On St. George’s Day, a holiday in Newfoundland, let’s reflect on the island’s heritage and some iconic images from The Rock, including John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, cod and fish cakes.
When my son was a boy, I gave him a 1949 Silver Dollar featuring his namesake ship, celebrating Newfoundland’s transformation from a British colony to Canada’s newest province. A few years later, while on a trip to England, I came across a replica of the ship in Bristol. I’d gone there to see the restored SS Great Britain, which was an amazing sight, so it was a pleasant surprise to find another historic vessel only half a mile further up the harbour. The Matthew of Bristol was built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s historic voyage and regularly sails around the harbour in its home port. For the anniversary, it sailed all the way to Canada, where the Queen and Prince Philip were waiting to greet it in Bonavista harbour. After 54 days at sea, it arrived on 24 June 1997, where it was met by their Majesties and 30,000 spectators. This year is the 525th anniversary and I’m sure there will be more celebrations.
Even though John Cabot failed to find a new route to the Far East, or even riches, he did note the astounding quantities of cod which swam in the seas. He sailed up and down the coast, discovering nothing else of value, and left. The following year he outfitted a larger expedition, but all the ships and crews are thought to have disappeared without trace, presumably wrecked or sunk in a storm. Newfoundland went back to sleep for a few centuries, mostly visited by seasonal Portuguese fishing fleets seeking the bountiful cod.
The year after I arrived in Canada, the CBC aired a stunning doc on The Portuguese White Fleet which fished the Grand Banks for several months every year. Shortly after that, the advent of factory fishing ships changed the fishery for ever. The cod catch peaked in 1968 at 810,000 tons and began a swift decline, leading to the complete collapse of the fishery by 1992. It was a sad end to a Newfoundland tradition, which was to have a lasting effect in the island’s prosperity. Today, the cod have barely returned.
Meanwhile, back in Bonavista — a three-and-a-half-hour drive north of St. John’s, the capital, via the quaintly named Come-by-Chance — another replica of The Matthew was built, also to celebrate the anniversary. However, she was not finished until the following year and is currently undergoing extensive renovations, though tours may reopen in June if all goes well. As part of my PR duties at the Royal Bank of Canada I travelled the length and breadth of the country and one snowy Easter found myself in Bonavista. I don’t believe I ever saw the replica, but I did happen to eat a memorable meal at a small restaurant in what is now The Harbour Quarters Inn. Of course, cod was on the menu, in its many variations, including fish cakes.
Fish cakes are a traditional Newfoundland dish, as are cod au gratin, Jigg’s dinner and brewis (pronounced ‘brews’). I make cod au gratin regularly, but the other two leave me cold. Jigg’s dinner is a pot roast with salt beef and root veggies, while brewis is made with salt cod and hard tack. Other odd island dishes include scrunchions, cod tongues and seal flipper pie. On the meat side, moose makes a popular appearance during hunting season. Tart wild berries abound in the brief summer season and make wonderful pies: I’ve sampled cloudberries, snowberries, bunch berries and partridge berries, all delicious.
The kind lady who has been coming several days a week to help with my recovery has been shopping and stocked the freezer with a lovely variety of fresh fish. She’s brought delicious pink salmon filets, tasty halibut, and that strange looking but delectable creature, monkfish. Deciding what to cook, my eyes light on a slab of cod, white and pristine.
Immediately following surgery, I couldn’t even stand, but now after three months in a series of casts and a rigid boot-like apparatus, I’ve regained my feet. As my mobility improved, she has been a wonder in the kitchen, prepping and cooking, while I sat, like an executive chef, foot up on a stool and giving careful instructions.
Today, it was time to get back to the stove and cook up one of my favourites: simple fish cakes with a tasty parsley sauce. I served them with green beans, but any veggie will do fine. To add a bit of colour, I roasted some tomatoes on the vine. No need for a starch as mashed potatoes are bound in with the gently poached fish. Parsley sauce is traditional in England, but entirely optional. In Newfoundland, I’m told, fish cakes are often served with a side of baked beans. Tartar sauce would be a good alternative. The choice is yours.
- 400 g cod, skinned and boned
- 400 g white potatoes (or equal amounts of each)
- 1 cup / 225 ml whole milk
- 1 cup / 225 ml cream
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- ½ tsp dried summer savoury
- 1/2 cup / 90 g fine flour
- ½ cup / 90 g breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups canola (rapeseed) oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Preparation and cooking
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into large pieces, lower them into a deep pan of well salted boiling water and let them cook for 15 to 20 mins.
- Put the fish into a pan, pour in the milk and cream, add the bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring the liquid to the boil, lower the heat and leave to simmer for 10 minutes, or until the fish is lightly cooked. You should be able to pull the flakes apart with relative ease. Lift the fish out of the liquid, discard the bay leaf and peppercorns and reserve the liquid for the sauce. Set the fish aside to cool.
- Mash the potato until floury. TIP: Under no circumstances use a food processor which will turn the potatoes into a gluey mess. Add the savoury and mix in. Add the fish and mix gently into the fish. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Divide the mixture into 8 balls, roll them in flour on a board, then gently squash them down until they make thick wheels, about 1 1/2 to 2 ins across. Repair the outer rims if they crack by wheeling them across the floury board. Place on a plate, cover with kitchen wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
- In one bowl put the flour, in another break two eggs and beat them, in a third put the breadcrumbs.
- Pour the oil into a small deep fryer (or a pan with a frying basket) and heat up. TIP: Hot oil is dangerous. Never leave this pan unattended.
- Remove the fishcakes from the fridge and roll them, one at time, into the flour, the beaten egg and then the breadcrumbs. Place the cakes on a plate, until all are done. Then deep fry a couple at a time (or however many will fit in your basket without touching) until they are golden brown.
- Keep in a warm oven if necessary, or serve at once with parsley sauce and a veggie of your choice.
- 2 TBSP / 45 g unsalted butter
- 2 TBSP fine flour
- ¼ cup parsley leaves, chopped finely
- 1 cup reserved milk mixture used to poach fish, strained
Preparation and cooking
- Melt butter in a saucepan, add an equal amount of flour and stir together cooking lightly over a moderate heat for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring almost constantly to make a roux. It’s important not to let it brown as this is a white sauce.
- Pour in the reserved milk from cooking the fish, a little at a time, and whisk until the sauce thickens without any lumps.
- Stir in the finely chopped parsley and set aside for the flavours to assimilate.
- Warm as necessary.
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Categories: Simply food