Sunday, November 25, 2007

Adventures in the local cuisine

It's been a comfort food type of weekend here in St. John's, with a grey and rainy saturday and a bright but cold sunday, the kind of weekend where I spend more time in my pyjamas than not. And while in an ideal situation that entails sitting in front of a fireplace with a favourite book, I alas have no fireplace and instead have a mountain of essays to grade. It is probably good that I do not have the former when I have the latter. (To any of my students stumbling across this blog entry: that was a joke. I hardly, hardly EVER think about burning essays. Hardly.)

Still, it is very pleasant to lounge around the house on a chilly sunday when dinner is cooking away in the crock pot over a slow nine hours. I love my slow cooker. I camped out at the dining room table all day with the aforementioned stack of grading and multiple pots of tea while the stew I prepared at ten o'clock this morning filled the house with its savoury, peppery fragrance (I like pepper in my stews).

The above picture, alas, doesn't do my stew justice ... in fact, it looks a little gross. I need smell-o-vision.

At seven pm the buzzer went off and I ladled out a bowl of one of my favourite comfort foods for a cold evening, beef stew. And to get just the exact measure of comfort, it must be served on top of a slice of white bread (the kind that's really bad for you -- I'm talking wonderbread here), with a second slice put aside to sop up the juices after.

But the carb level in this stew was somewhat higher than usual, thanks to the addition of a local ingredient I bought recently on a whim and have been since stumped as to how to use it. I'm referring here to hard bread, or "brewis," a staple of the traditional Newfoundland cuisine left over from the days before refridgeration.

Now, I have to explain something: I have now read a respectable number of novels of Newfoundland historical fiction, and one of the recurrent meals mentioned is "salt fish and brewis." I think it's one of those things you have to include (a lot) if you want to be seen as writing authentic historical fiction about Newfoundland. And when I walk past Velma's Restaurant on Water Street, a homey little eatery specializing in traditional Newfoundland fare, "fish and brewis" is there on the menu (alongside the cod tongues, jigs dinner, lassy mogs and figgy duff ... no, don't ask).

The trouble is, I've never had any frickin' clue what "brewis" is, and I certainly never connected it with the bright red bags labelled "Purity Hard Bread" that are ubiquitous in all the grocery stores here.* That was, until I bought a bag out of sheer curiosity.

Now let's be clear on something: to call this product "hard bread" is misleading. Really, to be accurate, it should be named "rock bread" or "titanium bread" and come with warnings that this product should never never be used as a weapon, for it might cause serious harm.

I've read enough C.S. Forester novels to know that the British Navy subsisted on hard biscuit that they would have to dip in water to make them even gnaw-on-able, but my first attempt to nibble on a piece of Purity hard bread probably would have led to an emergency dentist's visit had I persisted. Happily, the instructions are pretty clearly and neatly laid out on the bag: break up bread into smaller chunks (I have, fortunately, a very serviceable cleaver), and soak overnight (at least) in water. Keeping them in the soaking water, bring them to a near boil -- but stopping short of an actual boil. Salt and pepper to taste.

See, here's the thing: they were kind of yummy. I was pleasantly surprised. Even after sixteen hours of soaking and then being nearly boiled, there was substance enough to the bread to be al dente, and while bland in and of themselves, a little salt and pepper -- and, I discovered, a few dashes of white vinegar -- made for a nice snack. Now, the full preparation as described on the bag called for the preparation of scrunchions, another traditional Newfoundland dish -- fried pieces of pork fat -- along with a gravy made from the drippings, plus the requisite salt fish.

I don't know if I'm ready for that yet. The pork fat gravy, maybe, but my preferred way to eat salt cod is fried in a fish cake or in a fish chowder.

HOWEVER ... While preparing the stew this morning, it occurred to me that hard bread, broken up sufficiently small, might make for a nice addition to the stew's broth -- sort of like dumplings, but with a bit more substance. And what do you know? Nine hours of simmering sped up the soaking process, and the bread absorbed the broth to become very flavourful ... it almost made my requisite slices of white bread redundant. Almost.

Sometimes when I think of my alternative academic paths, I imagine I might have become a military history. On days like today, I think perhaps a food anthropologist ... like so much else here in Newfoundland, the traditional cuisine speaks more powerfully to a concrete, lived history than almost anywhere else I have ever been. Hard bread, or "hard tack" as it's also called, is of course a holdover from the days when baking aboard ship was simply impossible. Brewis (which gets its name from the process of breaking it up for soaking, or "bruising" the bread) would not spoil for weeks, indeed months. And in a place of deep, isolating winters, a large stock of hard bread would keep a family in good stead for a very long time. That it is still so ubiquitous in massive corporate grocery chains here makes me happy.


*A note for mainlanders: "Purity" is a traditional Newfoundland company specializing in baked goods, of which hard bread is merely one of many offerings. Walking into a Dominion Superstore here is pretty much like walking into one anywhere in Canada, which is why I'm always cheered when, upon walking down the cookies & crackers aisle, I am presented with a wide span of shelves all in the trademark deep red of the Purity products, such as the "Jam-Jams" and their quite excellent cream crackers. It is the grocery store equivalent of walking into a liquor store here and seeing an entire wall given over to Lamb's Rum. Seriously.


Anonymous said...

When I visit my parents home I occasionally have a snack of hard bread. I gnaw on it, and pick away at smaller pieces to chew on. I suspect it's great diet food. Sort of like celery.... you burn more calories [trying] to eat it than you actually take in from the food.

Danielle said...

Something to consider trying is breaking up the hard bread and eating with molasses (and cream if you aren't watching your figure). I did a heritage fair project when in elementary school and my Grandmother suggested I include this with the presentation, despite its painfully obvious lack of relevance. The food was quite popular and we won first prize. However, I have to wonder if it is more likely that the food placed us in the competition rather than the project itself... hmmm
***Note to self, bring food to my next seminar presentation.

Angela said...


It's 10 in the morning and I've just finished breakfast. I thought I was satiated until I read your blog. Now I'm hungry again!

Amy said...

As an accidental military historian and very intentional soup lover I think your alternate career paths complement each other nicely.

Lesley said...

I was thinking it sounded like it would be good soaked in the stew. The bread that is. And indeed, I was right. Those Newfies...always know what to do with the carbs!

Dallas said...

Oh, so that's what hard tack is! When I was little and in singing lessons, I always ended up singing songs about pirates and/or the sea, and the songs always referred to hard tack. You have solved a life long mystery for me.

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