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A cake walk
How to eat your way through Newfoundland, one humble fish patty at a time
“Listen,” my sister said, leaning close to my ear munching a crispy chunk of fried cod at the Anchor Café in Port au Choix, Newfoundland, “that’s what fish and chips should sound like.” For someone who’s worked for 36 years at an iconic West Vancouver fish and chippery, that’s a mighty big stamp of approval.
Linda and I live on opposite ends of the country, but every year we do a road trip together. Last summer, we meandered up and back down Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. That gangly arm pointing towards Labrador is something of a time warp. In spite of boasting two UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Gros Morne National Park and the ancient Viking site of L’Anse aux Meadows — the area is largely unstomped-upon by mass tourism. Many of the unpretentious folks along the way didn’t even get electricity or a road into their fishing outports until the late 1960s.
We believe every good road trip should have a theme and this one would be local food, partly because in these parts that would be about all we’d encounter. (Guffaws still accompany an explanation of the term “locavore” hereabouts.)
Plus, in a province where “fine dining” often means two kinds of vinegar on the table for your chips, it was also our excuse for chowing down on Newfoundland’s deep-fried-low-tide offerings, which we love. Specifically, our quest would be to track down the best fish cakes. Not the chic crab cake that’s typically the benchmark of quality seafood dining, but the humble, traditional little salt cod fish cake.
Although the early 1990s moratorium shut down the large-scale commercial cod fishery, local fishing keeps the province supplied with fresh and salt cod. There are even small-scale farming operations popping up. Renting a car in Deer Lake, my sister and I headed north. After working up an appetite hiking the moody, dramatic fjord-scape of Gros Morne National Park, we sought out Seaside Restaurant (Route 431, Trout River; tel: 709-451-3461; grosmorne.com/victorianmanor) in the fishing village of Trout River. (Many restaurants are seasonal and only open from May to October, so it’s best to call before visiting.)
In honour of the literary festival taking place nearby in Woody Point that featured Canadian-fiction rock stars like Steven Galloway, Lawrence Hill and Joseph Boyden, the restaurant had a “tongue-and-cheek special:” flawless fried morsels of cod’s most underrated parts.
Linda’s fish cakes were the classic combo of mashed potatoes, sautéed onions and boiled salt cod that “some of the local boys gets for us,” explained chef Lorna. She then promptly refused to divulge the tasty herbs within. “It’s a little on the secret side,” she said. We rounded out the meal with cold Quidi Vidi beers brewed in St. John’s with water from icebergs.
A little local flavour
We spent the night in Rocky Harbour and headed to the yellow clapboard house that is Java Jack’s Restaurant and Gallery (88 Main Street North, Rocky Harbour; tel: 709-458-3004/3159; javajacks.ca) for breakfast: a hearty Hiker’s Special of smoked Arctic char, moose sausages, a multi-coloured calico bean pot and two sumptuous fish cakes that included garlic and chives.
“Sometimes we add tarragon,” said Jacqui Hunter, the owner for 11 years, “since every dish on our menu includes at least one item from our garden.” The mustard pickles that are a mandatory accompaniment were homemade with colourful red pepper, cauliflower and cucumber.
Continuing north on the Viking Route, we spotted our first icebergs drifting along the distant Labrador coast across the Strait of Belle Isle. Gardens were carved into the increasingly barren landscape, taking advantage of the flat ground from road building to raise veggies. In places, locals had set up impromptu stands to sell homemade jam made from bakeapple, salmon-coloured tundra berries.
Moose meandered everywhere including onto the menu of the Anchor Café (79 Fisher Street, Port au Choix; tel: 709-861-3665) in Port au Choix, a seaside archeological site with 5500 years of human history. The front half of the restaurant is shaped like the bow of a boat and there was moose soup, stew and burgers to be had. Introduced in the early 1900s from Nova Scotia, moose are now 120,000 strong in Newfoundland.
With no fish cakes on the menu that day, I went hard-core, opting for the “fish and brewis,” once a fisherman’s staple of sea biscuit (a hardtack cracker) soaked in water, mixed with salt cod and sprinkled with “scrunchions,” diced salted pork fat that’s fried until crispy. It was one of several iconic culinary experiences on that trip that proved an acquired taste, one other being “toutons” or fried leftover bread dough. According to the waitress, “some people flats ‘em out, some like ‘em like donuts and some deep fries it.” Everyone pours molasses on ‘em.
A spicy secret
The costume-clad locals who populated the three turf-topped buildings in the reconstructed 1000 CE Viking landing site at L’Anse aux Meadows, the earliest known European settlement in the New World, cooked their authentic Norse porridge-like lunches over an open fire. Linda and I opted for the nearby Norseman Restaurant (Harbour Front, L'Anse aux Meadows; tel: 877-623-2018; valhalla-lodge.com/restaurant.htm) instead, a stylish little eatery where surf-and-turf means Labrador caribou tenderloin and snow crab legs.
Their salt cod arrived atop a bed of caramelized onions and olives, and they served their delicious scallop and crab cakes on a bed of mango slices with cilantro juice and togarashi, Japanese chillies. The water we sipped with lunch had, only hours earlier, been in its solid state, part of an iceberg delivered by boats that “fish” for ice, hacking chunks off bergs drifting past.
Turning back down along the peninsula’s east coast, we explored the Grenfell Interpretation Centre (1 Maravel Drive, St. Anthony; tel: 709-454-4010; grenfell-properties.com; adults $10, kids under 18 $3) in St. Anthony that celebrates the remarkable work of Dr Wilfred Grenfell who set up missions and hospitals in poverty-stricken Labrador and northern Newfoundland in the early 1900s.
When we asked for a dining recommendation on a whale-watching expedition later that afternoon, we took the guide’s advice and chose an old lightkeeper’s residence alongside a working lighthouse. At that unassuming, red- and-white Lightkeeper’s Seafood Restaurant (Fishing Point Road, St. Anthony; tel: 877-454-4900; fishingpoint.ca/restaurant.html) — best known for its Viking Feast served by costumed staff in an adjoining turf-covered underground restaurant — we stumbled upon our most epic fish cakes.
The menu featured the usual cod suspects, but we started with Thai moose spring rolls, a crunchy blend of cabbage, carrots, Chinese five spice and moose hunted by the owner’s dad. Then the plump fish cakes arrived. Perfectly crisp and brown, they melted in our mouths with just the right saltiness complemented by the sweetness of homemade, molasses-rich, slow-baked beans.
“Why are they so darn good?” I asked Audrey Noble, chef for both the café and Viking Feast for over 20 years. “We use good olive oil, but it’s the quality of the cod — and the spices,” she said as she slipped a hefty slice of partridgeberry cheesecake in front of us, “but I can’t tell youse what they are because it’s a secret.”
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