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Friday 8th September 2017.
Flight 17, West Jet to St. John’s
I am at the gate, on my way to St. John’s NFL. Outside the morning brightness reflects on large cumulus clouds; soft cream and blues. It may have taken a few years of talking about Newfoundland, but now I am on my way.
In preparation for my two-week residency I have set up a few meetings to enquire, discover and explore if the Irish historical link with Newfoundland still exists. I am particularly curious to discover if farming practices, specific plants or farming methods are still used or maybe integrated into modern day food production. Wondering too how those who journeyed by sea and in poverty to the ‘New Found Land’, have left their mark.
I know it won’t be like stepping back into history yet I am looking for connections, traditions and/or knowledge that may have been passed down through families from my own place called home.
I watch planes take off, one after the other (mad notion really, flying, when you think about it) waiting for our turn. When we are in the air, flying over the ocean for hours, I think about the families in boats, bringing with them what they could carry, making this same journey but going to start a new life on a different island.
Monday 11th September.
I am met by rain this morning, which has persisted all night. It’s fine, I didn’t come for the weather, but it does mean that I spend much of the day being wet.
I meet up with Lori Mac Carthy, nee Butler. Lori comes from a background of cheffing and has now developed her love of foraging into a company called ‘Cod Sounds’ (https://www.codsounds.ca). She takes groups out to find free food on the land and offers classes on turning these finds into meals. Lori is also interested in passing on her skills and knowledge to a younger generation.
Having no use for a double garage at her house, Lori has developed this space into her workshop. This is where she experiments, where she butchers her fresh meat, be that elk or mousse or once a year a pig; raised by a woman who does two pigs a year. This is where the ‘food gatherings’ take place and this is also where Lori passes on her expertise. As she delves deeper and deeper into the ideas, traditions and knowledge of foraging and living off the land, people are starting to sit up and listen.
Around her kitchen/work area, there are pots and pans and dishes and plastic containers full of herbs that have been picked in the wild. The half leg of some animal has been smoked and hangs off the metal rack that contains salamis and other hunks of meat. There are elements of straight nature too. The round stones beside the wood burning stove that catch the heat and extend the warmth. On a table sits a large antler and before it the shells of a crustaceans that, now empty, have small tea lights in them. Here is where you can allow your mind to wander and also focus as we talk about food sustainability, food waste, the high price of food and the hard fact that 90% of the food consumed in NFL/LAB has to be imported.
My final drenching of the day comes when I walk back to the Dominion’s supermarket. We need to eat too and although there are only a few things to get, it takes me about an hour to get around the store. There is just so much to look at and investigate. I quietly try to take some photos because I don’t want people to think that I am being a tourist laughing at their wares. I cannot resist documenting what I see. There are large, 4 foot x 4 foot wire baskets piled high with energy bars on sale. There are so many it speaks to me of the lack of worth, the carelessness in which this product, so rich in protein (and sugar) in a place where there is such plenty, is so unceremoniously dumped in a wire cage.
Tuesday 12th September
Thinking about food prices, food wastage and food packaging I head up to ‘The Gathering’, an outreach centre off the far end of Military Road. This is a place that was started by the sisters of Mercy and the sisters of the Presentation in 1994.
At first the sisters used to leave sandwiches outside the centre’s door, but, it can rain great deal here and they decided that if they were going to feed hungry people, soggy sandwiches were not the answer and so, The Gathering Place’ was created. There were many hungry people then and there are many hungry now.
Today an average of 200/250 hot lunches are served to the Guests each day. These lunches can be made because of donations in the form of financial gifts and by donated produce, Christmas being an especially good time for donations, it helps those who give, feel good.
Brendan O’Rourke is a young man of about 25 who is the chef. He comes from Irish stock but considers himself to be a Newfoundlander. He has always loved to cook and now his job is to make a daily meal for those who need it the most. Many of the guests who come here are either unemployed, suffer from mental issues or have had, or still do have substance abuse in their lives or, through various reasons, life has prevented them from gaining a full education. The centre does not only serve food, it also provides medial assistance, a hairdresser, chiropodist, advise on how to access government assistance and often just a listening ear.
Brendan is keen to serve food that is sourced locally but the prices are often higher than what can be imported. He mentions that local cod is twice the price of frozen blue cod from Alaska.
