It’s only rarely that we pick up recipes in our travels. As often as we dine in wonderful places and eat amazing dishes, it’s clear to us that recreating them at home usually leads to disappointment. But there are sometime extenuating circumstances…
We haven’t traveled to Art’s original home in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, for a few years, which we wrote about in a previous blog post, but every so often the nostalgic memories of food from a different life and time overtake us, and we pull out the old fish and brewis recipe to embark on what we lovingly and respectfully call “Newfie Night” for a few dear friends.
But cooking fish and brewis for entertaining can be a challenge – have you ever smelled salt cod when it’s boiling away on the stove? It is truly revolting. So, we had to find a way to (a) reduce the cooking smell, and (b) involve the guests in the preparation of the meal.
Traditional Newfoundland fish and brewis represents a culinary tradition that is based more on practicality than intention – but the practical obstacles to acquisition of ingredients seems to have sparked incredible creativity on the part of cooks all over ‘the Rock’ throughout its history. For many years, the availability of fresh ingredients throughout the long, cold winters resulted in a plethora of salted cod and items like hard bread which were both practically indestructible – and no refrigeration needed. So, cooks prepared a dish that used this hard bread and boiled salt cod with a dressing of pure pork fat and scrunchions – which are without any doubt the tastiest part of any dish to which they are added. Scrunchions, for those of you who have not had the pleasure, are small pieces of pure pork fat fried to a delightful crispiness. The taste is unadulterated joy – but be sure to have your cholesterol checked!
During our last Newfie Night for friends, we decided to document the method we use. It’s a tweaked version of authentic fish and brewis. Tweaks include using boned salt cod (to avoid having to remove bones and the possibility of missing one), adding oregano for flavor, and frying it up in the fat rather than pouring it over to improve both the color (visual presentation) and the texture (a bit of crispiness).
It is surprisingly delicious – and guests even asked for seconds! Here’s the video…
It is the easternmost point on the North American continent, and the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland (actually it’s Newfoundland & Labrador which is the official name of the province), Canada’s tenth province, is Art’s home town. Well, the easternmost point is actually Cape Spear, but that’s just a hop outside the city. Although he moved away many years ago, every time we go back to visit what is affectionately known as “the Rock”, we are blown away by the rugged beauty and the increasing cosmopolitanism. Recent offshore oil exploration and production have given an economic boost to the city that it hasn’t seen in some generations. And now, it’s the Canadian province with the most amazing advertising imaginable. (See the video we’ve posted at the end.)
But, maybe the most impressive promotion for the city of St. John’s itself is the CBC television show The Republic of Doyle. If you watch that show in HD, you can’t help but notice that St. John’s is one of the characters. And although we’d venture a guess that the colors have been enhanced, St. John’s truly is a character.
The last time we visited was for a high school reunion – the reunion of a class that graduated so many years ago it’s hardly worth mentioning! But, we had a chance to play tourist in a city that we actually thought we know so well.
As you fly into St. John’s, it’s easy to think that you’ve ended up at the end of the earth – as your plane reaches the shoreline of Newfoundland you begin to get a sense of place right from the start. And you must remember to keep an eye out for icebergs (at any time of the year – but in the spring in particular). St. John’s is, by the way, the oldest English-speaking city on the North American continent. With a population that’s shy of 200,000, the city itself is not large but if you seek them out, you’ll find all kinds of amenities that are worth the trip.
We’ve stayed at most of the better hotels over the years – the Delta and the Hotel Newfoundland (which has been under a number of banners, most recently the Sheraton but it used to be a Fairmont) – which are also the most expensive. Recently, we’ve stayed at the Courtyard Marriott which is well-located on the harbor-front , has immense suites with great views, a lovely little bar with a view of the “narrows” that frame the harbor entrance looking out to open ocean, is reasonably priced, and because it’s a Marriott property, has wonderful staff.
St. John’s is well-known as the North American city with the most bars per square foot than any other. We can’t provide any source for that statistic, but trust us, if you take a summer trip to the city and wander downtown to George Street as you must, you will not dispute this statistic at all! But for our money, these discerning travelers are smitten with the fine dining scene in St. John’s. There are many fine restaurants along Water Street including Bianca’s which is worth a visit, but our current favorite is Bacalao on Lemarchant Road, which is known for its quintessential Newfoundland cuisine using local products. It even won a national award for “hyperlocal food” recently. We’ve eaten there several times, and both the service and the innovative food offerings make a return trip there in the future a must.
The there is a bit of shopping…do not go to the malls in St. John’s. You will be disappointed. But do go to the boutiques for women’s clothing. Along Water Street, my personal favorite is Johnny Ruth. Oh, the owner has created a gem of a space with a truly inspired and well-edited collection of often Canadian designers. I’ve bought Comrags and Brenda Beddome there in addition to a number of others. Also nip into Twisted Sisters Boutik while you’re on Water Street.
No visit to St. John’s would be complete without a visit to The Rooms. The name is a bit misleading – this is an architectural masterpiece that is truly uninspiring from the outside. But step inside and it’s a different story. Beside the fact that The Rooms is an extraordinary museum with all manner of Newfoundland history , both natural and other, it has the most amazing view of the harbor and beyond from a window that was artfully situated to provide just such an experience.
On our most recent visit there, it was Saturday, it was raining heavily and there were two bridal parties taking refuge for photo shoots. The window makes a dramatic backdrop.
Now that Art’s parents are both dead, we have less reason to visit than we used to. But we’ll make the trek from time to time – just for the food and Johnny Ruth!
(Flight times: from Halifax it’s an hour and twenty minutes; it’s 3 hours and 34 minutes direct from New York on United).
A sample of the Newfoundland and Labrador advertising campaign…