I grew up eating just about anything I plucked from the ground. Rhubarb, sour-dots (still no idea what those actually are), tea berries hidden under moss. Even purple bumblebee flowers were fair game.
I still don’t know if I should have been eating any of those things, but hey, I didn’t die. And I wasn’t binging on fast food or Cheetos, like I do now. (Two can dine at McDonalds for $6, amiright?) Me and my ragtag bunch of friends were Newfoundland foraging this whole time, and we didn’t even know it.
Newfoundland is rough. This weather-beaten, isolated, prone-to-extreme-weather island isn’t exactly known for its fertile valleys of vineyards, or its endless acres of rich farmland. We do fish and potatoes, mostly. Or at least that’s what many people think, including those who have always lived here. I truthfully believe we suffer from an interiority complex, because things that come from elsewhere always seem so much more exciting. Local restaurants keep closing in St. John’s, but The Keg, Jack Astor’s, and Boston Pizza can flourish anywhere.
The local food movement here has proven that we’ve got bounty, though. You just gotta work for it.
I did a cooking class with Lori McCarthy a few weeks back, and then opted for her foraging trip around Harbour Main. I had heard great things, and I lucked out with the weather — blue skies, sunshine, and hardly a breath of wind.
There were two rules that Lori gave us as soon as we arrived at the beach: 1) Only take one third of the plant you need, and 2) Pick as far away from civilization as you can.
That doesn’t mean you have to walk for kilometres, exactly. Just maybe don’t pick seaweed near a dock.
Lori isn’t a cook, but she used to be a personal chef, and she’s got an intense love for cooking. She’s more at home along the waterfront bending over vegetation with knife in hand than over a hot stove in a busy kitchen. She introduced us to her assistant at Cod Sounds, Eoghan, who’s trained in the culinary arts.
As we walk, Lori pointed out plants I grew up with but never considered eating. There’s goose tongue, freshest when it turns a bright green, and can be toasted like quinoa. There’s also lovage, a hearty green plant that can replace celery and works well in salads. Eoghan points out the stem and compares it to orange zest, and says it’s great in cocktails.
“It’s got a savage kick,” he says.
All these names are poetic. Sweet gale, or bog myrtle. There’s sea rocket, and beach orach with its salty bursts of flavour. Periwinkle for the tiny snails clinging to everything.
Eoghan passes us pieces of sea rocket and asks us to tell him what it tastes like. I figure I’m going to fail this test like I fail every wine tasting test. I’ll blurt out “COFFEE!” and everyone will look at me like I’m an invalid. Instead, the flavour is immediate: it tastes exactly like wasabi. Our eyes all widen, chomping down on this unsuspecting piece of greenery.
I’m shy when Eoghan hands me the knife to forage my own sea rocket, so he cuts off a piece for me and I poke it into my paper bag, not knowing when I’ll use it. I’m optimistic anyway.
After the foraging lesson, we head to Chapel’s Cove to set up a fire on the beach. There are divers loading up their Jeep as we pull in, and a family playing along the shore with a giant Bernese Mountain dog overseeing the festivities. Eoghan and Lori spread out plaid blankets, and begin setting up shop. As Lori suits up in a drysuit and snorkelling gear, she orders one of the guests off to pick some blueberries.
Eoghan has a fire going in no time. The first order: boiling up some rhubarb and pineapple weed tea. The flavour is so strong, I feel the shockwaves reverberate through my jaw.
By the time Lori comes back to shore, she has a collection of goodies. There are sea urchins and mussels, and a starfish. Lori and Eoghan pry open the mussels with deft hands, and then scoop the roe out of the urchins with a sharp knife. I watch in fascination as Eoghan picks up a hot flat rock from the fire, butters it, and starts to slightly sear some fresh scallops on its surface. He adds the urchin roe and oyster plant as toppings.
I can’t eat the little snail. I use a sharpened piece of pine to dig out the little critter, but I don’t have the nerve to eat him.
Next: Lori places pieces of cod into tinfoil and garnishes them with butter and lovage. I’ve eaten a lot of cod — this was some of the best, and outrageously simple. I’m convinced even I could do it. Maybe. I mean, if I followed a recipe.
We have an endless supply of mussels, served in giant scallop shells. I have never thought to use the empty mussel shells as little tongs to pick up the meat inside the other shells, but there it is. Simplicity; beautiful.
As Eoghan serves up blueberries and his homemade carrot cake, a sailboat breezes past in the distance. The light is perfect; the lichen on the rocks near the water looks fluorescent.
There’s no finer dining room in the world.