The meals that the centre provides are mostly traditional Newfoundland recipes and food that the guests are used to. There could be stews or pastry based pies, dough boys, Jiggs dinner or moose, or often the regular meat and a carbohydrate, vegetables not being very popular. He tries, when he can, to throw in some lentils or other healthy ingredients but he feels that having a meal that reminds the guests of home or better times is more important than pushing a meal that is regarded as healthy and well balanced.
Wednesday 13th September.
It’s raining. People jog by, accepting it for what it is, so I walk on with my umbrella billowing with the sideswipes of wind as I seek out Buchanan Street. I am off to St. John’s long established seed shop. The E.W. Gaze Seed Company has been in business for decades and is now under new ownership. The clientele has now change from the over 60’s to the over 25’s. People are starting to like gardening, or to like the idea of producing a little food in their back yards.
I am there to meet Jackson McClean. Jackson started a facebook group called ‘Backyard Farming’ and encourages people to giving vegetable growing a go. The group’s membership expands everyday and people use this forum to learn from each other and show photographs of their produce. There are currently 5000 members in the online group. I am keen to see Jackson’s backyard and to meet some of the other Backyard Farmers.
Friday 15th September. Heart’s Content.
It is an amazingly sunny day; people are out washing their cars in their shorts and the sea is so blue it is hard to look at.
Of course I can’t help myself and I stop at other places as well. The day is too beautiful to sit in the Tank (the very large hire car) too long there is too much to try and capture as I cruise slowly up and down the hills. At Boar’s Point there is a small harbour where some 10 boats of all sizes are tied up. I look into the very clear water and it is teaming with pike.
Paul is one of these fishermen. His boat, built by himself, his two sons and his daughter, is making ready for another trip out. His whole family is employed in the industry; the wife works in the factory nearby and his children have various related tasks. He fishes for crab when the season is on and it was a late start this year. The boats did not get out until the 6th of June due to the weather. It was a bit risky even then, the chance of loosing pots and line was high because of the ice, and this year there were more icebergs than ever before. I wonder what that tells us.
We talk of the beauty of this place and the pace of life. Paul’s parents were farmers and sold locally. He has his own small vegetable garden by his house. The possibility of eating only food that is produced, caught or foraged from the hills behind, if only ‘we were not so spoilt’, is something that he would like to encourage.
Paul sells half of his catch, whatever it may be, locally and the rest is sold to the processing plant nearby. The processing plant to which he is attached, has been buying his catch for many years. The company is unlike many other large processers in the area as it lent him the money he needed to build the boat. He has just paid it off and he will stay with the company, he feels he owes them that. Each year the price is renegotiated but he feels that he is getting a fair deal. There is a quota and although he only had a day quota of 1200lbs left, he caught 2000lbs yesterday. He put back what could survive and kept the remainder on board. He knows he will be penalised but as he says ‘It’s a sin to waste the fish, I would rather pay the fine and gives the fish away for free’. Sometimes quotas are good, other times they just don’t work in real life.
As I prepare to go he gives me his parting words of wisdom ‘We could be self sufficient you know, dairy might be hard, but we could, we choose not to, I wonder how this is going to end’.
Saturday 16th September.
For lunch we are off to Calvert. It’s on the Irish Loop so we think we know what to expect. The Irish names are everywhere and of course all the tourist trappings. Occasional big vistas open up to a view but for the most part the road meanders along more dense, spruce forest. This island used to be covered in white pine most of which was used for various things (nearly all the houses here are built out of wood) and it was replaced by spruce with sprinkles of Rowan, Sycamore and Beech. The ocher and the oranges play with the light and allow for punches of colour to imprint images on my memory’s eye.
We all agree to meet at the ‘Quid Jigger’. It’s about an hour’s drive in the Tank. We cruse along and read out all the funny sounding names and advertisements, interjecting with shouts of ‘oh, look at that’. Lunch is great, fish so fresh it probably just came off the boat straight onto our plates. The conversation runs between family members and it’s great to be among people who come from here. There is the easy familiar banter among the clientele and the waiting staff and the décor is fantastic. There is a large mural by the local artist Gerald L Squires, it is very good and yet so odd to see a rock/water scene as backdrop to the plain and unadorned furniture. The tables and chairs are practical, simple and serviceable and remind me of a parochial hall or a sit down dinner dance some years ago in Ireland. I think what I miss here in the interiors of places is a softness, be that some gentle fabrics or, dare I say it, a woman’s touch. This place, like many I have now been in, reflects such functionality, either this is a reflection of it’s past or maybe it is just the way it is.
