Traversing the Wilds of Newfoundland and Labrador With One of Canada's Best Chefs
“It's like being at a ballet,“ says chef Jeremy Charles, incredulous at the sight of all the fish leaping from the Salmon River in front of us. They grand-jeté out of the waves at crazy sideways angles, their fins flapping like little golden wings as they propel themselves upstream, the way they’ve always done during Newfoundland’s annual salmon run.
Here in Canada’s easternmost province, the waterways get so congested you can see rows of iridescent, orange-speckled salmon idling under the surface. Not that we’re catching any. From our mossy perch on the riverbank, we’ve watched thousands glide by—but none are biting. Part of the fun of fly-fishing, I’m learning, is the meditative act of flicking the lure onto the water. I’m trying so hard to perfect my form that actually reeling anything in seems beside the point.
Charles disagrees. He’s enjoying himself, but he’s also starting to get frustrated at our lack of success. A born-and-raised Newfoundlander, he grew up fishing. He’s never seen such an abundance of salmon in one place—nor has he ever struggled so much to catch anything. This is his first time in the stretch of the river where I’ve joined him for an expedition. Our hope is to have Charles cook us a meal with the catch, so I can experience what, exactly, about this landscape has so inspired the food in his award-winning St. John’s restaurant, Raymonds. We’re staying at Tuckamore Lodge, a homey and accessible log cabin on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.
“Patience, Persistence, Presentation: the three P’s,” our guide, Stephen Flynn Jr., reminds us. He’s a “bayman,” as rural Newfoundlanders are known—in contrast to the “townies” of St. John’s, the province’s capital and largest city, and the “mainlanders” from the rest of Canada. More sailor than sports fisherman, he’s been working these rivers for 22 years now and has brought us, by boat, to a special spot he likes. There’s no one else around—except all the salmon.
Presentation is key to Charles’s success, as well. By offering a very contemporary take on Newfoundland’s historic culinary traditions, he’s managed to transform a food culture rooted in necessity into haute cuisine. Classic dishes of the region include toutons (leftover bread dough fried in pork fat), “Jiggs dinner” (salt beef boiled with root vegetables, cabbage, and turnip leaves), and flipper pie (braised harp-seal flippers in a piecrust).
Charles’s bold but humble dishes, like Canadian sturgeon caviar and local hake ravioli, indicate, to some observers, that Newfoundland food is poised to become the next “it” cuisine. He’s joined by other experimental chefs such as Kyumin Hahn of the Merchant Tavern (where Charles is a co-owner) and Todd Perrin at Mallard Cottage, both in St. John’s, as well as Murray McDonald at Fogo Island Inn. They’re searching for how best to combine salt-of-the-earth simplicity with modern bistronomie touches, all with a dash of New Nordic lichen-and-sea-buckthorn sensibility. Some of their dishes are totally cutting-edge, whereas others involve traditional combinations cooked flawlessly—or simply served raw. It doesn’t hurt that the island is surrounded by the freshest seafood imaginable. This also happens to be one of the only places in North America where it’s legal to serve wild-caught game, such as spruce grouse, arctic hare, and moose.
Back on the river, we’ve only gotten nibbles, no bites. Flynn cooks up a shore lunch of cod tongues, a delicacy here. He builds a fire and places the frying pan directly into the flames. We wash it down with bottles of local Iceberg Beer from the Quidi Vidi brewery—“made with 25,000-year-old iceberg water.” It isn’t just marketing-speak: icebergs that calve off Greenland’s glaciers float south well into summertime. On a recent fishing trip to the wilds of nearby Labrador, Charles and his friends dropped their helicopter down to break off hunks of a passing iceberg, using the pristine, virgin ice in their cocktails all weekend.
