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Taste of Place: Circumnavigating Newfoundland

Destination Canada has recognized our Newfoundland Circumnavigation, including our new Taste of Place culinary program, as a Canadian Signature Experience. Anita Stewart was a Special Guest for our 2019 Newfoundland Circumnavigation, and here she writes from the heart about the tenacity of Newfoundlanders and their traditional foods.
Seal meal sunset

© Victoria Polsoni

“Come over for a scoff and a scuff. “

It was an invitation to a meal and a very real party. It was also the beginning of a voyage into the heart and culinary soul of one of Canada’s most captivating regions.

With the North Atlantic as its gale-blown, iceberg-strewn cradle, it’s impossible to separate the sea from the story of the island of Newfoundland. Rimmed by thousands of miles of rocky shoreline, indented by countless hidden coves, crowned with high berry-covered hills—it’s from the sea that one can best begin to understand this extraordinary province.

Anita stewart and guest resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Food, culture, and celebration took front seat on the Newfoundland Circumnavigation that I travelled on with Adventure Canada.

Newfoundland’s history—indeed, North America’s history of non-Indigenous settlements—came first from the northeast when the Norse landed in the eleventh century at what’s now known as L’Anse aux Meadows. A few centuries later the Basques, and later the French, fished the shoals and the banks, drying their catches on shore in temporary camps before sailing home with salt cod and furs and whale oil from Labrador, destined to light the lamps of most of Europe. They were itinerant fishermen and little remains of their presence outside of the historic sites, other than stories and a good number of place names.

Bill Swan with tarts and chowder at Red Bay Labrador resized

© Victoria Polsoni

In our visit to Red Bay, Labrador, we had the chance to sample delicious bakeapple tarts and cod chowder.

Like them, though, the early settlers, many from the British Isles, were resilient, tenacious, and creative. Frankly, they still are. For centuries, the wilderness and the sea have been the twin larders of Newfoundland—the very real pantries of entire communities, many of which still have no road access. It was these food routes that Adventure Canada has set out to explore aboard the surprisingly nimble Ocean Endeavour.

Food Culture in Newfoundland

By circumnavigating the island, visiting one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another, and going ashore as often as possible to visit the livyers (locals), the goal was to provide those on board with as genuine a “taste of place” as possible.

It was an ambitious undertaking, but it worked, largely because the family-owned company engaged local experts in the food traditions of Newfoundland, like forager/chef and Taste of Place Ambassador Lori McCarthy of Cod Sounds, and her culinary sidekick, cousin, and mixologist, Alexandra Blagdon. Alexandra and Bill Swan, one of Adventure Canada's co-founders, curated an absolutely terrific all-Canadian wine, beer, and spirits list. Have you ever tried seaweed gin?

Alexandra Blagdon foraging seaweed resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Alexandra led foraging hikes for guests during the 2019 Newfoundland Circumnavigation.

Each evening, we had the option of ordering the "Taste of Place" meal from the restaurant's dinner menu. Throughout the voyage, Lori’s recipes sparked these menus, ranging in inspiration from her Mom’s pickled beets to her Nan’s gingerbread. During the year she had bottled (preserved) rabbit and moose and, just before sailing, ensured that fresh seal loin was aboard to serve with her partridgeberry (lingonberry) chutney. There were crispy-fried cod tongues, one of the very real delicacies of Newfoundland cuisine, and a Jiggs Dinner: a boiled meal of salt beef, carrots, cabbage and split peas simmered in the traditional cloth bag, as close to the traditional provincial dish as it gets.

Lori Mc Carthy prepares seal meat resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Lori and the Ocean Endeavour chefs took great care preparing each Taste of Place menu item.

Ashore, each landing also had its own food story, all tied to the early isolation and resolute determination of the inhabitants. The community of Elliston boasts more root cellars than anywhere else in North America. Bonavista provided a glimpse of how huge gardens are cordoned off from the harsh ocean winds by rows of tightly bound branches. The Salting Feast in Conche was a testimony to pure Newfoundland hospitality. Even the parish priest opened his home for tea before a full-on fish dinner was served (fish always means cod in Newfoundland). Fiddle music and step-dancing went on long into the night.

Guest eating pizza resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Guests made and ate their own pizzas with produce picked from the gardens of the Bonavista Social Club.

A Complex History and an Optimistic Future

But in the bays and coves all around the island, all is not sweetness and light. Musician and Cultural Educator Tony Oxford observed that “scores of villages are on life support because there’s no way to make a living and the population is aging.”

The reasons are complex, but are due at least in part to the collapse of the cod fishery due to over-fishing of the Grand Banks. Many Newfoundlanders like Tony believe that the inshore fishermen and their families are the casualties of clumsy regulations and shaky science—a harsh reality for many of the outports.

Lori Mc Carthy holding cold St Anthony Newfoundland resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Lori holds a freshly caught and cleaned cod in St. Anthony, Newfoundland.

Other fisheries have sprung up: snow crab, amazing lobster, whelks that look like giant escargot, and farmed mussels. These, too, were on Adventure Canada's Taste of Place menu. In Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the final stop on the voyage and France’s singular outpost in North America, replete with good French wines, they’re even harvesting sea cucumbers which are shipped to Asia.

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© Victoria Polsoni

Guests and locals danced together during our visit to Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

The resiliency and ingenuity of the people I met reminded me of our trip ashore to Gros Morne National Park when, as a blisteringly cold wind funnelled down the valley from the north, our guide described how the earth’s mantle here pushed up as the continents shifted and collided, leaving a rock-strewn tableland where only the strongest and most adaptable of species survived. This is the essence of the province, all bound together by a belief in the future and a deep sense of the past.

Houses on hillside Francois Newfoundland resized

© Victoria Polsoni

Francois, Newfoundland is a stronghold outpost with a population of eighty-nine.

An original version of this article originally appeared on Everett Porter's Travel Report, and we thank them for their permission to republish it here.

About the Author

Anita Stewart

Anita Stewart

Culinary Ambassador

Anita Stewart is the Food Laureate for the University of Guelph and founder of Food Day Canada. She holds a graduate degree in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu/University of Adelaide and is a Member of the Order of Canada. She joined Adventure Canada as a Culinary Ambassador on our Newfoundland Circumnavigation expedition in 2019.