I survived the Newfoundland cod wars

Food Network host Bob Blumer sets up his food station at the food hike at Roots, Rants and Roars in Elliston, Newfoundland. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

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As we drove by the shore of a remote Newfoundland bay at sunset, we spotted a man playing a bodhran, a traditional Irish drum. It couldn’t have been more picturesque. We stopped to talk to him, but my travelling companion hid herself in the back of the van. She had been swiping photos of cute guys on Tinder earlier that day and, by some cosmic coincidence, the fellow in front of us was her only match in all of the province and she was too embarrassed to meet him.

The reason she probably wasn’t finding many matches using her phone’s dating app in Newfoundland is because everyone already seems to know each other so why would they need an app to meet anyone?

Playing the bodhran in Newfoundland

Practicing the bodhran as the sun sets somewhere in eastern Newfoundland. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

Okay, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that everyone in Newfoundland knows each other, but if you ever visit, you’ll notice that when two Newfoundlanders meet for the first time, they engage in a ritualistic exchange of names and places to see how they are connected. One will say his name and where he is from and the other will inquire as to whether they know so-and-so and they will counter with another name and before long they establish some sort of six-degrees-of-separation link, no matter how tenuous, and conversation continues.

We were in Newfoundland to visit Roots, Rants and Roars, a wonderful food and music festival held every September in the fishing settlement of Elliston, a town on the Bonavista Peninsula that proudly proclaims itself as the Root Cellar Capital of the World, not that there is much competition for that title. During our visit, we discovered just how social Newfoundlanders can be and why they deserve their reputation as the friendliest people in Canada.

The first night of the festival featured the Cod Wars in which chefs from some of the finest restaurants in St. John’s competed against each other to see who could create the best dishes using codfish as the main ingredient. Each chef had a booth set up with their creations and people would line up to taste them. There were cod cakes, cod ramen, cod and sausage, cod, cod and cod. It felt a bit like the Monty Python spam skit, with cod standing in for spam.

Roots, Rants and Roars

Is there any cod in that? Food vendors prepare their wares at Roots, Rants and Roars. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

When I approached the first booth, I confessed to the people serving the food that I couldn’t eat fish. “What are you? From away?,” one of them asked incredulously, as if my mainland accent didn’t already give that away. They laughed off my predicament and loaded me up with as many non-fish side dishes as I could carry. My fish-loving friends reported that their food was delicious. It’s just as well I didn’t fill myself up that first night, because I would more than make up for it during the rest of the festival.

The next day featured a food hike between Elliston and the neighbouring village of Maberly. It was about a four-kilometre walk along the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In the summer months, tourists come to look at puffins that nest on the seaside cliffs. This time of year, the birds are long gone. Instead, we came to see chefs from across Canada who had set up stations along the shore where people could sample their culinary creations. Each station also featured an acoustic musician or two playing traditional music.

Musicians in Elliston, Newfoundland

Musicians entertain festival-goers at Roots, Rants and Roars in Elliston, Newfoundland. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

The first stop featured celebrity chef Bob Blumer, host of Food Network’s The Surreal Gourmet. He served an amazing corn chowder with corn flowers and popcorn. Caplansky’s Deli was there from Toronto to serve smoked meat. It was good, but as a lifelong Montrealer, I have to defend my city’s smoked meat as being the best. At least it wasn’t cod.

Other choices were lamb on bannock, smoked sturgeon and caviar and crab along with rhubarb lemonade. For dessert, you could gorge on home-baked goodies provided by the local citizens of Elliston, none of whom are celebrity chefs, but judging by the quality of their baking, they should be.

The festival culminated later that night with a sit-down dinner known as The Feast. Beneath open tents, hundreds of us were seated communally at long tables to enjoy a seven-course meal, each dish prepared by a chef from one of the best restaurants in St. John’s. Yes, there was cod, smoked cod to be specific, but it wasn’t all traditional Newfoundland fare, not unless you count Moroccan stew, pork tacos or Thai curry soup as traditional.

While the food was served, beer and wine flowed. Any Newfoundlanders sitting near you, and they are almost all Newfoundlanders at this festival, would start their ritual greeting of asking where each other was from and start naming names to establish how they know each other. Us mainlanders couldn’t establish any kind of linkages, but we were welcomed anyway.

During the feast, traditional musicians performed on a nearby stage. People mostly talked over the music during the meal, but when the song “I’m a Newfoundlander” was performed, everyone raised a glass and sang along to the chorus with great gusto. When the food was done, the music took center stage and people danced and sang under the cold and starry sky until the wee hours, promising they would be back again to visit the festival next year.

Musician at Roots, Rants and Roars

The music is as important as the food at Roots, Rants and Roars in Elliston, Newfoundland. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

We made our way back to the nearby community of the charming fishing village of Trinity where we were staying at The Artisan’s Inn, which is less a hotel and more a collection of luxurious accommodations housed in a scattering of traditional buildings.

We were welcomed by our innkeeper, Marika, who let it slip that she was celebrating a birthday that day. By coincidence, it was my birthday also. You’ll have to come to my birthday party, she said. And so we were invited to a real, live Newfoundland kitchen party.

Newfoundland kitchen party

If there’s a party in Newfoundland, it won’t be long before the fiddles come out. [Photo by Mark Stachiew]

That night, we came to Marika’s lovely home perched above the town that offered a gorgeous view of the lights of the village below. There was food and drink aplenty and like any good kitchen party, none of the music was from the stereo. It was all played by the guests. The birthday girl played the violin, our driver joined in on guitar and someone else had brought his accordion. One other musician was at the party. It was the bodhran player that was my travelling companion’s Tinder match that we had met by the road a few days earlier. Maybe it is true that everyone knows everyone in Newfoundland.

(The writer was a guest of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism and Destination Canada, neither of which read or approved this article.)

– Mark Stachiew is a Montreal-based freelance writer who shares travel news and tips at www.stachiew.com and curates a collection of cool travel gear at www.jetsetgeneration.com.

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