Canada's Eastern Provinces
Recently, I was invited by the Canadian Consulate in Chicago to meet producers in my trade, on Canada's Eastern provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland/Labrador. The birthplace of commercial fishing as chronicled in a most informative book, "Cod, A History Of The Fish That Changed The World."
What did I discover? Well, there's still some cod, but not nearly as much as there once was, and wild Atlantic salmon stocks have dwindled dramatically. Lobsters? Well, that is a different tale (N.P.I.). There is a goodly amount of lobster.
Canada has 25% of the world's coastline and 16% of its fresh water. The commercial fishing industry is valued at 5 billion dollars annually and provides more than 125,000 jobs. Seventy-five percent of its production is exported to more than 80 countries. In 2001, seafood exports were a record 48,000 tons. The U.S. is Canada's largest export market representing 73% of its trade.
As a young boy, I traveled to Nova Scotia in the summer several times with a close friend who was born there. We would drive with his family to Portland, Maine and take the ferry to Yarmouth, which was always a big thrill. I have wonderful remembrances of our visits with his grandparents and extended family. A highlight each summer was fishing from a schooner for mackerel with his aunt's neighbor in Peggy's Cove. A great appreciation for an abundance of natural beauty and purity of earth and sea was certainly fostered in me during those summers.
The inhabitants of these islands are very warm and interesting folk a community that is mainly of Celtic heritage with many fifth and sixth generation residents. The dialect, which spans from Gaelic to a local Scotch-Irish brogue, is sometimes difficult to understand. The landscape reminded me very much of the Irish and Scottish coast. And it seems most appropriate that this is where their descendents chose to settle.
A good example would be Duncan (86 years old), who along with his son raises some of the finest oysters I have ever had. Much of Duncan's stock is from Bras'd Or Lake which happens to be the world's largest salt-water lake. I also learned that the oyster's fiercest predator is the otherwise innocuous starfish.
After many hours of discussions on my second day in Halifax, Duncan showed up toting a box of his perfectly shaped bivalves. Armed with an oyster knife, he sat at my table and proceeded to open up a dozen or so for my enjoyment. No lemon or hot sauce, just an ethereal, briny liquor, surrounding meaty, translucent oysters that he had taken from his stock that morning! I've always felt the oysters from this lovely part of the world were unrivaled, and I thanked Duncan for reminding me just how very good they are.
Tatamagouche, Cape Breton and Malpeques (Prince Edward Island) are just a few of the other names you may have heard of. Basically, all the oysters on the island are terrific and usually are named after the small village, bay, or cove from which they come. I mentioned Duncan because he was so charming and affable. He promised to send me all nicely shaped oysters, and I believe this will come to pass, as he has a ready market for his "standards" or misshapen oysters elsewhere on the island.
Most of the world's saltfish (Cod, Pollock, Hake, Cusk, and Ling) is still produced here. Several of the producers I met bemoaned the fact that in today's fast-paced world, there is a dwindling demand for this noble product so rich in heritage. "Who has time to prepare a boiled dinner these days?" one gentleman remarked. Many were turning to lobster production as a result, and pondering getting out of the saltfish trade. I found this immensely sad.
I prepare my own version of brandade (cod, potatoes, olive oil, and a touch of lemon zest, truffle oil, and parsley) each Christmas holiday to give to my customers as a gift to try. Many of you may be surprised to discover that these guys have a point. Unfortunately most people don't have the foggiest notion of what the main ingredient is. Most of the world's consumption is in various island nations, and Western Europe. I'm sure we all know folks of Scandinavian, Portuguese, and Italian etc…descent who consider it a holiday staple. But the sad fact is, it's just not selling as it once did.
When you consider this great land was founded on saltfish, it is most distressing to think that its tradition is on about to fade. So put a salt dish on your menus, it's wonderful and just maybe a few of these fellows will keep salting fish.
What else did I encounter? How about Solomon Gundy (marinated herring)? Digby Chicks? No, not a Canuck girl band, but a heavy smoked, skinless herring filet - marvelous with a nice cold pint of ale. Stimpsons surf clam? Wonderful! Tastes uncannily like lobster. How about propeller clams? Tastes like a garden fresh cucumber. Amazing! Speaking of cucumbers, a large export trade of "sea cucumbers" has been developed for the Asian trade.
I was honored to discover that a type of surf clam, which I had dubbed almost 25 years ago "Mahogany clam" (because the surface of the shell is grained like wood), has now come full circle. One producer proffered a photo for my inspection and remarked, "Some people call them Mahogany clams." I beamed! I knew the name had circulated around the monger community in the U.S. but really; I was thinking they should give me a key to the city or make me honorary mayor.
Try a little dulse? What is it? Well, it's a dried seaweed which to date I've only seen in small quantities in over-priced bath salts. But let me tell you, folks up this way use it as a seasoning in place of salt, and it is awesome. Quite frequently used in chowders and bisques.
Digby bay scallops are some of the sweetest and tenderest in the world. The provincial government prohibits the use of try-polyphosphate and they are always "dry". Many of my clients make their decision on scallops based largely on size, and although 10/20's are quite obtainable, most weigh-in at a 30/40 count. Maybe .5% are U-10's although if you buy out of Boston they will be happy to artificially inflate them for you using the aforementioned try-polyphosphate - yum, yum! Some ambitious producers have tried their hand at forming smaller scallops into a sausage and slicing them on a slight bias to sell them as a large scallop at-market. Another wonderful "scallop product" Jumpin' jiminies, it's like Cheez-Whiz from the sea. A bad idea!
Well, I've got to get up in a few hours to visit a mussel farm before we push off to St. Johns, Newfoundland. I'll report back on the "Newfies" once I get there. I am curious to see why they are the butt of Canada's jokes i.e. "How do you get a Newfie out of a tree?" Etc…
Written By Bill Dugan-owner/operator of Superior Ocean Produce and the Fishguy Market, both located in Chicago. He is also the outside sales representative for the unique line of SeaTech products produced in Chile, Argentina, and China. He serves on the board of advisors for the culinary arts program at Robert Morris College.
Phone-1-888-FISHGUY or 1-773-283-8400