For centuries, Newfoundland's cuisine was borne of necessity and scarcity—for the most part, people ate what they could grow or catch themselves. But the North Atlantic island's culinary isolation forced its cooks to perfect its staple foods, making the best of their hearty local ingredients: cod, wild game, berries, and cold-climate vegetables.
Now a new generation of Newfoundland chefs, fueled by renewed local pride and the island's growing economy, is bringing the lessons learned in their grandmothers' kitchens to St. John's restaurants. These restaurants are recreating—and sometimes reinventing—local ingredients and traditional meals in the Canadian province's capital in ways that bring to mind both the terroir-driven cuisine of Nordic countries and the casual hominess of country cooking in the Southern states of the US.
"We like to take all those classic ingredients, like salt beef, and do it in a different style," local chef Mark McCrowe said of the offerings at his restaurants Aqua Kitchen and Bar and The Club. He serves Newfoundland lobster and seafood chowder alongside plates of fried chicken and toutons (fried dough) with maple cream gravy and salt beef-seasoned collard greens. Montreal chef Chuck Hughes contributed to the introduction to McCrowe's cookbook, Island Kitchen, writing: "Newfoundland is one of the most unique, rugged and breathtaking places on earth. The best way to uncover its raw beauty, sense of history and culture is through its people and their food."
This island on Canada's northeast coast was not always celebrated for its culinary landscape, but chefs are now able to rely on an increasing variety of locally farmed ingredients to complement the traditionally rich options in Newfoundland seafood, root vegetables, and berries. Thanks to a new sense of local pride that's buoyed by the province's new economic strength, increasing numbers of tourists are arriving—and finding nationally lauded restaurants like Mallard Cottage using fresh, local ingredients in ways equally informed by modern culinary techniques and centuries of tradition developed in relative isolation from mainland North America.
Chef and restaurateur Andrea Maunder has noticed that shift since opening Bacalao seven years ago. When it opened, Bacalao was the first local restaurant doing Newfoundland cuisine in a fine-dining setting and style, Maunder said, with a particular focus on sourcing local ingredients. Now the food scene is so strong in the province's capital city that there's room for a variety of casual and fine-dining restaurants with niche offerings, she said, and the growing demand from chefs is pushing farmers to provide more quality local ingredients like pork, lamb, and produce. "There's a food scene here now," says Maunder, "and while there have always been pockets of brilliance throughout the province and particularly in St. John's, fine dining is pretty new."
These changes have led to new attention for Newfoundland chefs, and accolades have followed. In May, Raymonds, which overlooks the St. John's harbor downtown, was named Canada's best restaurant by Vacay.ca, as voted by a group of the country's best chefs and others in the industry. The recently opened Mallard Cottage in the city's historic Quidi Vidi district was included in a list of the country's best new eateries published this summer by En Route magazine.
As he dined on a meal of smoked clams stuffed with sea vegetables and the small smelt known as capelins at Raymonds, Montreal chef Derek Dammann summed up the Newfoundland cuisine experience to the Globe and Mail: "This is, by far, the best food in Canada right now."
Signature Ingredient: Cod, All Ways
The story of Newfoundland has always been tied to its cod fishery, from the Native Beothuks, whose diets relied heavily on the fish, to the arrival of explorers, to the commercial fishing moratorium and the present day. Cod is not just a fish that Newfoundlanders like to eat—it's tradition, culture, a way of life, and the source of much of the island's fortune and woe.
European settlers first colonized the province solely because of the healthy cod stocks off its shores. Explorer John Cabot landed at Bonavista in 1492, and his crew reported "the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets." In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans came to island to fish, salting their cod for the long journey home. The fishery was Newfoundland's lifeblood for centuries—but as fish stocks dwindled, more and more of the province's residents began to leave for jobs in Ontario and Alberta. In 1992 the collapse of six cod populations led the federal government to place a moratorium on the provincial cod fishery—once the largest cod fishery in the world. The North Atlantic fishery remains closed, save for limited fishing allowed for personal use. Today, local cod mostly comes from a small fishery on the province's southern shore.