After lunch we go and do a very Canadian pastime: picking blueberries. There are five varieties that grow on the island and they are everywhere. On foot, we dive into a well-worn path among the trees that used to be a childhood get away of our local leader. We also taste the leaves of spearmint and are shown Labrador tea. Not that I can take any home because if you boil it, it becomes poisonous. Local knowledge, a valuable thing and I hope it will not all be lost before it can be passed on.
Of all the food that could be foraged, blueberries is the most common and done by all. You see people coming out of the thick forest paths holding containers (which I know now are full of berries) while driving along anywhere. You can find the blueberry included in so many things. I have drunk blueberry tea, had blueberry loaf, smoothies, pancakes, the list goes on. There is also a dish called ‘Buckle’, I think it’s a bit like cobbler, by listing to the cooking instructions, it is served with, guess what, blueberry ice cream. They are all made from local berries and yet in the supermarket they sell blueberries that come from the U.S. I suppose it is because some people just prefer to buy the generously packaged, ready to go, washed and sanitised, hassle free berries off the shelf. They are not cheap though, so maybe the money does not matter to some.
Monday 17th September.
Todd Boland of the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) Botanical Gardens and I have an appointment at the Gardens to talk about heritage plants that still exist here. I was curious if there was still a direct line, through plants, to the immigrants who populated this island.
Here is a place of learning, not just for the academia but also for the general public. There are workshops on vegetable gardening, seed collection, compost, children’s gnome hunts, bird watching and much, much more. Set high up on a hill, where else, the plants that I recognise often small differences to the plants in Ireland. The names are different too, for example, our Rowan is called Dog Berry.
Just outside the activity building, there are some raised beds made up to encourage the growing of vegetables or, a bed, which shows how you can intersperse vegetables with flowers. A honking great trio of red cabbages looks wonderful among the Cosmos and the annual Sweet William, all still in full bloom. I watch as some visitors look at this bed and I am not sure if it is wonder, appreciation or confusion. People like their green lawns here, spending great amounts of money on product to keep it looking good. It’s a very tidy city, in that way. All the lawns and flowers beds are prim.
Compost and the making of soil is a big thing here. This place is not known as ‘The Rock’ for nothing. The Botanical Garden has been very creative about this. Negotiating with the larger city parks they now collect four or five lorry loads of leaves each autumn. The leaves, with a three-year rotation, become valuable ‘Black Gold’ for the garden. The university, to which this garden is attached, now saves all the compostable leftovers from the kitchens too. By adding this free matter to their own compost heap they no longer need to buy any mulch or fertilizer.
The Heritage bed was started about 20 years ago when the Garden put a call out for plants that were still in existence from ‘homelands’. The marker was put pre 1940’s and the donations came flooding in. What amazes me is that immigrating people took the trouble to bring flowering plants with them on their journey, not seeds. There must have been great sentiment attached to these tubers and roots to decide to pack them along with all the essentials that were to be brought to a new land.
Murray’s is one of two Organic Farm in this region. They sell half of their crop to the ‘enlightened’ restaurants, and much of the remainder at the farmers market in St. John’s. Locals also drop in and head straight for the cabbage, the root vegetables and perhaps, more progressive crops such as celery and fennel. Murray’s whole farm is about 10 acres in size and a half an acre of that is under plastic.
Robinovitz is a smaller but more relaxed organic small holding. They open to the public on a Saturday and also do a ‘green bag’ once a week which is delivered to a drop off point in St. John’s. I arrive unannounced but Mike, the owner, does not have a problem with that and gives me free rein to wander where I wish. I like this place, it feels more like a friendly, family run veg plot, with strong organic beliefs.
Recent new workshops in gardening and foraging are constantly booked up and seem to be going down well. It is a sunny day and I am keen to catch a little more of the landscape before night comes. It’s getting cooler now as you feel winter approaching. It seems to be happening so fast here and makes no sense as you see fields full of produce still in full bloom. A first frost is expected any day now and it’s only September.
