A Delectable drive-it-yourself Food Tour of Newfoundland
By Valerie Howes, National Post
I’m in a meadow, watching icebergs drift across the Atlantic and petting a baby goat, while its mother — whom I just milked by hand — nibbles clover. My travelling companion, Agatha, is threading daisies. Shane, an Irish restaurateur and farmer in Huckleberry-Finn overalls, is leaning on his elbows describing his experiments in feta, kefir and beer, while Clara, his wispy-curled toddler, uses his legs as a sunlounger. The trees rustle; a bald eagle emerges, then it divebombs into the next field. We all gasp.
It’s the last day of a week-long culinary tour of Newfoundland — from Fogo Island to Bonavista, via St John’s and Heart’s Delight — with CapeRace Cultural Adventures. This moment feels so ridiculously perfect that I suspect tour operator Ken Sooley is hiding in the forest, mumbling into a walkie talkie: “Soften lights on Berg II.” “Cue inspiring monologue.” “Release the bird!” But that’s not how CapeRace works. Sooley arranges your accommodation, dinner reservations and rental car, then sends you off with The Traveller’s Diary, a customized guidebook with insider info on quirky destinations and interesting locals. There’s no daytime schedule and the only non-restaurant activity pre-planned is a kitchen party. The premise: Newfoundland will be generous with dramatic backdrops, local delicacies and engaging characters, as long as you’re open to letting life unfold.
Our first stop is Fogo Island, an outport off the northeast coast. Our digs here: stilt-legged Fogo Island Inn, a brilliant white salt-box-inspired building that has won so many design and tourism awards since opening last year, it should be blushing pink. Both nights we’ll dine at the inn on Murray MacDonald’s tasting menus, with just glass walls between us and the Atlantic. MacDonald creates sparse, yet playful, plates with foraged and hyperlocal ingredients. His kitchen motto: “to find new ways with old things.” His dessert of pickled crowberries, with mini puffs of meringue, moist almond layer cake, springy candied caribou moss, dark chocolate dirt, wild blueberry syrup and a crisp kale-and-apple sorbet makes for a singing, dancing, cartwheeling finale. “Want a 20,000-year-old piece of ice?” asks head bartender Jacob Luksic, as he tosses chunks of iceberg into our cocktails. Snaps and crackles ensue. He invites us to sniff molasses bitters and taste homemade ginger syrup, then before we know it, we’re behind the bar, flaming lemons, spearing foraged berries, and injecting bubbles into drinks. Our last hurrah happens at Phil’s Shed. We met Phil and his wife, Maureen, while hiking past their place earlier. They promised us a party if we popped in later that night. Phil’s — with its green fairy lights, battered sofas, and walls more plastered with paraphernalia than a teen’s bedroom—has become so popular for partying that last year he had to build a second shed for his tools. “Scottish… Scottish… Scottish…” everyone chants, until I sing a song from my homeland. I gulp my rum and coke. The big cheers I get for “Geordie Munroe” far outweigh my talents. The locals break our hearts with perfectly pitched Irish laments and rock and country ballads.
After a ferry ride and a few hours on the road the next day, we reach St John’s. Walking into our yolk-yellow heritage house, Hare’s Ears Cottage, in the Battery neighbourhood, I feel an instant love connection. Walking into our yolk-yellow heritage house, Hare’s Ears in St John’s Battery neighbourhood, I feel an instant love connection. Uninterrupted windows on three sides offer sweeping views from Signal Hill, across the harbour, over to the city’s pretty painted houses. This is the first of three CapeRace properties we’ll stay in — all renovated from tear-down condition by Sooley. A blend of modern comforts — great mattresses and laundry facilities — and vintage décor — royal portraits and patchwork quilts — make each a joy to call home.
Our first dinner reservation is at Raymonds, just named Vacay.ca’s Canadian Restaurant of the Year. Dinner is a ballet, where servers deliver dishes in unison, sometimes lifting cloches with a flourish that makes me want to cry “ta-da!” An injection of oil money in recent years is making it possible for chefs of the caliber of Jeremy Charles (once head chef to the Molson and Bronfman families) to come home and show Newfoundland what they’ve got. My favourite course comes on a slice of tree trunk, with driftwood centerpiece and stone pedestals for a perfect Black Point oyster with tiny pearls sculpted from cucumber, a moose and fennel salami finnochiona, foie gras and confit duck terrine and a diver scallop carpaccio. “The divers handpick them; they can only bring up a hundred at a time — it’s a dangerous job,” says our server. Every dish comes with a tidbit — this place is not too fancy to subdue the natural chattiness of Newfoundlanders.
On night two, beanie-clad Todd Perrin hands me a cap and chef’s jacket. “Just remember, the future of Mallard Cottage depends on you tonight,” he says, grinning as I panic. Instead of dining, I’m joining the team in the Top Chef Canada fan-favourite’s open kitchen. When I’m not assembling amuse-bouches of crostini with egg salad, salt-pork and chives, I’m accepting samples of beet-and-carrot salad or braised pork, from the kitchen crew. Meanwhile Agatha regales strangers at the bar with stories of amazing locals we met that day, like the guy lost for dead picking bakeapples, who survived on berries and bogwater for a week until his rescue. At the end of my shift, co-owner Stephen Lee passes me a glass of wine and asks what I’d like from the menu. “I’m not hungry… I’ve been picking,” I confess. “Said like a true chef,” he says, laughing.
The perfect set-up for a slow braise,” says Agatha, appraising our new robin’s egg-blue kitchen. We’re now in Heart’s Delight, an outport west of St. Johns. Our old-fashioned stove is flanked by a single bed — just like in the 1930s, when the house was built. A knock at the door. It’s Sooley and a couple of neighbours, bearing potato salad, homemade bread and a huge crate of lobster. They usher us outside with red wine to catch the kind of flaming sunset that inspires applause on Mexican resorts. Later back in the kitchen, we don floral aprons and toss lobsters into the pot. Soon we’re cracking shells and ripping out flesh with our teeth—think: Betty Draper possessed by Betty Rubble. We move next door for a Screeching-in ceremony that involves kissing a cod, downing screech (a throat-stripping rum), and kneeling wrapped in Newfoundland flags to recite a saucy tongue twister, which seems all the more saucy for our master of ceremonies’ costume malfunction. “Do up your fly!” a lady shouts from the sofa, bringing our swearing-in as honorary Newfoundlanders to a raucous conclusion.
Our last destination is a three-hour drive across pine-forested hills, with mist rolling over the treetops that makes it feel like we’re in the Himalayas. There are so many house-sized icebergs on the bay behind our Bonavista home, that the outdoors feels air-conditioned. Our hearts race when one splits; it sounds like a bomb exploding. We take photos till our fingers turn blue. We’ve got the knack now of blending the planned with the spontaneous — letting life unfold the CapeRace way — and that’s how our last official dinner of mooseburgers and wood-fired pizza at Bonavista Social Club leads to that impromptu milking session with Shane’s goats. Judging by Agatha’s real-estate chat in the meadow, after our perfect moment, I’m lucky she doesn’t abandon our plan to drive back to the airport.
You get a taste for Newfoundland.