A High Way With Byways
Amy Rosen - June 2014
On a remote isle adrift in the forbidding Atlantic off the Newfoundland coast, Murray McDonald weaves the islanders’ hardscrabble traditions into contemporary statements befitting the sustainability ethos of the visually striking Fogo Island Inn. Amy Rosen bundles up to visit a faraway wintry hinterland.
Out on the North Atlantic on the eastern edge of North America, the January winds wail and thick sheets of ice crack apart as we make our way on the ferryboat from Farewell to Fogo Island before driving another half hour to the Fogo Island Inn on Joe Batt’s Arm. This last stretch of the journey has been preceded by a flight to Gander, Newfoundland, and another hour-long drive to the ferry terminal. So getting to the inn isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But then again, nothing on Fogo Island has ever been easy.
“Back in the day, a bunch of things had to happen in order to put food on the table,” explains Murray McDonald, the Fogo Island Inn’s executive chef, all rocker hair, bookish glasses, and de rigueur tattoos, as we head out on a day of exploration on this wee island outpost that roughly measures 15 1/2 by 8 4/5 miles. You had to fish, and you had to salt to preserve the fish. You also had to make salt beef. You had to grow your own vegetables, you had to have a root cellar, you had to bottle and preserve, and you had to have some form of livestock. You also had the merchant vessels. This all means that dinner was based on what you could grow, what you could get, and what would last. “If all of these things didn’t work in conjunction with each other,” McDonald says, “you starved.” This 18th century island cuisine has led to steadfast but limited food traditions: simply put, Fogo’s is a culinary culture based on the burden of survival. It’s just a lucky break that it also happens to taste bloody good.
And it’s alive and well and part of the forward-thinking multicourse tasting menus served at the 29 room Fogo Island Inn, a new beacon for luxury sustainability and community building created by Zita Cobb, an island native–turned–Silicon Valley CFO of JDS Fitel, who cashed out her stock options in 2002 (at a reported $69 million), sailed the world, then moved back home to the 1,000-strong community of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, Newfoundland. The opportunities afforded by the Shorefast Foundation, a four-pronged entity, includes micro-lending to help locals start up their own businesses, the resurrection of punt-building (indigenous small wooden boats), and the Fogo Island Arts program (four modernist studios have already been built and are occupied by international artists on months-long residencies). The studios were designed by Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders, who also created the fourth and largest Shorefast prong—the inn itself, a stunning statement on stilts overlooking the Atlantic. Its draw is akin to a Bilbao Guggenheim on the Rock. The way the wind blows and the light shines changes the look of the building from the inside and out. “It’s alive,” says Cobb.
An isolated people who lived and died by the sea ever since this land was settled by the English and Irish (plus some Scots and French, hence the warbly accent), who came to fish for cod, everything was going as well as it could here until factory fishing trawlers appeared on the horizon in 1951, devastating the once plentiful cod stocks and, for the most part, the Newfoundlanders’ way of life. In 1992, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on East Coast cod fishing, thinking the depleted stocks would rebound. This turned out to be the final blow, as 30,000 families from 500 small communities dotting Newfoundland were left with empty nets and a likewise future.
But on Fogo Island, things were different. The fact that they voted against the provincial government’s offer of resettlement in the 1950s ended up saving them. Instead of moving, the islanders decided to stay and adapt, forming a fishing cooperative and switching gears to pursue crab, lobster, and shrimp. Today, these products are celebrated, especially by McDonald at the inn.
Originally from the western part of the province, McDonald worked in Vancouver, New Zealand, the Caribbean, and Mexico before returning home to launch the food program at the upscale inn, where the surrounding rocks and tundra are a far cry from the lush hills and warm waters of the tropics. But, he says, this uncompromising landscape still gives him all that he needs in order to create what he calls “the food that we do.” For the sake of this story, let’s call it New Newfoundland cuisine.
“When I arrived on Fogo, I went around looking for different suppliers, trying to find out who grew what,” says McDonald. “I met Alf at the Farmer’s Co-op [which Shorefast started]. Alf told me, ‘I grow what I grows.’”
And what he grows is very good indeed. So the chef started knocking on Alf’s root cellar door more often, then stopping in for supper. A working relationship was forged, a friendship bloomed.
