Seal of approval – Flipper pie for Lent

We are currently going through the Christian season of Lent.  Rooted in the time when Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, Lent is the time just before the celebration of Easter and is meant for people to make some sacrifices in their lives.  These sacrifices, small or large, symbolically help people understand the sacrifices that Jesus may have been experiencing himself.

In reality, Lent ends up being different things, depending on the person. For some, it is a period of going on a diet; for others, it is when Catholic co-workers show up to work with ashes on their heads, and fast-food restaurants start selling fish sandwiches.  That’s how McDonald’s started selling their Filet O Fish sandwiches.  Back in the 60’s a Cincinnati manager wanted something for people to eat during the Lenten season instead of their regular burgers.  The fast food giant sells 25% of their fish sandwiches during the forty days of Lent.

The notion of eating fish during Lent is not something new.  Most of us don’t think twice about it.  Newfoundlanders have been doing it for centuries.  For some, the definition of fish can be generalized to anything one gets from the ocean.  Seal has been part of the Newfoundland diet since we first started living on the island.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the seals were caught for their pelts, oil, and meat.  It’s still a part of the Labrador Inuit diet and is high in vitamin A and protein. By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84% of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.

Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:

The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded [as fish] by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.

For those who have tasted seal, the meat is described as a bit gamey and oily. The high oil content means that the meat has a tendency to spoil quickly if not prepared by smoking or baked in a pie.  Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.  Nowadays, most Newfoundlanders will buy their pies premade.  One of the most popular places to get flipper pie is Bidgoods supermarket just south of St. John’s in Goulds.

So, if you’re adventurous, pick up some flipper pie the next time you’re visiting the Rock.  Enjoy the rich, flaky crust and the savoury deep brown gravy surrounded by potatoes, turnips and onions.  And the meaty chunks of seal of course.  I hope it will get your seal of approval.

Photo by Greg Locke

Screech Pecan Tart

tart, pecan, nuts, screech, rum, pastry, crust, newfoundland

This is the week that most of us will be courting our sweetheart with flowers, chocolate, or a lavish dinner.  If you haven’t remembered that holiday here’s a quick easy tart to help you get back in the good books.  This tart contains a little bit of Newfoundland dark rum for flavour.

Newfoundlanders have been drinking rum as long as they have been trading with the British.  They traded with Jamaica and other islands for sugar, molasses, and rum.  I did a post about the history of molasses and the sugar trade, and you can read about it here.

Long before any Canadian liquor board was created, the Jamaican rum that was eventually to be known as Screech was a mainstay of the traditional Newfoundland diet.  At this time, salt fish was being shipped to the West Indies in exchange for rum. This resulted in fish becoming the national dish for Jamaicans and rum becoming the traditional drink for Newfoundlanders.

Not being overly concerned with alcohol content, the early fishermen tended to drink the rum at incredibly high strength with no attempt made to temper the taste.  When the government took control of the alcohol trade in the early 20th century they put the rum in a sophisticated, unlabeled bottle and fortunately did not alter the rum itself.

This delightful product may have continued indefinitely as a nameless rum except for the influx of American servicemen to Newfoundland during World War II. As the story goes, a visiting American WWII serviceman downed the rum in one quick toss. His howls of distress caused a bystander to rush to his aid, roaring “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?” The taciturn Newf simply replied, “The screech?” ‘Tis the rum, me son.” As word of the incident spread more soldiers began trying this mysterious rum, adopting it as their favorite. Thus a legend was born.

This dessert contains a little bit of the drink, but not enough to make you howl in distress.  It’s quick to make, and looks grand on the plate; like you spent hours.

You’ll first need a pre-made frozen pie pastry from the store.  Get the kind which is rolled into a tube, instead of the one that comes with a foil pan.  You won’t need the pan and the rolled pastry is easier to manipulate.  Place the thawed pastry into a 9″ tart pan.  Get the pan which has a removable bottom.  It will make removing the tart so much easier after it’s baked.  Press the pastry to the sides of the greased pan and trim off any excess over the edge of the pan.  Place the pan on a lined cookie sheet and set that aside.

