The sun was barely up as we trudged through bogs and scrubby woods out at Roaches Line, 45 minutes west of St John’s, searching for moose. I followed my guide, Lori McCarthy, in silence – because moose have exceptional hearing – a few steps behind her bright orange hat, watching her long hair swing against the rifle slung across her shoulder. Every so often McCarthy would stop to listen, and I’d hold my breath. Or, she’d crouch to pick cranberries and juniper berries as we walked, or pass me handfuls of unidentified greenery to shove in my pockets “for later.” The plan was, should we find a moose, that McCarthy would shoot it, and we would dress the animal together and use the meat.
I was visiting with McCarthy to get a taste of the experiences she offers as part of her three-day program titled Cultural Food Preservation, Wild Foods and Cooking Techniques. McCarthy is a renowned “wild chef” and promoter of Newfoundland cuisine, and her cookbook Food Culture Place: Stories, traditions, and recipes of Newfoundland (co-written by Marsha Tulk) is a celebration of the food culture that McCarthy is working to preserve and share. The program teaches participants how preserving each of Newfoundland’s ecosystems is vitally important to protecting its food community, and that by supporting Newfoundlanders who embrace traditional food gathering and preparation methods, they can hold on to a way of life that is in danger of dying out.
“I don’t think people are aware of how quickly Newfoundland moved into the modern age and out of poverty,” McCarthy says. “There’s still a stigma attached to local foods as opposed to buying food at the store. Education is key to changing that because the food we are making here is amazing.”
We walked for three hours in unseasonably warm and bright December weather. All we saw of moose were a few hoofprints in the mud and I was a little relieved, truth be told, having never actually killed anything before. Like on previous trips to Newfoundland I was struck by the barren beauty of this place, but for the first time, I considered how hard it must have been to subsist on what little bounty The Rock provided before moose were introduced in 1904.
McCarthy’s program is offered through an online platform called Vacation With an Artist, a program that bills itself as offering a “mini-apprenticeship” with artists and craftspeople around the world. Participants spend five hours a day shadowing McCarthy as she procures and prepares food, as well as meeting other well known players in the Newfoundland food scene. I’m staying in the Quidi Vidi Village neighborhood of St. John’s at the Inn at Mallard Cottage, attached to the acclaimed restaurant of the same name where local star chef Todd Perrin has been promoting locally sourced wild foods for a decade.
After the hunt we stop for hearty turkey soup and homemade bread at McCarthy’s home, then she sends me back to the inn with a bag of prime moose meat from an earlier hunt to give to Perrin, who is cooking us a private dinner at Mallard Cottage that night. When I drop it to him, Perrin preps a little moose tartare and talks about how much he loves to cook with the meat when he can get it.
“The only way I can get moose is sporadically when a hunter offers it to me. A lot of guys who hunt wouldn’t eat moose to save their life, they hunt to give it away to friends and family, or to sell to someone like me to help pay for their hunting trip,” Perrin says. “This is the only province where you can buy or sell game, and I’ll always take it when offered.”
The tartare is superb, not at all gamey like I expected. That evening we have an intimate dinner with McCarthy and a few others. Perrin serves the rest of the cut seared on his smoker, and the meat is perfectly tender. “The trouble is, most people only eat moose ground up or in a pot roast with all the flavour cooked out of it,” Perrin says. “They don’t look at the animal as having cuts like this.”
I spend most of the next day with McCarthy in her home workshop, which has a well-equipped kitchen and a huge dining table and is decorated with seal skins, antlers and various hunting equipment and memorabilia. Before we start making anything, she lets me taste the incredible charcuterie that she makes. She perches on her chest freezer shaving wafer-thin slices of her incredibly good homemade lamb prosciutto off the bone, followed by hams cured in traditional Italian (aged three years) and Kentucky (aged two years) styles. I was in raptures over the lamb and McCarthy tells me that these are special lambs raised on uninhabited islands with only the ocean spray-fed grass to sustain them.
“See, if I had more time with you, we’d have foraged greens on the beach across from where the sheep are, then taken a whole lamb from the farmer to bring here and butcher,” McCarthy tells me.
Our goal that afternoon is to make moose sausage, then have a feast of locally sourced wild food. Tulk is there too – she is often part of the on-site experience – and she’s every bit as hilarious as McCarthy, so the afternoon is a riot. Just as we’re about to start pushing the sausage into the skins, Timothy Charles, chef at the celebrated Fogo Island Inn walks into the workshop to join us for supper. I feel like I’m eavesdropping at a party with all the cool kids of the Newfoundland food scene as they talk about the abundance of mushrooms this year, who is making what fantastic new product and why such attention to what’s from here is vitally important to Newfoundland’s cultural heritage.
“See, we live like this,” McCarthy says, excitably gesturing at her gathered foodie friends, “We’re using the old techniques and the old ingredients to create the kind of food that people want to eat now.” This is true, the charcuterie that McCarthy and Tulk create is as good as any I’ve eaten anywhere. The only place you can find it is in McCarthy’s workshop.
With a lot of help, I make moose sausage. Tulk and McCarthy teach me to hand-roll gnocchi with ricotta that Tulk casually whipped up out of a two-litre carton of milk as we chatted earlier. When we finally eat, it’s by candlelight, enjoying the delectable sausage and gnocchi, finished with slices of cake cooked by McCarthy’s mother.
I’m sad when the night is over and full to the brim with the joys of conversing with wickedly funny Newfoundlanders and feeling intimately hooked into their culture. I only wish I could extend my stay, learn more, and return for a longer experience.
Learn more about the Cultural Food Residency program at lorimccarthy.ca.
Lola Augustine Brown travelled as a guest of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. The organization did not review or approve the article before before publication.
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