Tuesday 19th September.
I had met Frank at the Farmers Market last Saturday as we got talking about his blue potatoes known here as Newfoundland long blues. As we discuss heritage potatoes and I tell him about the varieties I grow at home, he invites me out to see his patch. Frank grows organically, he does not see why not.
It’s a beautiful day as I drive to Foxtrap, a place that looks much like some other places I have visited. The wide road running through and on to other destinations, intercepted with many side roads that carry names like Fagan’s Road, Butler’s Lane, Traffic Lane. It sometimes feels like they are running out of names, but then there are so many roads. People live in detached, mostly bungalow style housing, some are coloured but away from St. John’s there are less bright colours and each house, of course, is surrounded by a front garden and a patch of well maintained grass. There are more fruit trees around and side patches with a bit of food growing, stalls along the roadside and small glasshouses (made of stiff plastic).
It takes me a while to find Frank’s house, as I cannot image that a supplier of food to restaurants and a market, can live so suburban. Eventually I stop and ask and am pointed to a house that sits right beside the water. The view is fantastic. Frank used to work as a soil expert and is now retired. He and his wife garden their half-acre plot and it shows again, how much food you can grow in a small space.
Frank leans down to grab a handful of soil, it is rich and loamy and it smells great. As I look across the land before I go, I spot three cows on grass! A rare sight here as most farm animals are kept indoors all year round.
I had noticed the little harbour nearby on my way into Foxtrap. I park up, close to the water, just to be sitting there, looking at the sea, the edge of land and enjoying the sun, I suddenly become aware that I am also looking at a large crop of pumpkin. A passerby tells me that ‘Mike and his new wife own the patch’. The half-acre or so is overflowing with pumpkins of all sizes and stages of ripeness. As well as that, there are goats in a holding pen conversing with anyone who walks past. I wander over to pay my respects and meet the man himself.
Mike has been growing food here for years. First the greens in the spring and then the pumpkins. The soil looks stony and dense but it obviously does fine for him. Each year there are school trips to this field so that children can find their perfect Halloween pumpkin. Apparently on Mick and his wife’s wedding day, which was during the Halloween season, the wife was out in her wedding dress and wellies, selling pumpkins. That must have been a sight. By the way, Newfoundlanders don’t really eat much pumpkin, Mike tells me, pity really as this crop grows so well here.
Wednesday 20th September.
My time is nearly done here so I set off to do some last minute note taking. Exercising my legs (it is either up or down the hills here) I head towards the docks. I am hoping to talk to someone in the shipping importation company about the food that is being brought in each day and I am curious as to what the ships carry on their way out of St. John’s. The saying here is that there is enough food for 3 weeks, after that it becomes a problem. Maybe the problem is what people will eat, not what they would desire. There are pumpkins a plenty, remember.
Friday 22ed. September.
It is late in the evening and I am sitting in the airport departure area and ponder just what it is that I have learned about food, food production and if there is any tangible connection left between Ireland and Newfoundland on this topic. I have spoken to many people about food from all different angles and I realise that there is a heritage through plants and meals, but food production is profit-making enterprise.
And is there a link between Newfoundland and Ireland through farming and the practice? I am not sure that there is. There are those that grow food and those that shop for it. There are backyard farmers and the opportunities to visit an organic farm or one can go to Cosco and buy more that can be consumed. I have met people who feed the hungry and others who like to forage to live more off the land as the initial immigrants in the 1800’s did, but what really has this to do with Ireland.
People grow root vegetables because they can. The plants can handle the short growing season, they do well, store well over winter, but it is not specific to Ireland.
I think what I have discovered is that when you mention that you live in Ireland, people converse with you in a different way. There is an element of instant trust and understanding. Of course people came from many countries, England, Wales, France, Portugal etc but the most came from Ireland. And it is this link, an understood tradition (think Coddle and Jiggs dinner, the music and the chat) that is what makes the connection. Food is certainly what I ended up talking about in the main conversation, but it always started with a little grounding, finding out where each came from in Ireland or what connection there could be. It was always with a smile that came as soon as I mentioned that I live in Ireland.