Preheat your oven to 350F.  In a large bowl whip your eggs, brown sugar, and melted butter.  The sugar shouldn’t have any lumps.  If they do, crush them down with your whisk.  Add the clear syrup and rum.  Whisk until combined.   Pour the mixture into the tart pan.  Place the pecan halves into the slurry in any design you like.  You can leave a little space between the nuts so you can see the batter in between. Carefully carry your tart pan to the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes.  Check the tart after 45 minutes to see if the pecans are getting too brown.  If so, cover with foil and continue baking.

Remove tart from the oven.  The filling should be a bit wobbly but it will set once it cools.  While still warm sprinkle the tart with a couple more tablespoons of Screech.  Let cool on a wire rack before removing it from the pan.  Serve with a nice whipped cream or your favourite ice cream.

pecan tart with screech dark rum

Pecan Tart with Screech Dark Rum

This pecan tart fortified with Newfoundland Screech Dark Rum will get you hot under the collar in more ways than one!
Course Dessert
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 5 minutes
Servings 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 frozen pastry shell big enough for a 9" pie
  • 2 eggs large
  • 2/3 cups brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter melted
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup This is the clear kind
  • 1 tsp Screech Dark rum plus extra for sprinkling after
  • 1/3 pound pecan halves you may need more if they are broken

Instructions

  1. Take pastry out of the freezer to thaw about 30 minutes before you make the dessert. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Press the thawed pastry into a greased 9" tart pan. This pan should have removable bottom. Press the pastry up the sides of the pan evenly and remove any excess. Place the tart pan on a lined cookie sheet. This will make transferring it to the oven easier and catch any spills.
  3. In a large bowl whip the eggs, brown sugar, and melted butter. Add the corn syrup and rum. Transfer the mixture to the tart pan. Add the pecans in a nice pattern in the filling. Place in the middle rack in the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes. Check after 45 minutes and cover the tart with foil if the pecans are too dark.
  4. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with 2 tbsp. of rum and then let cool. Carefully remove the tart from the pan and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Recipe Notes

You may use any dark or spiced rum if you don't have Screech.  I was not endorsed or compensated by the makers of Screech for this post.

Please Pudding – Sunday Dinner Origins

 

pudding, dessert, newfoundlandNewfoundland has taken many things from its mother countries Ireland and England.  We have the rich language and culture, the amazing music, and the scrumptious food.  (At least, we think so.) For many years generations of people sat down to Sunday dinner composed of boiled vegetables, salt beef or pork, and steamed pudding.  The meal usually consisted of putting all your vegetables into one large stock pot with the salt beef and letting it simmer on the stove until all was tender.  The salt from the beef would flavour the meal and you could take the liquid left over, commonly called the “liquor,” and make gravy, soup, and the like.  Dessert, called a pudding,  is cooked in the same pot with the vegetables in a cheesecloth bag.

The common name for this meal is called Jiggs dinner, or boiled dinner, and is thought to be named after the main character Jiggs from the comic Bringing up Father which ran from 1913 to 2000¹.  Boiled salt beef and cabbage was his favourite meal.  Jiggs dinner usually consists of salt beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and turnip.  Putting the beef in a brine solution meant that it would keep a lot longer than fresh and could travel easily.  Root vegetables kept for longer periods, especially in root cellars, which many Newfoundlanders had.  This meant that a family could have a hearty and fairly nutritious meal, even in the middle of winter when food could be scarce.  The leftovers were even used the next day, mashed together and fried as a hash.

dinner, salt beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, Jiggs, newfoundland
Traditional Newfoundland Jiggs Dinner

What accompanied this dinner was a boiled pudding.  Usually a collection of fruit and nuts loosely held together with flour and some sort of fat.  More often than not, the fat of choice was lard or suet.  It was readily available and less expensive than butter.  Nowadays we have our choice of fats at a relatively low cost for all.  One of the few times we indulge in a steamed pudding is during the holidays.  Hearkening back to the 16th century, figgy pudding, made famous with the Christmas song We Wish You a Merry Christmas, is now made with raisins instead of figs, although you can still get some made more traditionally.

I made a Christmas steamed pudding last year and it called for suet.  I didn’t have any on hand (who does, really?) so I just threw some shortening in the freezer and grated it into the pudding before I cooked it.   Christmas seems to be the one of the few times we indulge ourselves with labour and time intensive meals and I think that we are richer for it.