“I’m a fisherman,” says Alf Coffin, as we all sit down around the table, coffees with whitener in hand, made by his wife, Joan, within a minute of entering their home. “It’s all I’ve ever been.” Coffin, an almost stereotypically kind-hearted harmonica-playing Newfoundlander, still fishes five or six months of the year. But now, he can also call himself a hipster farmer, as he provides the chef with much of the root vegetables and greens, including a new crop—kale—that McDonald needs. Coffin says you can grow anything here “if you don’t mind putting the work into it.” During a hike before lunch to check out Coffin’s seaside garden beds fertilized with kelp, we do some winter foraging amidst the ice and snow on rocks covered in multicolored moss and plankton. We root out juniper, crowberries, and partridgeberries, which are actually sweeter now, their sugars intensified by the freezing air, like grapes during a January ice wine harvest.
“Pea soup!” exclaims McDonald, rubbing his hands together in anticipation as Joan presents us with bowlfuls of hers, back at the Coffins’ kitchen table. “This is what I’d always ask for when I was away and came home.” It’s a poetic pot full of cubes of salt beef that have been soaked overnight and drained to remove the saltiness, carrots, potatoes, turnips from the garden, and a bag of yellow split peas simmered in water for ages. Dumplings called doughboys are dropped over the top; after 20 minutes, they’re ready to eat. The chef’s reimagined take on this recipe, called pease pudding & cod at the inn, is the best sort of dish—one based on a childhood memory.
“I used to stay at my grandparents’ a lot, and my grandfather only ever cooked one meal a week, and it was breakfast,” he says. “So he’d be there frying up some bacon with his shirt off, and he’d be cooking off cod, baking beans, and at the same time my grandmother would be getting the Jiggs dinner on the way.” And there sat McDonald, smiling and smelling both dishes together: the cod and pease pudding—the cabbage, the potatoes, the turnips, the salt beef. “All of the smells were there, but Newfoundlanders never ate them together.” Until now. His take is a winning mash-up of seared cod, baked yellow peas, salt beef, split pea dumplings, and savory yogurt. While formally executed, you can taste the simplicity of the chain that brought it to the plate.
Alf’s small northern ocean shrimp also make an appearance at the lunch table, and if you closed your eyes, you’d swear you were eating lobster. “That’s just the taste of them,” says McDonald. “You’re used to Thai river shrimp.” Alf caught and pickled the herring, too. Solomon Gundy, they call it here. Joan’s home cooking is warming, made even more so by the Coffins’ extreme hospitality. “There are no strangers in Newfoundland,” says Alf, “just friends you haven’t met.”
Other strangers we happily meet include Terry Penton and Wanda Brown, who take us out on their ATVs over glassy ponds and snowy trails, helpfully marked by frayed orange shrimp bags for newcomers, for a so-called “boil-up” in the woods, a Newfoundland tradition that was once a necessity but now means weekend fun with family and friends. Faster than you can sing “I’m a Newfie, by George,” Penton and Brown have chopped down branches and boughs, laid them in a circle on the snow, and sparked a flame that is now a raging fire. The fact that it also happens to look like a prop stylist got her hands on this picture-perfect food scene is simply a bonus.
Penton maneuvers two larger branches over the fire to support a makeshift teapot he’s MacGyvered out of a can and wire. It’s filled with water, a couple of tea bags, and spruce tips. The story goes, when local loggers of yore would be out in the bush for months and getting to the end of their tea supply, they’d put a couple of tea bags in the pot and would bulk it up with spruce, pine, and juniper to make it last longer. The Fogo Island Inn’s bartenders have taken a cue from the loggers with a spruce-infused vodka and ginger syrup cocktail that features spruce tips lolling at the bottom of the glass.
Keeping warm around the fire, we eat Brown’s perfect pan-fried fish cakes, full of Fogo Island salt cod, and wieners and beans. This seems like as good a time as any to mention that Newfoundland was a British colony until 1949, whereupon it became Canada’s 10th province. Molasses is drizzled over slices of fresh bread, into tea—really, over everything on Fogo, because of an early tradition of trade with Jamaica—hence Newfoundland’s predilection for rum—when molasses was in abundance and refined sugar was not.
