North America's most unlikely culinary capital - which you can reach in five hours...
It’s summer in Newfoundland, time to discover my inner hunter-gatherer – well, the gatherer bit anyway. I drive 40 minutes west from the capital, St John’s, to the tiny settlement of Avondale on Conception Bay and rendezvous with Lori McCarthy outside a grocery store called Flynn’s. She checks out my sturdy footwear, says we’re good to go, and I follow her 4x4 down to a little cove backed by a church peeping from trees. “One of the most lucrative beaches for pickin’,” she says.
Pickin’ is what the people of Newfoundland, the easternmost of Canada’s Atlantic provinces, have always done, since they starting arriving from the British Isles on fishing fleets in the 17th century. Pickin’ means foraging for “edibles” – plants, berries, fungi, shellfish, whatever you fancy that won’t kill you. “The growing season was short, the soil was bad, they had to live off the land,” she says, stooping among the pebbles to pluck the tiny leaves of a plant called beach orach.
The tradition has faded, what with fridges and supermarkets. Now Lori, a former restaurant chef, is reviving and repurposing it – showing people a healthy and sustainable way forward as well as plugging them back into their history.
She supplies seven of the more innovative restaurants in St John’s, where a gastronomic revolution has been taking place over the past five years. And operating as Cod Sounds, “a culinary excursion company”, she takes people out on foraging trips before treating them to another Newfoundland tradition, a “boil-up” on the beach.
For visitors like me these expeditions are a means of experiencing and understanding the essence of Newfoundland culture in one hit – people’s profound connection to the land, the austere Atlantic beauty of the place, the simplicity of life.
Newfoundland’s ancestral proximity to England and Ireland has always made it a comfortable place to visit but it’s physically close, too. Through the summer, Air Canada and the low-cost airline Westjet have direct daily flights (from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively) to St John’s and with a flying time of five hours and a time difference of minus three-and-a-half hours, it’s a feasible destination for a weekend break (the restaurants are worth a trip in their own right).
Today Lori has brought her “right arm”, a young chef, Eoin Seviour, who enthuses about the plumpness of the spruce tips (“Newfoundland capers”) before popping some in a bag. Scouring the rocks and rock pools, they lift and bag sugar kelp (you wrap it around cod before roasting it on the fire), lovage (“like parsley”), forget-me-nots and ox-eye daisies (for salad garnish), oyster plant (“highly sought after, great with seafood”), sea rocket (pungent and sharp as horseradish) and goose-tongue (“like chives”).
The goody bags Lori and Eoin fold up are destined for some of St John’s best kitchens and it was Lori who turned them on to the idea of incorporating local, foraged plants into their menus. This approach was of course pioneered by Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and it was reading the recipes of Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, that gave Lori her idea.
“A lot of the stuff, I thought, 'that grows here, that grows here…’ and that’s how the foraging for the restaurants started.”
Meanwhile the restaurants had been creating a distinct culinary identity for Newfoundland, where imaginative, sophisticated food had been rare. In 2014, the province cemented its growing reputation when a St John’s restaurant, Raymonds, earned the accolade of Canada’s finest in the Top Restaurants in Canada rankings. It retained the title last year and Lori is taking me there this evening as part of a restaurant crawl of downtown St John’s. But first: the boil-up.
From the beach at Avondale, we drive inland and north for 20 minutes, then rejoin the fretted coastline of Conception Bay, beyond a settlement called Bay Roberts; park and walk to a rocky cove and a fire pit in which Eoin gets a blaze of birch logs going. While a pot of water comes to the boil, he ties blackcurrant leaves, wild strawberry flowers and juniper berries in an infusion bag. Tea is served.
Lori, meanwhile, wades into a rock pool, comes back with three sea urchins and cuts the bottoms off the shells with the scissors attached to her belt. She scrapes out the intestinal tract to leave an orange starfish of roe, and spoons one up to my mouth on the tip of the scissors blades – a salt bomb of taste. “It’s natural for us to be here,” she says, recalling an outdoor childhood hanging around the beach and the wharves, picking berries with her mother in the autumn. In a pan she fries onions and garlic, throws in mussels which open to reveal little orange inflatables of flesh, and garnishes them with lovage.
I eat them standing up, exclaiming with pleasure. Then she brings out “a pretty big treat” – diver-harvested scallops, obtained from a fisherman friend, “which you can’t buy in Newfoundland”. The scallops are plump and big as chicken eggs. She slices them thinly and places them on flat stones that have been heated in the fire and glazed with butter. On the top she sprinkles oyster plant and lemon zest and holds the stone while I eat. For the second batch, Eoin adds a refinement – orange sea urchin roe placed on top of the white discs of scallop so they resemble tiny eggs. Angel’s eggs, judging from the taste.
That evening Lori, Eoin and I start our gastronomic sampling of St John’s in Chinched Bistro (“chinched” means roughly “full to bursting”), where owners Michelle LeBlanc and Shaun Hussey produce their own charcuterie, pickles and pâté. We polish off a “combo board” of charcuterie and cheese, with an Iceberg beer from the local Quidi Vidi brewery, and move on to The Reluctant Chef.
The Reluctant Chef has a split personality – downstairs, where Joe Strummer is singing about Spanish bombs, is the Vinyl Room, with a huge album collection to choose from and a snack menu that includes braised beef shepherd’s pie or lobster roll for $10, about £5.50. Upstairs (it’s a large, historic house) are two, more formal dining rooms serving a five-course set menu which, when I am there, features lamb croquettes with foraged corn lily sauce, cod and dandelion broth and stewed rhubarb with lovage granite and sorrel.
“The locally foraged stuff has exploded,” says Tony Butt, the proprietor. “Twenty-five years ago we didn’t even do mushrooms.”
And so to what is officially the finest dining experience this side of the 49th parallel. Raymonds, housed in a neoclassical Edwardian building overlooking the harbour, has a classy, international atmosphere – we could be in London’s West End. The cloths are linen, the voices hushed; waiters and a sommelier float and spiel and the executive chef himself – a he-bearded Jeremy Charles – makes a point of saying “hello”.
Capelin is on the menu, a tiddler (the waiter commends me for wolfing the head) not eaten much these days but now being rehabilitated by Newfoundland’s culinary new wave. I follow this with scallops, and comparing them with the ones I had sampled that morning on the beach is irresistible.
Anticipating my verdict, Lori winces, but she needn’t. No disrespect to the estimable Raymonds, but hers will always taste better than those served in a conventional restaurant setting because they contain a super-ingredient: that moment, eating off the hot, buttered rock, of feeling at one with the land and the sea and new foodie friends.
Air Canada (0371 220 1111; aircanada.com) has direct daily flights from London Heathrow to St John’s. Westjet (westjet.com) flies daily from London Gatwick until October 22 and will resume in May 2017. Visitors arriving on international flights now require Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) which costs $7 (£4.20); to apply, go to cic.gc.ca.