Chef Todd Perrin's got a challenge on his hands. Convincing people to eat seal, one of the world's most controversial ingredients, is not a simple task. It's not, say, like rebranding the Chinese gooseberry as a kiwi or even convincing diners to try blood pudding. "Seal has a bad rep, politically, but it also has a bad rep from the culinary perspective," he admits. "A lot of people say it's just terrible and they don't like it and it's not held in high regard as a culinary ingredient."
Perrin is convinced that this reputation is the result of poor handling and uninspired cooking and he's setting out to change people's attitudes toward seal with a five-course dinner on April 17 at his restaurant, Mallard Cottage, in Quidi Vidi Village on the outskirts of St. John's.
He'll be joined by four of eastern Canada's most ethically minded chefs including Jesse Vergen, an active hunter and chef at Saint John Ale House in New Brunswick and Derek Dammann of Montreal's Maison Publique, who was instrumental in changing the laws in Quebec to allow some restaurants in the province to serve wild game.
Newfoundland chefs Jeremy Charles from Raymonds and Sean Hussey from Chinched Bistro, both of whom grew up eating seal and still serve it on their menus in season, are also participating.
While the chefs' primary motivation is making good food, they also recognize that the seal industry, after years of protests, is in trouble. A ban on Canadian seal fur, meat, blubber and other products by the European Union in 2010 closed that market completely to the fishermen and Russia, previously the largest market for the seal fur industry, banned imports in 2011. Last year the industry harvested 91,000 seals, up from 69,000 the year before, but still far short of the federal quota of 400,000. By creating a market for seal as a food source the chefs hope to improve that situation.
The political controversy is well-documented. Everyone from Paul McCartney to Pamela Anderson has protested the tradition. This year it's Ellen DeGeneres who, in addition to donating $1.5 million (U.S.) in proceeds from her Oscar "selfie" to the Humane Society of the United States – an especially vocal anti-sealing organizations – called the hunt, "one of the most atrocious and inhumane acts against animals allowed by any government."
Just this past November a group of 42 American chefs joined with the American Humane Society to boycott Canadian seafood as a protest against the seal harvest. On its web page, the society claims "each year tens of thousands of seal pups are shot and clubbed to death by Canadian fishermen. Most of the pups haven't eaten their first solid meal at the time they're killed. Many are skinned alive."
Eldred Woodford, president of the Canadian Sealers Association, who will be providing Perrin with his fresh seal for the event, says this is pure misinformation. "They portray us as harvesting white coats," he says, referring to seal pups, "and we haven't harvested white coats in nearly 30 years. There's been a ban on that in Canada since 1987. There's no difference hunting seals as a resource than there is hunting any other wildlife. Here in Canada we make a sustainable resource out of it, we've got a wonderful natural resource there, well-protected and well-conserved."
"It's a carefully regulated harvest," says Derek Dammann. "And no different in that sense from harvesting any other game and maybe better than commercially raised animals."
The main challenge with seal as an ingredient, and the reason for its unfortunate reputation, is its propensity to spoil. The meat's high oil content makes it very volatile and prone to turning rancid. When fresh, however, that same oil is very high in omega-3 fatty acids and the meat itself is extremely lean, high in protein, calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamin B-12. It is extremely red and, to be honest, a bit bloody. The taste is reminiscent of duck with a slight aquatic gaminess and an subtle iron aftertaste. Unlike beef, which benefits from aging, or game which can be hung for weeks, seal should be eaten almost immediately, 10 minutes is ideal though it holds up well for about two or three days. Anything more than that and it degrades rapidly in a uniquely funky and unpleasant way.
When fresh, the meat lends itself to any number of preparations from searing to smoking to braising and roasting. Jeremy Charles has served braised seal in ravioli and fresh loins simply grilled over charcoal on his menu at Raymonds. Seal meat is already available on restaurant menus in Quebec and work has started on new techniques: flash-freezing, vacuum sealing, to preserve its freshness in the hopes of making it more accessible.
Guests of the seal dinner will have a chance to experience it in nearly all its forms from a sophisticated version of flipper pie to raw, smoked seal. Perrin may even break out his patented seal oil ice cream for dessert. "I think the flavour is very distinct and interesting," he says, "It's got a taste of the sea combined with the richness of dark game meat. When you have the freshest product it's a treat and it just fits with our idea of using local, seasonally available product."
That said, as Perrin says, "People have very strong opinions about the seal harvest and what goes on. It's a resource that's harvested by fishermen around the coast, it's part of their lives. Most of the fishermen around Newfoundland now are multispecies fishermen and no particular one makes up their livelihood, but together they earn their living and we'd like to see that continue."