There are two possible puddings that can be made to accompany Jiggs dinner: pease pudding and figgy duff.  Instead of using figs in your figgy pudding, figgy duff is made with raisins.  Figgy, or figgie, is an old Cornish word for raisin and the name probably came from the settlers of that area who now lived in Newfoundland.  Made from a collection of flour, bread crumbs, raisins, molasses, spices, and fat.  They are placed in a puddling bag, wrapped in cheesecloth and then boiled along with the vegetables.  Now, though, you can get pudding tins which clamp closed and don’t absorb the flavours of the liquor.

The other pudding is pease pudding.  Pease pudding, or pease porridge, is not what we would now think of as pudding.  This is a savoury dish, more like today’s hummus.  You may remember the nursery rhyme Pease Pudding Hot

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,

Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;

Some like it hot, some like it cold,

Some like it in the pot, nine days old.

Yellow split peas are cooked with water, salt, and spices, usually with the salt meat, until they are mush.  This dish originates from the North East of England and is still served today.  It’s a classic ingredient in the saveloy dip which is found in many stores in the North East.

So before you hang up your apron, surprise your family and friends with a steamed pudding.  It comes together quickly and then gently steams on top of your stove for a couple of hours.  While it not be as fancy looking as today’s showstopping desserts, I think the simplicity of the pudding speaks for itself.  Of course you’ll have to serve a nice sauce with it, but that’s for another day.

If you want to try making your own steamed pudding.  Please try my steamed carrot raisin pudding.  It comes together quickly and is great with a nice custard or butterscotch sauce.

Footnote: 1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiggs_dinner

Steamed Carrot Raisin Pudding

dessert, carrot, raisin, pudding, sauce,
Carrot Raisin Pudding with Brown Sugar Sauce

Steamed puddings have been around for centuries.  Early puddings used to be cooked in animal intestines — as haggis still is. This wasn’t overly convenient. The intestines were only available when an animal was slaughtered, and required a good deal of work to clean them before they could be used.

Cloths for boiling puddings weren’t thought up until the early 1600s. Pudding cloths were lined with suet and flour, the mixture was poured into this, the cloth was tied up and then boiled under water for hours. When it was boiled in a cloth, it came out sphere shaped. With the advent of the cloth technique, Steamed Pudding making in England started to take off.  In Newfoundland, a steamed pudding, such as Figgy Duff, usually comes as part of Jiggs dinner.  Jiggs dinner is a boiled dinner done on Sundays with salt beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and turnips.  All are boiled together in a large pot, as well as the dessert in a pudding bag.

Steamed dessert puddings that rose (such as Christmas or Plum pudding, or Sponge puddings), would not have been possible before the invention of baking powder (in America, in the mid-nineteenth century.)

While it may seem like a lot of work, steamed puddings are relatively easy to prepare and cook.  You just need something to cook the pudding in, usually a large pot and something to hold the pudding.  You can use a pudding bag, an old (clean) coffee tin, or a pudding mould.  Pudding bags and molds can be found at home and decor stores, or you could click on the ad at the bottom of my post.  (Subtle as a lead pipe, I am.)

This steamed carrot pudding is a great way to hide a little more veg into your meals.  It’s a sweet pudding, and should be served with a sauce.  The easiest way is just to buy the caramel, chocolate, or custard sauces available at the supermarket.  I will tell you how to make a homemade sauce, so stay tuned for that.

For your pudding, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and allspice in a large bowl.  Add the raisins and currants and toss them with the flour mixture.  Make sure they are coated with flour.  It will evenly distribute the fruit throughout the dessert.

In another bowl with your hand mixer on medium, cream the butter and brown sugar until smooth.  Add the beaten egg to the creamed sugar.  With your mixer on low, slowly add the flour mixture until the batter becomes too stiff to mix.  Fold in the remaining flour/fruit.

Stir in the grated carrot, potato, and bread crumbs.  The batter will be thick.  Stecarrot, dessert, raisin, pudding, sauceamed puddings typically don’t have much flour because you don’t want the dessert to be too gummy.  Place the batter into a greased pudding mould.  If you do not have a mould, then use steam-proof container and cover with aluminum foil.  Secure the foil with an elastic so no water can get in or out.  Place the mould into a large pot and pour water so it reaches at least half way up the sides.  Bring the water to a boil and turn down the heat to simmer.  Steam the pudding for 2 1/2 hours, then uncover and place in a preheated 350F oven for 10 minutes.  This will just firm up the crust.

