DIARY: Taking a new look at the age old issues around the cod fisheries in Canada’s Atlantic provinces as they begin to recover.
RECIPE: Newfoundland’s favourite, cod au gratin.
It’s been some time since I was in Canada’s Maritime provinces. But the last time I was there I noticed this sign hanging on a shack. It said: “In cod we trust.” And to me that said it all.
Behind the scenes and beneath the waves a battle is playing out between big fishing factories and small fishermen, between the large scale harvesting of everything that swims and the sustainable in-shore fishery. Banned from catching cod more than two decades ago, the fishermen of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have had to turn to other seafood harvests to survive. Some have done well, a few are just surviving and most have had to move on to other careers.
Now there’s a chance for a barely remembered way of life to be revived as cod stocks return to something like their previous health. But standing in the way of the small entrepreneurs are big legislation and big fisheries.
I spoke to Bill Broderick, a long-time fisherman and the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters’ in-shore director in Newfoundland. He says: “It’s the worst kept secret that the cod are coming back. Our greatest fear is that factory ships, which will always be with us, will continue to freeze their catches and send them to China for processing. The biggest issue is the shifting ocean environment. When it’s conducive for ground fish, it may not be good for crab and shrimp, and vice versa.”
Beau Gillis, a fisherman in Freeport, Nova Scotia, has been surviving on halibut and lobster, and now has a license to long-line for cod in the traditional manner. But consumers won’t pay the price he has to charge for fresh fish at the Halifax market. They’d rather buy frozen fish sticks made from seafood harvested by factory ships off the coast, who export their catch to China for processing, and then import it back to Canada at half the price. Meanwhile, Nova Scotian processing plants are importing fish from Norway, just to keep running.
Tony Doyle, a sixth-generation fisherman from Bay de Verde, north of St. John’s, Newfoundland, is frustrated by regulations that prevent him from selling his daily catch fresh off the dock, even though gourmet restaurant chefs would be willing to pay a premium for fresh fish off the boat. Because the rules encourage quantity over quality, he would make less money catching more fish. Now Doyle catches snow crab for a living.
The players, including government, scientists, offshore and in-shore fishers and processors, often seem to be “more concerned with dividing up the pie, than creating a bigger pie,” says Bob Verge, with the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation.
Dr. Bettina Saier, who runs the oceans program at World Wild Life Canada, says: “Growth in the cod stock has been accelerating over the past two years. If the stock continues to grow and if we manage it well, the fishery will open.”
From Aquaforte, Bonavista and Chester, to Witless Bay, Yarmouth and Zoar, the inhabitants of ancient out ports are desperate to get it right this time around.
I thought this story would make a good documentary for CBC television but in their wisdom they declined. “We did not feel this particular point of view would resonate with people from coast to coast,” they said stuffily.
So rather than cry into my screech*, I looked through my old files for a Newfoundland favourite, Cod au gratin, which I’ll happily pass on, now that I know it’s safe to eat cod again.
Wouldn’t you know it? Not a filet of Newfoundland cod to be had at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, so we’ll have to make do with fresh wild caught Icelandic cod. At least they swim in the same ocean.
COD AU GRATIN
Newfoundland’s favourite by Nigel Napier-Andrews
Preparation 50 mins
Baking 35 mins
- 350ml (1 1/3 cup) full-cream milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 900g piece of cod, skinned
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 4 Tbsp plain flour
- 1 cup grated medium white cheddar cheese (3/4 for the sauce and 1/4 for the topping)
- 4 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 Tbsp light olive oil
Step 1: Make the filling.
Put the milk and bay leaf in a wide, deep frying pan over a medium heat. Bring just to simmering point, then add the cod (halve to fit in the pan, if necessary). Poach for 5 minutes, then transfer to a baking dish using a slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, flake or cut the fish into bite-size pieces. This is a good time to check for any errant bones or pieces of skin you missed earlier. Strain the infused milk into a jug, discarding the bay leaf.
Step 2: Make the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually stir in the infused milk and bring just to the boil, stirring constantly. Simmer for a few minutes until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard and grated cheese until it melts. Season well.
Step 3: Assemble and bake.
Gently mix the sauce with the fish in the baking dish. Mix the breadcrumbs with olive oil until it is the texture of wet sand and then add the remainder of the grated cheese and sprinkle on top. Place the pie on a baking sheet and cook in the oven for about 35 minutes or until turning golden and bubbling hot throughout. Serve with green veggies.
To freeze and reheat: You can freeze the pie after assembling and before cooking, covered, for up to 1 month. Thaw in the fridge for 24 hours or until it is completely defrosted, then bring up to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F) and cook for 35-40 minutes until piping hot throughout.
Single serve option
As an alternative presentation you can make this dish in individual gratiné dishes. From step 2 above, spoon the fish and sauce mixture into the dishes and finish as in step 3. The baking time should be a bit less, say 30 mins, but check when they turn brown and start bubbling to avoid overcooking.
*Note: Screech is the popular name for Jamaican dark rum, originally sold in unlabelled glass bottles by the provincial government liquor board and more recently taken on as a brand by their Rock Spirits division.
When I first visited St. John’s in the late 60s doing research for a BBC project, I was told the original product was the result of the barrels which had contained the imported overproof rum being washed out with water, before being reused. The wash was still much stronger than conventional liquor and was the tightly held privilege of the workers at the bottling plant. Young fellows brought into the workforce had to go through a screech-in ceremony and drink a pint of the stuff, which would have been rather like Royal Navy grog. Allegedly it made their voices ‘screech.’
Of course, there are lots of other stories, all adding to the fun and now the screech-in is marketed as a genuine Newfoundland ceremony in island pubs.
Categories: Simply food
Oh how I wish I were not allergic to seafood! Curse these gutter genes! How could one not be tempted to try the bold combination of cheese and fish? It seems that I’ve heard arguments from both sides of the camp (from taboo to tantalizing).
Speaking on the article itself, I had no idea that there was such a problem with cod fishing in this region, and I agree that it indeed would have made a great documentary on CBC (who have their own troubles right now).
Thanks for your comments. I’ve become allergic to shellfish in the past half dozen years so lobster, crab cakes and scallops (all faves) are now off the menu, but I’m holding out on fish so far. I’m not sure what the next blog will be about but it won’t be seafood! As the current hurricane batters the Exumas, I’m thinking about my last visit there and wondering whether the amazing beaches are still intact?
What a blow that must have been to learn of your shellfish allergy, I am happy to hear that it’s not all which dwells under the sea, on that note I can eat seaweed … perhaps I should just prepare this dish and enjoy it at the hospital.
Funny you should mention the Exumas, I was thinking of your writings the other day and decided to browse images and articles of the islands. Some recent images of that beautiful place were certainly disheartening.
Great looking recipe for a delicious Newfoundland dish. Can’t wait to try it.