A few years ago after the St. John’s Jazz Festival, we rented a car and drove across the province to Gros Morne National Park. I don’t throw around the word ‘magical’ too often… or ever… but our five days there were just that. (Note: Since writing this post I have reviewed past writings to find, in fact, I do use the word ‘magical’ – but I stand by every case in which I use it). From bedding down atop a cliff surrounded by a dozen wild sheep, to a darlingly chatty park ranger, to discovering a secluded waterfall, the trip was perfect and crowned by a meal that ended my food stubbornness forever.
Gros Morne is a place of endless beauty. Each direction you look has a completely new vista – red rocks that look strait out of Africa, cliffs towering over the crashing ocean, garden meadows with gentle streams – it’s nature at its grandest. Then there’s the people of Newfoundland – friendly, warm and down to earth – I think those three adjectives accurately describe their food as well. Newfoundland being a rock isn’t flush with fresh vegetables, but their seafood is world class.
Seafood has only in the past maybe ten years become something I’d even try. Other than the requisite halibut and chips or breaded shrimp, I haven’t been very adventurous in that department. I surprised myself in those few days there – maybe it was the infectious beauty or the feeling of utter belonging, but I pushed through long hikes and carried a butt load of weight on my back and never felt the strain. So when we stumbled across one of the only restaurants in Trout River I thought I’d challenge myself and make it an all seafood night. We were warned we would need a reservation, but The Seaside Restaurant looks from the outside – and the downstairs dining room – like your average chip shop. We made out reservation anyway and returned just before sunset.
After getting cleaned up as best we could from our camp site – we returned a little early to check out the town. We did as the locals were doing and grabbed a six pack to take down to the beach. The board walk was stunning and the fishing boats were passing on the horizon. Half the town was on the beach starting bonfires and playing music as the crazy townie kids splashed in the frigid Atlantic ocean as if it were their backyard pool.
We ambled up to our second floor table overlooking the shore at around 8pm just before sunset. There was live music and the room was full to the gills on their second seating and much of the menu was sold out since they only serve what they catch fresh. Johnny ordered mussels to start and I took a chance and tried them.
I had tried mussels twice before and really wanted to like them, but they were always fishy and gritty and had a weird, hard snot-like consistency that I thought there was no getting over. I said I would try anything, but this leap was harder for me to make than an entire day of hard hiking… I am so happy I did. Like everything else we ate that trip, they were prepared simply and honestly with a minimum of ingredients to allow the true flavour to shine. Just some white wine, some aromatic celery and carrots, and a sprinkling of diced peppers. There was no grit and no fishiness – only a sweet and glorious pop of ocean. The rolls were baked fresh, the butter was aplenty and the room sparkled with… say it with me – magic.
To top it all off, at 8:30pm when the sun was just dipping into the ocean, the entire room spilled onto the patio to watch the last few minutes of the day disappear. I almost get choked up when I think about it, and believe me, it’s a meal I have recounted numerous times.
From crispy and cute cod cheeks to the most rich and humble chicken soup I’ve ever tasted, Newfoundland casts a spell – and net – over my heart. For a girl that has eased her way from picky eater to curious culinary explorer, I have those five days in that magical province to thank.
FENNEL AND HERB WHITE WINE MUSSELS WITH CHERRY TOMATOES
serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a starter
I love my mussels done with a thick and spicy tomato sauce, reusing the leftover sauce for soup or pasta. Mussels are so quick to make, they are great to entertain with, when I do I like a recipe that’s a bit more elegant and special. The French do a great job of mussels – white wine and garlic with shallots, butter and herbs – a classic combination. I added another level here with a subtle anise flavouring of pastis and fennel and the sweetness of the cherry tomato. As with any mussel dish – this is brilliant with some crusty baguette – and I serve it with an herby salad and a few grilled sausages.
2lb bag of mussels, cleaned and debearded
3 pats of butter
a glug of olive oil
1 large shallot, diced
1 small fennel bulb or half a large one, quartered (or halved), and very thinly sliced, leafy tops reserved
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pint (or a couple handfuls) of cherry or grape tomatoes
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1/3 cup pastis (I like Ricard)
1 1/4 cup dry white wine
a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped
a small bunch of chives, chopped
1 lemon, zest and juice
optional: extra lemon for serving
After washing your mussels discard the ones with broken shells or any already open. If it is only slightly open, try tapping the shell with a knife or on the edge of the sink to see if it will close.
Put a large pot with a lid on medium heat and add a couple pats of butter and a glug of oil. Add the shallot and fennel and gently soften about 5 minutes taking care not to brown – you just want them sweetly broken down. Add your garlic, tomatoes, tarragon and fennel seeds and sautee for another 30 seconds or a minute.
Turn the heat up to medium/high and add the pastis, stirring 30 seconds. Add the wine and lemon zest and stir. Tip in the mussels and cover, shaking the pot and leave to steam. Do not over cook, steam just until they open, no more than 5 or 6 minutes.
Remove lid and add your herbs and fennel tops as well as the lemon juice and last pat of butter. Toss about once more. Serve immediately with extra lemon slices on the side and some crusty baguette to sop up the juice.