Serve with your favorite sauce.

Steamed Carrot Raisin Pudding

Small steamed puddings make a great hostess gift.
Course Dessert
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 20 minutes
Servings 4 servings

Ingredients

Flour mixture

  • 3/4 cup All purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup currants

Cream mixture

  • 1/3 cup butter unsalted
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar light
  • 1 large egg beaten
  • 3/4 cup carrot, grated
  • 3/4 cup potato, grated peeled
  • 3/4 cup bread crumbs about one slice

Instructions

  1. For the flour mixture combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and allspice in a large bowl. Add the raisins and currants. Toss to coat. Set aside.
  2. Cream together butter and brown sugar with you mixer on medium speed. Add the beaten egg. Stir in the grated carrot, grated potato, and bread crumbs.
  3. Slowly add flour mixture to the creamed mixture. Mixing by hand if the batter becomes too thick for the electric mixer.
  4. Pour the batter into a greased pudding mould and lightly press the batter down to make a flat layer. Cover and place in a large pot. Fill the pot with water so the water comes at least halfway up the sides of the mould. The mould should not touch the bottom of the pan, so you may have to use a small can or trivet. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Steam for 2 1/2 hours.
  5. Keep an eye on the water level, just in case the water level gets too low. Just add a little more hot water if necessary. Once steamed remove the lid and place in a preheated 350F oven for 10 minutes.
  6. Serve with your favourite sauce.

Recipe Notes

If you prefer individual puddings, divide the pudding batter among greased custard cups or ramekins, filling about 3/4 full.  Cover with aluminum foil and steam for about an hour.  Serve warm with sauce.

Twelfth Buns

And so it ends, Christmastide.  The twelfth night, or Epiphany, has passed and we’re going back to our daily lives.  The kids are back in school, and most of us are back to work.  I just wanted to get one last Christmas post in before the season is over.   Here’s a clip from This Hour has 22 Minutes about mummering:

As I said before Old Christmas day was a big thing in Newfoundland, more so for my parents and grandparents than now, but there are still traditions of mummering and celebrating throughout the province.  Depending on what part of the province you were from sometimes it was called mummering and sometimes called Janneying. The term “mummer” was derived from the fact that those who were mumming remained silent (mum) to prevent those for whom they performed from guessing their identities. The origin of the word “janneying” is uncertain, but some believe it was derived from “jannies,” referring to young boys who disguised themselves to perform mischief during the Christmas season. It’s also thought as another form of Johnnies, a common name for young boys.

I was reading an account about Old Christmas day and there was a mention of Twelfth buns.  This is taken from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English: “Those twelve nights [of Christmas] we’d be at it, and the last night we[‘d] make a pan of sweet buns, twelfth buns, and give ’em to the people. Every house we’d go to we’d give ’em a bun for Twelfth Night.”

I was talking with my father the other night and he remembers going Janneying when he was a boy. Like mummering, the group would go in the house, play a bit, stay for some cake and then move on.  Here’s a great recount of those times taken from the Southwest Arm Historical Society: “Where we lived in St. Jones, Christmas was good because we’d be Jannying for the twelve days of Christmas. We’d go to people’s door and knock. When they come out you’d say, “Any Jannies ‘lowed in?” They’d say come on in now. They’d try to guess who we were. Then they’d give you a piece of cake and a drop of syrup. Sometimes the people would want you to dance.

On Old Christmas night, we’d go around to the different houses. Around 11:00 pm a number of young people would get together and make an old twelve cake. Everyone would bring something to put in the cake like figs, fat pork, berries and whatever you could get. When it was baked, we’d all share. Somebody would bring partridge berries and we’d steep it in the kettle and remove the berries and drink the juice. This was how we made berry ocky.”

So I got to searching about buns, and cakes.  Unlike now sweet bread was considered a treat.  Sugar and raisins were not something you would throw into bread; too expensive.  Bread usually was the plain white loaf, made into the three bun loaves, used for everyday meals.  Sweet breads were for special occasions like the holidays.  Breads such as raisin loaf were only made a few times a year.