Newfoundland’s entire coastline has been a fishing paradise since well before the Vikings built a settlement here 1,000 years ago (on the northern tip of the peninsula sits the archaeological site L’Anse aux Meadows). To get up to where we’re fishing, you can either take a short flight from St. John’s to St. Anthony (airport code: YAY) or you can drive up the coast. Going overland takes almost a whole day, but it’s a chance to check out awesome sights like the Gros Morne mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring a fractured geology formed by tectonic collisions some hundreds of millions of years ago. Driving for hours through nature preserves where opalescent cliffs were chiseled out by glacial erosion eons ago, you’ll start to see why they call this island “The Rock.”
Farther south is Arches Provincial Park, in which a pride of rock archways looms over the tides. You pass immense fjords where whales come to feed on capelin, a sardine-like fish so overabundant that hundreds, thousands, millions of them roll onto the beaches here each summer. “There are schools as far as the eye can see,” Charles tells me.
As we finish our lunch outside, Charles laments not having come to Tuckamore sooner. Its owner, Barbara Genge, had been exhorting him to visit. The area has a large moose population, and Genge supplies Raymonds with moose tongues during the hunting season. “A lot of hunters just take the rack, so she shares the catch with the community,” Charles explains. “She saves the tongues for me. Most people just throw them out, which is ridiculous—they’re so delicious.”
Serving moose at Raymonds, with its dining room decorated with trophy antlers and partridge skulls, was part of Charles’s vision: “We wanted to let people know that it’s okay to eat moose in a fancy restaurant, that it’s a world-class thing, that it’s not just something you eat at the cabin or at Nan’s place.” He was absolutely right. I’d never eaten the meat before, but the braised-moose agnolotti I tried at Raymonds a few days after the fishing trip was spectacular. Alongside moose tongues and moose charcuterie, Charles also likes to serve bone-in moose chops. “It’s like a Fred Flintstone– type of thing—people’s eyes fall out of their heads when you bring them to the table.”
It’s been overcast and foggy for most of our excursion on the Salmon River—mauzy, as Newfoundlanders call it—but when the sun comes out, the landscape becomes dazzling. Endless conifers across the water take on the appearance of emerald triangles superimposed upon one another. At one point, a coal-black moose saunters over and joins us. He looks enormous with his majestic eight-point antlers, but Charles assures me he’s only an adolescent.
And then, shortly before day’s end, right before we decide to head back to Tuckamore for dinner, I suddenly feel a tug on my fishing rod—I’ve caught one! Charles helps me reel it in, slowly, letting it fight, making sure not to snap the line. When we finally get it into the net, we’re euphoric. We catch a couple more as the sun starts to set, and then make our way to the lodge, trekking through a marsh dotted with cloudberries: orange-colored, raspberry-like fruits filled with a musky juice. Charles keeps stopping to pick wildflowers.
Of all the plants I see on this trip, the weirdest, most Willy Wonka–like is the oyster plant. Its pale green leaves taste exactly like oysters; eating one is wonderfully destabilizing. At Raymonds, Charles likes to deep-fry them in a tempura batter and serve them with a chicken-liver mousse.
Back at the lodge, Charles starts “cooking up a scoff,” as he puts it, using the local expression for preparing a meal. First, he pan-fries some of our salmon collars in butter from his own Jersey cows. Newfoundlanders like the collars best, he tells me, as they’re the fattiest, most flavorful part of the fish. He then prepares a couple of fillets, cutting thin slits into the back of the salmon’s skin, allowing the fish to take on a delirious crispiness as he browns them up in more of that butter.
“I also brought a few odds and sods with me,” he says, taking out a cooler full of provisions. We eat fire-grilled partridges, raw diver scallops, cod sounds, and moose tenderloin seared on Labrador tea branches. For dessert, we have a homemade partridgeberry cake. It’s all so unbelievably good. Charles, in his wool cap and wool sweater, is grinning like a gentle Viking in his Canadian Valhalla. “Wow, I’m really BK,” he says with a laugh.
“What’s that?” I ask him.
“BK means ‘best kind,’ ” he explains. “When you’re best kind, it means all is well, you’re supergood, no worries, thumbs up, life is sweet.”