“In Newfoundland, fish means codfish and nothing else.”
So goes a passage in The New Founde Lande, Farley Mowat’s loving memoir and history of Newfoundland. I had picked up the dusty hardcover from a used bookstore in Ottawa. Something to read on my trip back home to the island. But reading that passage got me thinking. I had never been jigging for codfish in my life. What kind of Newfoundlander was I? Later I found out that lots of Newfoundlanders these days have never been jigging, but at that moment I was struck with inspiration. “B'y jeezus,” I thought, “I need to go out and catch a fish.” And so that’s exactly what I did. This post is about the Atlantic Cod and what I learned from the Newfoundland food fishery. (Turns out, a lot.)
The Atlantic cod is at home in the icy banks of the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s got antifreeze in its blood. A beautiful fish: leopard spots and on olive green back, white belly and a long elegant stripe down its flank that streamlines it with the frigid water. Five fins that unfurl like the sails of schooners that used to fish for them on the Grand Banks. An idiosyncratic whisker-like barbel sticks off its chin. King of the whitefish, its flesh is the purest white you’ll ever see. From the Vikings and Basques right up to modern North American and European fishing fleets, cod has been fished off Newfoundland for over a thousand years. Cod trade with Europe is what lured the first inhabitants to Newfoundland’s rocky harbors. Which begs the question: is there any single animal more important to Newfoundland than the cod?
After arriving back to the Rock I immediately arranged for my first trip to the cod grounds. It was serendipity: dad had gone out that summer and bought a boat. An impulse purchase, he bought it without even taking it for a test drive and had seemingly forgotten that you need a dock to berth it and a license to drive it. “He’s gone mental.” I told my friends asking about the boat that appeared in my driveway that summer. But now it was all too perfect. I still had my boat license from my days teaching sailing. Dad and I could ship out for the grounds the next morning.
On that first trip we got "nar fish." In fact, we barely made it past the breakwater before the engine cut out and were simply cast adrift. Luckily Skipper (dad) has done world-leading research on emergencies at sea, so who better to be stuck with? “Fuck!” He yelled. “We’re going to drift into the rocks!” A group of scallop divers observed the commotion as Skipper and I frantically got the small emergency outboard engine started, our epithets breaking the Sunday morning peace. Catching a cod is difficult, I thought.
The second trip was better. Eugene, my sister’s boyfriend, had quietly arranged for the boat to be fixed and soon it was back in the water awaiting for me and Skipper. Eugene, a mariner, is also a fix-all and a DIY man, traits that apparently come natural to the stock from the Cape Shore. He’d figured that he’d better lend his girlfriend’s townie family a hand if they want to make it past the breakwater next time. A good guess. What’s more, a new shiny jigger and a filleting knife had appeared un-begrudgingly in the boat’s holds. Amazing.
Ready skipper?” I yelled above the engine as we cast our lines. It was the end of September now and the cod fishery was nearing its end. We headed for the grounds north of Blow-me-Down, where dad recalled jigging as a youngster with his uncle. There was a crowd of boats already there.
First encounters with the recreational cod fishery (aka the 'food fishery')
The cod is a carefully protected fish whose stocks were decimated nearly to extinction off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the '80s. Today the northern stock are making a slow comeback. So each summer when the recreational cod fishery (a.k.a "food fishery") opens in Newfoundland it means you can legally catch cod on the weekends. There are rules: five cod per day, per person, up to a maximum of fifteen fish per boat. Break the rules are there are stiff fines.
But that first day one was plenty cod for me and skipper. Excited about our catch, we headed home to cook up a scoff.
Preparing cod for a 'scoff'
Later, I learned that most of the cod brought in this season were small. Codling, around 40-50cm long, are two to three years old, not yet old enough to reproduce. A typical catch might be 60-70cm, probably six to seven years old. Years ago bringing a 5ft codfish was not unusual. These are the reliable reproducers with few predators and many prey. At their largest, the Atlantic cod grow to about 6 ft.
Some tips on pan-fying cod:
Of course, there are other ways beside pan-frying to cook cod. According to Larousse, roasting cod is the best way to concentrate flavour. Cod holds up particularly well to being braised in white wine or poached in a flavoured stock; it doesn’t hold up well to being grilled or broiled due to the delicate and flakey flesh. Favourite alternatives include croquettes, fish cakes, and gratins. The cod lends a delicate flavour and most agree that the best flavours reside in the head, which is why in Newfoundland fried tongues and cheeks are a favourite dish. Cod can be frozen in fillets without losing significant quality.
Waste not, want not
There’s almost no waste in the cod. In a way this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nourishing, abundant, and easy to preserve, cod was the kingpin of survival for early settlers and explorers who would’ve used everything they could - especially since you couldn't grow much from the land. The cod’s sounds can be fried or cooked in stews. Roe is eaten fresh or smoked. Stomach, tripe, liver has been eaten. Cod liver oil was and still is prized for its vitamins. It was even administered to people in England as part of a government program from WWII during time of food rationing. This program only ended in 1971. Even the scaleless skin can be fried and eaten, the bones tossed in a pot and stewed to make stock.
But it’s not just stoics and survivalists practicing nose-to-tail cooking for the cod. Newfoundland chef Jeremy Charles, recently touted as top chef in Canada, famously used cod sounds at his fine dining restaurant Raymonds. A Globe and Mail article published in 2014 said:
Cod tells the story of Newfoundland
Why did the Portuguese claim Newfoundland in 1497? Partly because cod was strategic, enabling sustenance of sailors on their increasing number of tropical voyages to the New World.
Why is Screech, a dark rum made in Jamaica, a traditional drink in Newfoundland? Because trade of salt cod was closely linked with the slave trade in the early days of the New World. (Salt cod was used to feed the slaves.)
Why was cod fished almost to extinction offshore Newfoundland in the 80s? Because the Canadian government pushed the fish trade from its newest province, subsidizing the factory trawler. These new ships were equipped with fishing-finding sonar and refrigeration technology and could bring vast amounts of cod straight to the North American market, who had developed a taste for foods like “fish sticks.”
Designed to survive yet easy to catch
Cod are equipped with an air bladder, or sound, a long tube found along the the backbone that can fill or release to adjust swimming depth like ballast tanks of a submarine. Cod caught in deep water cannot survive once brought up to shallow water. The fish’s sounds fill up with gas, causing irreversible “barotrauma,” and if released the disoriented fish would die.
Cod are found in the shoals of rocky northern nations all over the world: Norway, Iceland, Greenland, northern Russia, and as far south and New England. The Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Labrador host “the northern stock,” once the greatest in the world.
The female cod lays around 9 million eggs. One might think replenishing depleted stocks would be easy with such fecundity. But few cod reach maturity. The free-floating eggs face many challenges: ocean waves can easily destroy them and they can eaten by other species. Those eggs that do hatch and turn into little fish (juveniles) swim to the bottom and have to hide from their many predators - including adult cod. A biologist will tell you that if the two cod per female can make it to sexual maturity, the population is stable. When it has reached that age the cod has few predators and many prey. Perhaps for that reason Newfoundlanders have breathed a collective sigh of relief about recent signs that the cod population is making a slow comeback - despite understanding it will never be as it used to be. Cod taught Newfoundlanders what it takes to tip nature's balance.
A great reason to get out on the water
With the recreational cod fishery now closed till next year, I realized what a great thing it is. I can't think of a better reason to get out on the water with your old man or with your buddies. And if you're lucky you'll get a few fish for the pan and maybe a few for the freezer to proudly thaw out in February. And maybe you'll learn a page or two from the story of Newfoundland.
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.