A sweet bread is an enhanced dough, usually with eggs and sugar.  Then you can augment the dough by added ingredients like fruit or nuts.  My grandmother’s cinnamon raisin bread is always a big hit when we go visit.  I like it toasted with a slathering of butter. This recipe I have is done in the bread mixer, so I can mix it and walk away and do other things while the bread is proofing (like write blog posts).

This recipe makes a two pound loaf and will be separated into twelve buns.  In the bread maker place the following ingredients in this order:

  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup skim milk powder
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp butter (room temp)
  • 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp bread machine yeast
  • 1 cup raisins

Put machine on dough cycle and mix.  I like to have my water a little warm, just to give the yeast a bit of a head start.  The trick is that if you can leave your finger in the water for five seconds comfortably then it’s warm enough.  Longer than that the water is too cool.

Once the cycle is complete remove dough and shape into twelve buns.  I noticed the buns were about 80 grams each.  I measure them because I like to have all the buns about the same size, but you can eyeball it too. Place the buns in a greased 9X13 pan and leave to rise again in a warm place.  About 30-40 minutes.  Preheat oven to 350F and once risen again, bake for 25 minutes.  Let cool on the rack for 20 minutes.  Enjoy with a nice warm cup of tea or coffee, and a little bit of butter.

Cinnamon Raisin Buns

This raisin bun is perfect for a sweet treat in the afternoon.
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 2 hours 35 minutes
Servings 12 buns

Ingredients

  • 1 1/3 cups warm warm
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup skim milk powder
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar packed
  • 2 tbsp butter room temperature
  • 3 3/4 cups All purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast
  • 1 cup raisins

Instructions

  1. Measure all ingredients into baking pan in the order given. Insert pan into the oven chamber. Select "Dough" cycle.
  2. When dough is done in bread machine, remove from pan and shape into twelve equal sized balls. Place into a greased 9X13 pan. Let rise in a warm space for 30-40 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 350F. Place pan in oven and bake for 25 minutes, until the tops of the buns are a golden brown. Once done remove from oven and brush with melted butter (optional). Let cool for 20 minutes on rack.

Old Christmas Day

While most of us have taken down our decorations for another year, many Newfoundlanders still celebrate Old Christmas Day, or Epiphany, for some. This traditions goes back over 300 years and is meant to enjoy the whole Christmas season, not just a couple of days in December.

Pope Gregory XIII

When Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar in 1582, he ushered in an era in which the people of Europe disagreed on what day it was. As a result, they celebrated Christmas on different days. Before the Gregorian reform Europe had adhered to the Julian calendar, which was a full ten days behind the newly instituted Gregorian calendar. Some nations and churches refused to adopt the Gregorian reforms. In these lands people continued to celebrate Christmas on December 25, but did so according to the Julian calendar. Their celebrations fell on Januaryaccording to the new Gregorian calendar. In past eras the English sometimes referred to January 5 or 6 as “Old Christmas Day.”

At the time of its creation, the ten-day gap between the new Gregorian calendar and the old Julian calendar createdsituation in which the peoples of Europe celebrated Christmas on different days. By the time England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the gap had crept up to eleven days. With the stroke of a pen English legislators ordered that September 2, 1752, be followed by September 14, 1752. Many ordinary people defied this change, fearful that it would adversely affect their livelihood in some way. Although many writers have reported that resistance to the new calendar took the form of riots and slogans, such as “Give us back our eleven days,” recent research has failed to find convincing evidence of these events. Instead, it appears that people resisted the change in less dramatic, more personal ways. Some refused to celebrate the feast days on the new Gregorian schedule and clung instead to the old dates. For example, under the Gregorian reform the day that had been December 25 instantly became January 5. Many called January 5 “Old Christmas Day” or Christmas Day “Old Style.” Correspondingly, December 25 was known as Christmas Day “New Style.” By the nineteenth century Old Christmas Day had crept a day further away from the Gregorian calendar, falling on January 6, Epiphany. As the Julian calendar continued to drift away from the Gregorian calendar throughout the twentieth century, Old Christmas Day shifted yet another day forward in the Gregorian calendar, falling on January 7.

