In Newfoundland, cod is king. “We love it pan fried, deep fried as in fish and chips, in chowder, baked, in fish stew, in fish cakes,” says St. John’s restaurateur Andrea Maunder.
But cod is just one of the traditional ingredients of the province featured at Bacalao (Spanish for cod), which opened in 2007.
From the beginning, Maunder’s goal for the restaurant was to draw inspiration from the unique dishes and ingredients of the province to create what she calls “nouvelle Newfoundland cuisine.”
Until then, “A few restaurateurs had an indigenous dish or two on their menu, but nobody was really embracing that hyper-local focus,” says Maunder, who is Bacalao’s owner, wine director and pastry chef and a columnist for Downhome Magazine.
When they realized this approach could be successful, more and more restaurants began celebrating homegrown cuisine, carrying the “eat local, eat seasonal” banner, and she says this has been spreading back to the populace.
Maunder, who lived and worked in other parts of Canada before returning home, is keenly aware of the historic, geographic and economic influences that shaped the singular cuisine of the province.
“We have this rocky chunk of land and it’s always been very difficult to eke out subsistence from the soil. ... Traditionally people lived in very remote areas. The original settlers all came from the British Isles and then we had some Portuguese influences through the years as well.
“People living in such remote communities had to preserve what they could without electricity. So salting and brining became the way to preserve fish and meat,” she explains.
“The vegetables we have always eaten are those that you could store in your root cellar.
“Berries were stored in a barrel in water on the back porch and that would freeze over, so in the winter you went out and just sort of chinked out some berries for whatever it was you wanted to make.
“So our cuisine began from a subsistence kind of living, but the reality is that over the years we have come to love these flavours.”
When the “modern era” brought electricity, grocery stores, imported goods and convenience foods to even isolated communities, people moved away from the old ways and dishes. But in the last few years, Maunder has seen a resurgence of interest in traditional ingredients, particularly among young people.
The restaurant always features a salt cod fish of the day that “could be something of our own invention or something that’s influenced by the cuisine of the world (such as Tanzanian salt cod curry) and that’s very different from the traditional dishes made with salt cod.”
Cod tongues are “a real Newfoundland Labrador delicacy,” she says. “We season, flour and flash deep-fry them so they are crispy, tender and light. They can be best described as similar in flavour and texture to a fried oyster, sweet and delicate, and yes, they really are the tongue of the cod.”
The restaurant’s signature dish is an updated version of a traditional Jiggs dinner.
“It hearkens back to the day when you had an enormous hearth and not very many things to cook with,” so everything was cooked in one pot. Salted meat (beef or pork spare ribs) went into the pot first to simmer, followed in order of hardness by whole carrots and parsnips, chunks of turnip, whole potatoes and onions and chunks of cabbage. Split yellow peas in a muslin bag would be suspended from the edge of the pot to cook with the vegetables to make pease pudding.
Bacalao’s version is an appetizer in which the Jiggs dinner hash is put inside a cabbage leaf and steamed. It is served with a dollop of pease pudding, sweet mustard pickle and a shooter of “pot liquor,” a small cup of the broth the dinner was cooked in.
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“All the elements and flavours of this very traditional big meal are there but in an elegant appetizer,” Maunder says.
Wild game — rabbit, partridge, grouse, moose — is still “a big part of Newfoundland cuisine” she says, particularly in rural areas.
“But even inside the city there would be people who have game in their freezers. And the restaurants are certainly embracing that. Caribou not so much now because the herd is endangered. We took it off our menu last year.”
Like elsewhere, turkey is traditional for Thanksgiving and Christmas in Newfoundland. But the stuffing must be made with Newfoundland savoury, Maunder says.
It’s a summer savoury with “a very specific flavour and quality” and Newfoundlanders on the mainland often send home for it in advance of the holidays.
“A Newfoundlander would never use sage or thyme, but even more than that, they would never purchase fresh or dried savoury from anywhere else.”