But the dramatic contraction of the province's cod-fishing industry has done little to curb its residents' taste for the fish. Cod dishes in St. John's benefit from both centuries of culinary history and the availability of fresh fish from the island's southern shore. And Newfoundlanders use the whole fish, from tongue to tail, and eat it in a variety of ways, from salted to shredded and molded into fish cakes. Those fish cakes are a popular offering at Rocket Bakery and Cafe, where they can be purchased to eat in or take out along with frozen dough for toutons—fried rolls, that are crispy on the outside, soft and warm inside, and often served with molasses—raisin buns, and a variety of tangy mustard-flavored pickles made with local beets, onions, and cucumbers.
And in a place where people are used to eating as much of an animal as possible, cod 'tongues' (actually a small muscle from the fish's neck) and cheeks are considered a delicacy. McCrowe's Aqua serves a dish with the cheeks and tongues covered in cornmeal, fried, and plated with tangy sumac yogurt and smoked chili oil—a melding of Newfoundland and Middle Eastern flavors. Prepared like this, the slightly sweet tongues and cheeks are similar to fried oysters in both taste and texture. Chinched Bistro puts a Baja spin on the classic ingredient with breaded and fried cod-tongue tacos, served with soft homemade flour tortillas and red cabbage slaw for a polished and locally-sourced take on fish tacos.
Signature Dish: Fish 'n' Brewis
It would be hard to find a dish that was more specific to Newfoundland than fish 'n' brewis (pronounced "brews"). The fish refers to cod, of course—salt cod soaked overnight, then boiled until it's tender. The same is done with the brewis, which is the hard bread or hard tack—preferably the local Purity brand—that makes up the second key part of the dish. The salty boiled bread and cod are served with fried salt-pork scrunchions—which taste like extra-salty bacon and add a welcome crunch—with the pork fat left after frying poured on top.
The dish originated from a lack of options for sailors who spent weeks at sea at a time—both salt cod and hard tack keep well—but it's still beloved locally these days. It's salty, hearty, satisfying comfort food that speaks to a collective memory of the seafaring community. You can find the dish in local pubs like O'Reilly's Irish Newfoundland Pub and restaurants in rural fishing communities around the island, but to get the authentic experience you'll want to to secure an invite to Sunday dinner. This isn't as difficult as you might assume—Newfoundlanders are a famously friendly group of people who love to show off their home and its culture to visitors.
Moose, Mussels, and a Meat That's Not For Everyone
But even Newfoundlanders can't live on cod alone. Much of the balance of Newfoundland cuisine comes from the island's wild mammals—including moose and seals—and seafood.
Moose are ubiquitous on the island—there are about 700 vehicular collisions with the huge animals in Newfoundland each year, and whomever is in the passenger seat during a highway drive is automatically on moose watch. But the animal is actually not native, having been introduced in the early 1900s. They've clearly found a happy home, and Newfoundlanders have gladly included their tender and flavorful meat—always wild, via the annual moose-hunting season—into their diets.
It's difficult to purchase moose meat outside of farmers' markets and informal exchanges, though a few stores in St. John's sell it canned in mason jars. But local eateries have begun including moose on their menus, where it makes a fine fill-in in dishes that would typically be made with other game meats or beef. For example, you can enjoy deliciously gamey but lean moose sausages for breakfast at the Guv'nor Pub and Eatery). And The Club on Duckworth Street in downtown St. John's offers a rich burger made with ground moose chuck, topped with fried moose bologna and salt beef slaw—a protein-lover's mix of strongly flavored red meats, with a bit of crunch from the fried bologna.
More controversially, Newfoundlanders remain committed to the annual seal hunt off the province's western and northeastern coasts, even as it has become increasingly less financially rewarding as calls to ban the hunt continue and markets like the European Union and Russia refuse its takes. Chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage has positioned himself as an advocate for the hunt, and his restaurant serves seal meat without reservation when it's available—as do the chefs at Chinched and Raymonds.
Seal meat, dark and oily, is an acquired taste—but it's also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, high amounts of protein, and iron. Many on the island eat seal-flipper pie happily, as long as it's fresh—the meat can turn quickly thanks to its high oil content. McCrowe serves a seal tartare at The Club alongside more conventional oysters and tuna at the restaurant's raw bar. You can taste the brine of the sea alongside the iron tang in seal when it's eaten raw, though the flavor becomes more similar to other game meats upon cooking. If you enjoy offal like liver or kidney, seal meat will agree with your palate.
