongue: Just toss the bits of raw fish – each about the size of a sea scallop – in milk and seasoned flour, then sauté them in hot oil until nicely browned on both sides.
He serves the tongues on a pretty plate garnished with a nasturtium blossom from his garden, with a tiny dish of golden nasturtium-infused aioli on the side.
If the cod could only talk.