Mummering, the practice of disguising oneself and visiting from house to house, is carried on through the Christmas season. Known in Britain as “mumming,” the name “mummering” long ago became usual in Newfoundland. It usually does not start until St Stephen’s Day (known nowadays as Boxing Day, December 26th). Mummering is sometimes said to be a non-religious custom that should be carried on neither on Christmas Day itself, nor on Sundays during the season. Nonetheless, this is not a universal rule and one can find mummers out visiting even on Christmas Day.  Mummering continues throughout the twelve days of Christmas up to Old Christmas Day.  Groups of mummers would go throughout the village, visiting people while dressed in disguises.  If the homeowner could guess who the mummers were, they didn’t have to give them anything.  If they couldn’t guess, they would have to give them something to eat and drink.

Giving hospitality to strangers is nothing unheard of in any Newfoundland house.  One could link this to the Christian upbringing of many Newfounlanders.  There is the story of angels visiting Abraham in Genesis and he kills his best calf for them and offers food and drink.  Also the verse in Hebrews 13:2 about not hesitating to show brotherly love as you may be entertaining angels in disguise.

While nowadays you may not get as many guests at your door as before, this Old Christmas Day, if you do have someone come knocking, invite them in, sit them down, and enjoy their company.  Enjoy this article from 1989 about the tradition of Old Christmas Day.

Whata ya at?

When I told people that I wanted to write and start a blog, the first question is “What are you going to write about?” Blogs are funny things.  They can be a bit narcissistic, but revelationary.   You have to be a bit vulnerable in letting people into your world as well as outgoing enough to want to tell people about things that you consider interesting.

That’s why I wanted to blog about two things that I consider a big part of my identity.  Firstly, I was born in Gander, Newfoundland and spent most of my childhood on the island.  There was a couple of years living in Labrador, but overall the majority of my upbringing has been on the Rock.  Talk to most Newfies and they will say that they consider themselves a Newfoundlander first and foremost.  Canadian yes, but Newfoundlander definitely.  We have a staunch pride in our province, our lives, and our unique outlook.  We have a particular sense of humour, sometimes bordering on the macabre.  The late Newfoundland writer, Ray Guy, commented that Newfoundlanders will talk about how Aunt Martha got eaten alive by lobsters without batting an eye as they are having their Sunday dinner.

“Some sin, ain’t it?  She went quickly d’ough.  Give us some of those pototoes, my ducky.”

That quirky sense of homour has launched the career of many islanders.  Look up Codco on Youtube, or more recently This Hour has 22 Minutes, and you’ll see the loving and self-effacing comedy that we’re known for.  Many say it comes from our Irish roots who have the same way of looking at life.

Secondly, I love baking.  Ever since I was a youngster I would create things in the kitchen.  Sparked by watching my grandmother make bread, I have always liked to create things in the kitchen.  I received my baking certificate a while back now, but the love of bread and baking hasn’t diminished.

whitebreadBread is essential to most people’s existence.  For the largest part of the last couple millennia, bread kept people alive.  Bread is still part of Newfoundland’s identity.  Pick up any Newfoundland cookbook and you’ll still find recipes for white bread.  It’s such a simple thing, but it was a mainstay of my, and many others’, upbringing.

Bread is simple, inexpensive, hearty, and comforting.  For the latter part of the last century it has been almost compulsory to know how to make bread.  Alan Doyle, in his book Where I Belong, remembers his mother making bread once a week, eight to ten loaves at a time.  By his admission, he grew up fairly poor.  And while we weren’t considered poor, my mother was the eldest of twelve children, so any way to save a bit of money was appreciated.  Why buy bread for 50 cents a loaf, when you could make it for less than half that?  Nowadays, it’s a matter of convenience for most, but I still make my own bread instead of buying it from the store.

I’ve found that I like working with bread and dough.  I love the slightly acidic smell of a sourdough.  The crackling bread makes when I first comes of out a hot oven and starts to cool.  Even the soft, buttery texture from a good fresh loaf of white bread.  That’s what I grew up with.  Fresh white bread made into three buns and placed in a loaf pan.  When it came out of the oven, you would quickly brushed some butter on the top so it would get soaked into the loaf when it cooled.

While bread is common in most people’s lives.  It’s ingrained, so to speak, in Newfoundland.  Diane Tye of Memorial University comments that bread “touched all aspects of life” and is eaten at practically every meal.  Sometimes if vegetables were scare, bread and tea may be the meal.  Even now, when you visit, you’re offered tea with bread of some kind.  Maybe a slice of homemade white or a buttered bun.   Bread is community.