As for seafood offerings beyond cod, just-caught shellfish from local waters is delicious—because it's harvested further north than any other North American lobster, from water that is especially clean and cold, fresh lobster caught off the Newfoundland coast is particularly sweet and meaty. That salty, chilly water makes locally caught blue mussels particularly sweet and plump as well, and they're served in St. John's restaurants with both traditional preparations and in dishes that bring in other world cuisines--often just hours after they came out of the ocean. Local brewpub YellowBelly serves fresh mussels steamed in the restaurant's own beer, and Cathedral St. Bistro steams them with leeks in white wine, which lets their mildly briny—but not fishy—flavor shine through.
Root vegetables like carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, and potatoes are a key part of Newfoundland's food culture. The island's rocky terrain doesn't make it easy to grow a wide variety of produce, and the short growing season means that vegetables that could be stored in root cellars had to get people through the winter. Farmers on the island are increasingly growing a wider variety of produce—vegetables like spinach and broccoli come into season a bit later here than in other parts of the country, but still taste great. Greens like cabbage and turnip and beet tops are as essential to a proper cooked supper as cod or salt meat itself. And trained by years of austerity and making do, peppery beet and turnip greens never go to waste.
Newfoundland makes up for its lack of variety in local produce with its native wild berries. Sweet and surprisingly large wild blueberries coat the island in the fall, and local shops are stocked with preserves made from juicy golden bakeapples (also known as cloudberries) and tart partridgeberries (also called lingonberries). The berries themselves are now finding their way into local wines and teas, as well as salad dressings and sauces for meat.
The island's wild berries really shine in desserts from trifle to pies and pastries—like Aqua's creme brulee made with sweet and creamy Carnation milk (an ingredient that's something of an obsession for Newfoundanders), topped with tart wild local bakeapples and garnished with Jam Jams, a type of fruit-filled soft cookie made by Purity.
Signature Dish: Jiggs Dinner
If there's a single dish that embodies Newfoundland, Jiggs dinner—a dish composed of salt beef (known as corned beef in the US), greens, carrots, turnips, and pease pudding—would have to be it. It's so ubiquitous on the island that many Newfoundlanders refer to it simply as "Sunday dinner"—why would you consider having anything else to finish the week?
The dish is such a hallmark for Newfoundland food that McCrowe had "Jiggs dinner" tattooed on his forearm by local artist Dave Monroe of Trouble Bound tattoo studio. "Jiggs dinner is probably my favorite meal of all time," he said.
Jiggs dinner is not a complicated meal: the salt beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnip, and turnip greens, are all boiled together and resulting in a salty, rich flavor that balances the strong taste of the beef with the more delicate vegetables. Pease pudding (a savory pudding made with split yellow peas) and figgy duff (a sweet bread pudding flavored with molasses and raisins) are then cooked in cloth pudding bags, which tied to contain the ingredients while immersed in the resulting broth. Beets pickled with mustard and a salty and flavorful thin gravy from the broth or pot liquor are served on the side. Jiggs dinner contains many of Newfoundland's essential foodstuffs all on one plate, and varies in subtle but important ways based on family recipes—some serve Jiggs dinner with turkey, for example, and others make it saltier by saving some of the water used to soak the beef to use in the boil.
Risky as it can be to tinker with a meal so essential to the island's food culture, local chefs appeal to locals and tourists alike with reimaginings of the key ingredients of Jiggs dinner. At Bacalao, that variation comes in the form of a cabbage roll stuffed with a hash of cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and salt beef and served with pickles on the side and a pot liquor shooter. "It's an elegantly made and presented Jiggs dinner," Maunder said of the dish, "but it's a Jiggs dinner." And McCrowe serves an appetizer of Jiggs dinner croquettes at Aqua—the salt beef and vegetables are boiled together and mashed, then rolled into balls, coated, and fried. The end result is crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside with all the familiar flavors of a classic Jiggs dinner melded together in the filling.
The dish sums up the renaissance Newfoundland's food culture is experiencing after years of stagnation. By bringing together traditions maintained over years of isolation from mainland Canada with a modern focus on local eating that's challenging young chefs to get inventive, this North Atlantic island's food culture is reaching new heights. Buoyed by a resurgence of local pride and the growing oil and tourism industries, Newfoundland's cuisine is in a sweet spot where old ways prevail but new takes are keeping things exciting.