We’re now in Roy Dwyer’s Chevy pick-up driving around for a tour of Fogo Island. Like Alf Coffin, Dwyer is a born-and-bred Fogo fisherman—he brought in 3,000 pounds of hand-lined cod last summer, most of which he filleted and froze, some of which he salted—and is explaining the can-do culture of living on an island in the middle of the ocean. “You break it, you fix it,” he says. “You haven’t got it, you make it.” Dwyer, who is also a storyteller, a poet, and plays a pickup game of hockey three nights a week, lives in the small community of Tilting, with his wife, Christine. They’re happy here, and you would be, too, if you could see the views from their home. “We’re on the edge of the North Atlantic,” says Roy. “Beyond that ice is Iceland, Greenland, and Scotland.”
Christine is frying up cod in the pan, along with their tongues, and the mashed potatoes are good to go. “Roy caught the fish and, of course, the tongues came with them,” she says, “and the potatoes are from our garden.” A color burst array of canning jars lands at the center of the table: homemade pickled beets, tartar sauce, and million dollar pickles. It’s all just too good.
Back at the inn, we nibble on a hyper local bar snack of capelin, small iridescent fish that spawn for a couple of weeks each summer before being scooped up by locals with pails. McDonald smokes them, rendering them the perfect accompaniment to bartender Jacob Luksic’s Newfoundland take on the Old Fashioned, which sees whiskey swapped out for rum and benefits from molasses-flavored bitters.
Dinner opens with a dish called snow crab and sea salt. “This was inspired by when the pack ice was in,” says McDonald. “We were developing dishes, and a big storm surge came in, with 40-foot waves of white ice hitting the island from all sides. So as this is all happening, we go down to Oliver’s Cove, and I see these crabs that have been smashed up on the rocks.” That awe-inspiring moment on the rocks translates into a second one on the plate: an abstract interpretation of savory salted meringue, fresh crab, crab oil aïoli, pickled wee Romanesco, and edible dirt made from charred lemons, chicory, black cocoa, and mushrooms. Shattered crab makes another appearance in McDonald’s winter wonderland dish of crab and bone marrow sitting on torched spruce boughs akin to our boil-up in the woods, but they come by the tableside antics honestly. It’s a Fogo triple threat of land, forest, and sea. And a shining example of how isolation and the room to grow can make a tiny island outpost a bright light for a new type of cuisine, one that’s at once cutting-edge and as old as time.
Amy Rosen is a Toronto-based journalist. Her third book, Toronto Cooks, will be released in October.
Food with a View"Amy Rosen"
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province, hospitality is practically a contact sport, where dinners turn into kitchen parties full of song, fiddles, and dishes that reflect the warmth of the locals. As for the restaurants, they’re all about the mighty Atlantic, with many boasting a view of it. Here are some of the province’s most distinct places to dine:
Raymonds: Only one chef has ever won enRoute magazine’s “Canada’s Best New Restaurants” award twice, and Jeremy Charles, the chef/co-owner of this haute Newfoundland restaurant, is that chef. His insider tip for dining at Raymonds? “Guests visiting during the spring and summer should definitely try the seafood platter,” he says. It’s a silver bowl piled high with fresh Atlantic snow crab, lobster, whelk, mussels, and oysters—the best tastes of the ocean, St. John’s very best.
The Duke of Duckworth: You can order a homey turkey potpie or happy hour’s dry-spiced wings, but why would you when you can tuck into the most gigantic, freshest fried cod and chips this side of Scotland? Pair it with a pint of Black Horse and you’re set for a rollicking night.
Mallard Cottage: In Quidi Vidi Village sits this instantly beloved new restaurant, a restored fisherman’s cottage, one of the oldest wooden buildings in North America, where chef Todd Perrin’s awe-shucks charm is reflected in his elevated down-home cooking. Try the stuffed lamb belly with barley risotto, and smoked cod/potato salad as you settle around the wood-burning fireplace.
Lighthouse Picnics: Whether you sit atop Ferryland’s grassy cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, or on the circa-1870s lighthouse’s deck during blustery weather, you’ll be following the great Newfoundland tradition of a “mug-up” in the woods (albeit more upmarket). To wit: chef Jill Curran’s crusty oatmeal bread sandwiching fried local coldwater shrimp with sliced radishes and ginger mayo, orzo/mint salad, and apple crumble.
Bonavista Social Club: Home to the province’s only commercial wood-fired (using local birch) bread oven, this casual Bonavista Peninsula–area restaurant dishes out blistered fire-baked pizzas, moose burgers, and partridgeberry bread pudding with butter/brown sugar sauce. Pick up a loaf of sourdough to go.