That’s part of our history I want to share with you.  Come with me, grab a cup of tea, and we’ll journey together.

Molasses

Molasses has always been part of Newfoundland’s history.  Ever since we were a port of call for the English as they were trading in British West Indies, Newfoundland has had their fingers in molasses.

Molasses found it’s way in many homes and recipes.  Today you can find it in ‘lassy buns, pandowdy, and christmas pudding.  It’s also just used as a condiment in place of syrup.  It’s great for dipping your toutons or pouring over pancakes.  I used to make a sandwich of butter and molasses.  One slice of bread would get buttered while the other would get molasses.  It was a great snack after school when you couldn’t wait the two hours for dinner. Molasses also comes in different forms: fancy, cooking, and blackstrap.  The most common for cooking is fancy and blackstrap.

© Crosby's Molasses
© Crosby’s Molasses

Fancy molasses is the pure juice of the sugar cane, condensed, inverted and purified. It is 100% natural and contains no additives or preservatives. It is a bit lighter in colour than the other molasses products, and the flavour is tangy sweet.  Blackstrap Molasses is the highly-concentrated, final by-product of the refined sugar manufacturing process. As the sugar crystallizes, the residual cane juice thickens into a dark mass and is separated out through a centrifuge. The resulting molasses is very dark with a robust, somewhat bitter flavour. Like the fancy molasses, it is a pure product and contains no added sulphates or sulphites.

Molasses was big business in trade for Britain.  The colonial molasses trade occurred throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the British colonies of the Americas. Molasses was a major trading product.  It would shipped in large wooden barrels along with the rum and dried fish.  Back in the days of the general store, you could just go in a have them place a tap on the barrel and then pour out the amount you needed.  The ultimate in bulk shopping.

molasses-actMolasses was produced in sugar plantations in the Caribbean (also called the West Indies), in islands controlled by England (e.g., Jamaica and Barbados), Spain (e.g., Santo Domingo), and France (e.g., Martinique). The English colonies along the Atlantic (mainly the Thirteen Colonies) purchased molasses and used it to produce rum, primarily in distilleries in New England.  St. John’s, Newfoundland, was a port of call to and from England for supplies, so it would be natural for Newfoundlanders to sample the wares being shipped back to the motherland.

Newfoundland has its fair share of fish.  John Cabot has supposed said that he could walk on the waters in Newfoundland because it was so thick with cod.  For the better part of the last two hundred years, Newfoundlanders used to have cod as their main fish protein.  Cod was caught, filleted, salted, and dried.  This dried fish was sent to England and south to Jamaica.  In return Newfoundland got molasses and rum.  This is why Jamaica has plenty of salt fish in their diets and Newfoundlanders have molasses in theirs.

Then came the Molasses Act.  The Molasses Act of March 1733 was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain (citation 6 Geo II. c. 13), which imposed a tax of six pence per gallon on imports of molasses from non-English colonies. Parliament created the act largely at the insistence of large plantation owners in the British West Indies. The Act was not passed for the purpose of raising revenue, but rather to regulate trade by making British products cheaper than those from the French West Indies. The Molasses Act greatly affected the significant colonial molasses trade. Molasses from the British West Indies, used in New England for making rum, was priced much higher than its competitors and they also had no need for the large quantities of lumber, fish, and other items offered by the colonies in exchange. The British West Indies in the first part of the 18th Century were the most important trading partner for Great Britain so Parliament was attentive to their requests. However, rather than acceding to the demands to prohibit the colonies from trading with the non-British islands, Parliament passed the prohibitively high tax on the colonies for the import of molasses from these islands.

Largely opposed by colonists, the tax was rarely paid, and smuggling to avoid it was prominent. If actually collected, the tax would have effectively closed that source to New England and destroyed much of the rum industry. Yet smuggling, bribery or intimidation of customs officials effectively nullified the law.  The growing corruption of local officials and disrespect for British Law caused by this act and others like it eventually led to the American Revolution in 1776. This Act was replaced by the Sugar Act in 1764.  This Act halved the tax rate, but was accompanied by British intent to actually collect the tax this time.

Who knew that the love of molasses (as well as fish and rum) would be part of the American Revolution?  Needless to say, our love of sugar hasn’t stopped and molasses has become one of the staples in the Newfoundland kitchen.