Our cookbook of the week is Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador by Jeremy Charles, chef and co-owner of the award-winning St. John’s restaurant Raymonds. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Poached cod cheek, mussel broth, potato and shore greens, cold-smoked Labrador Arctic char with cultured cream and seal bresaola, and baked sagamité custard, poached rhubarb and yogurt sorbet.
Cod sounds. Its name alone gives the food a mythical air, inflected with underwater ripples and vibrations. Pale and pearly, the organ helps bony fish regulate their buoyancy. As an ingredient, though – when cured, dried and fried – they puff up like pork scratchings. Especially when enjoyed with crème fraîche and shrimp, chef Jeremy Charles says, they “have a beautiful, unique flavour.” Charles grew up eating his grandmother’s freshly fried cod sounds in the fishing village of Old Perlican, Nfld. At his award-winning St. John’s restaurant, Raymonds, they serve the fish crisps (a.k.a. “Newfoundland nachos”) throughout the year.
A staple of the restaurant’s pantry, cod sounds speak profoundly to a sense of place. In Newfoundland and Labrador, cod is much more than a signature ingredient; it’s central to the province’s history, culture and traditions. In keeping with the time-honoured practice of using the entire animal, a custom borne of necessity, Charles highlights other odd bits including cod chitlin (sperm), nape (collar; his favourite cut), cheek, tongue, liver and head. In Raymonds’s dining room overlooking the harbour, the line from past to present is evident in something altogether new.
Through his inventive use of wild, local and sustainable ingredients, Charles has established himself as a leader in the relatively recent movement of chefs reinterpreting Newfoundland cuisine. Since he founded Raymonds with business partner Jeremy Bonia in November 2010 (and more recently, The Merchant Tavern), the area has caught the world’s attention. The maritime destination, known as a gateway to drifting icebergs and astounding natural beauty, has become a culinary one as well.
“For many years we were forgotten about: We were out there on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s so amazing to finally let people know that we’re doing beautiful things, and we have so many amazing ingredients and so many amazing people and artists,” says Charles. “I’m so proud (to be part of) that, and so proud of the people who work with me at the restaurants. It’s an exciting time to be living in Newfoundland.”
From the beginning, Charles has focused on the bounty of land and sea: Cod – as key to the cuisine today as it ever was – small game (grouse, partridge, rabbit, turr), wild edibles (shore greens, berries), seafood, seal, moose and thoughtfully reared farm animals. As a natural extension, his debut cookbook, Wildness (Phaidon, 2019) explores both the products that comprise his dishes and the people responsible for harvesting them. John Cullen’s evocative photography of the landscape, practices, producers and finished dishes reinforces Charles’s message: “It’s all about the terroir of Newfoundland.”
Charles opens the book with the two dishes that originally drew him to cooking: Fish and brewis, scrunchions and drawn butter, and seafood soup. The former, his “death-row meal,” is the one-pot cornerstone of Newfoundland cooking – “My grandmother would always have it either on the stovetop or just ready to go whenever” – while the latter, a specialty of his now mother-in-law and her partner, inspired him with its fresh flavours. The remainder of the 160 recipes are primarily Raymonds’s dishes with a handful of basics.
“There are some simple things, too, like bottled moose; stuff we’d have on the side of the river bank (while fishing) … We’d have a little boil up, which is one of my favourite ways to cook: On an open fire using wild ingredients whether we’d bottled or pickled them. It’s a great way to enjoy them in their environment. It’s very basic but a bottle of moose will get you out of a jam any day. You can’t go wrong,” Charles laughs.
The roots of the region’s culinary traditions run deep; traces of 17th-century trade routes between the Caribbean and southern Europe can still be seen. The province is vast (nearly one and three quarters times the size of Great Britain) and sparsely populated; a fact that was exacerbated following the collapse of the cod fishery in the early 1990s when roughly 30,000 people lost their livelihoods. In the fallout of the cod moratorium, many migrated to other parts of the country in pursuit of work. But in the intervening decades, some of those who remained retrained and others, such as Charles himself, have returned.
Following the closing of the fishery, “there were a lot of dark days,” says Charles. But he gives the example of partridge hunter Brian Dalton, who he describes as “the epitome of the ‘new’ Newfoundland.” Dalton, once a cod fisherman, became a geologist. “He’s so down-to-earth and loves Newfoundland, partridge hunting and salmon fishing. We grew up together, cod jigging in the mornings out of St. John’s, and he’s a really inspiring, lovely human. I’m delighted to get his story in the book.”
Newfoundland’s climate can be harsh and damp, its waters tempestuous and its landscape rugged and bare. Living off the land – hunting, fishing, foraging and growing – takes commitment, passion and fortitude. In Wildness, Charles conveys this through interludes dedicated to some of the people, like Dalton, who share a deep connection to their natural surroundings. Among them: Inuit elder and polar bear hunter Paul Jararuse from the Torngat Mountains of Nunatsiavut; professional forager Lori McCarthy, owner of the culinary tourism company Cod Sounds; fisher Jerry Hussey, who dives for sea urchins; and the Morry family, who for five generations have allowed their sheep to graze freely on shore greens, seaweed and wild roses as they ferry them to and fro uninhabited islands.
“You’re nothing without the product. These people are out jumping in the ocean and out fishing and going the extra length for you to get those beautiful products to the back door so they can be on the table,” says Charles. “When it comes down to it, the whole experience of coming to Raymonds is all about the products and the story behind the food. That’s what people really love when they come to the restaurant; we’re able to talk about where the scallops come from, or codfish or moose or what have you. There’s a story behind the food.”