A Twillingate Taste of Cod Tongue

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Here’s a Newfie joke:

A Newfie arrived at his new factory job at 10:30. Manager: “You should have been here at nine o’clock.” Newfie: “Why, what happened?”

Newfie jokes are Canada’s take on Irish jokes and levelled at the inhabitants of remote, rocky Newfoundland and their provincial old world existence that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

Most are contrived by the good-natured Newfies themselves who have developed the keen sense of humour needed to survive in a relentlessly demanding environment.

The similarity with Irish jokes is no coincidence. In almost every bleak corner of this easternmost province of Canada are people of Irish descent. Early settlers came from southwest England around 1700 followed by droves of Irish – fishermen, pirates and timber cutters who created some hardy and astonishingly hospitable descendants.

Legendary Newfie hospitality was evident everywhere, in the abundant B&Bs and the wonderful habit in booked-out restaurants where those already seated invite strangers to join them.

This admirable provincial trait gained international recognition shortly after September 11, 2001, when more than 70 aircraft with 13,000 passengers aboard were suddenly diverted to airports around Newfoundland and Labrador.

The stranded passengers were welcomed into people’s homes, fed, entertained and comforted free of charge until it was safe to continue their flights. What’s all the fuss about, they ask? That’s just the Newfie way.

(Newfie joke: Hear the one about the Newfie who locked the keys in his car? It took him an hour to get his family out.)

Ancestry heavily influences the accents, place names, music and culture of today’s Newfies. There are about 60 dialects all rooted in working class Irish and a form of Elizabethan English that Shakespeare would probably understand, an engaging mishmash of dropped syllables and disagreeing tenses that can be hard for the people from away (outsiders) to understand.

This lilting lingo has contributed to some wonderful place names like Bleak Joke Cove, Ha Ha Bay, Nick’s Nose Cove, Main Tickle, Blow Me Down and Joe Batt’s Arm.

Jutting into the North Atlantic and beset by persistent rain, fog, snow and enormous cruising icebergs, “The Rock”, as Newfies call it, is a dramatically wild and beautiful place of glacial valleys, granite mountains, lakes and forests.

Most of the 550,000 Newfies live around the 10,000km coastline in a city, towns and isolated fishing communities known as outports, many only accessible by sea. The city is the capital, St John’s, where I landed late at night in a pea soup fog so thick it stuck in my throat.

I’d booked a compact rental car to save money on fuel (Newfoundland is a big place) and was horror-struck to get the keys to a large Dodge. “No, no,” I cried. “Not what I ordered”.

Canadians, by and large, are very nice people and the young woman at Hertz was no exception. “Just a minute,” she said. “Sorry, wrong car.”

St John’s is apparently a spectacular city, the oldest continually lived-in city in North America and Canada’s foggiest, cloudiest, windiest, wettest and liveliest. The steep streets, alleys and narrow lanes that swoop down to the harbour are, I’m told, lined with colourful clapboard homes, rambling Victorian mansions, restaurants and lots of pubs.

St John’s is also a fun town with a rollicking arts and cultural scene and some of the best Irish music outside Ireland. There are about 170 pubs and most of the action happens around three main streets, Duckworth, Water and George. There are some 70 pubs in cobblestoned George Street alone and there’s Irish music every night.

None of this did I see. The cold had stiffened my bone marrow and, sans GPS, I crawled through the fog peering at street signs for the hotel where I lobbed about half an hour after I should have. Heaven, I discovered, was a late-opening bar with a roaring fire, a menu of sorts and Guinness on tap.

To a respectable Newfie, a gourmet dinner might comprise delicacies such as stuffed caribou heart, turbot cheeks and cod tongues served with brewis (hard bread soaked overnight into mush) and scrunchions (deep fried blobs of pork fat) followed by a gluggy raisin pudding called figgy duff.

On the menu was seal flipper pie and salt fish with brewis but I couldn’t pass up the cod tongues, brewis and scrunchions. They went down like a treat.

After 12 hours I was yet to see St John’s. The morning pea soup had only intensified, common in the spring when cold from the Arctic meets the warmth of the Gulf Stream, and had reduced visibility to zilch. I gave up.

Advice from the pleasant woman at the local tourist office was that the only reasonable forecast favoured a region about 400km up the east coast. “And when you stop at an Irving (gas station) to refuel,” she added helpfully, “try the pea soup.  It’s to die for.”

The Trans Canada Highway was visible ahead for almost 20 metres. Semi-trailers seemingly in overdrive ratcheted up the tension despite signs warning of the likely presence of moose. Other signs flagged peculiar sounding towns like Come By Chance, Tickle Harbour and Little Heart’s Ease.

Newfie joke: What do you call seven mounties standing in a circle? A Newfie firing squad.

I refuelled at an Irving and topped up with what really was terrific pea soup before heading seaward armed with a caution from the checkout woman. “The moose are out with their calves,” she drawled. “I saw nine on the road today without even looking.”

I decided to try my luck on the Kittiwake Coast. On the Road to the Isles I wound around Notre Dame Bay to a string of islands with quaint little villages like Virgin Arm, Little Burnt Bay, Ragged Point and Joe Batt’s Arm which was named after a deserter from Captain Cook’s crew, all set in windswept inlets with rocky, seaweed-strewn shores.

At the end of the road, where Central Newfoundland meets the North Atlantic, I drove into the beautiful town of Twillingate dotted with red and yellow clapboard houses with moose antlers above the doors and yards strewn with lobster traps and, incredibly, the fog lifted.

Compact, pretty and hemmed in by ice, this was the quintessential outport that the guidebooks rave about so, half asleep, I grabbed the opportunity to shoot as many photographs as possible while the light lasted and raced around the shoreline of Harts Cove through Crow Head, Black Harbour and Gillesport to Durrell.

A gorgeous little fishing hamlet where many of the pastel coloured houses were more than a century old, Durrell looked like a postcard in the misty light seemingly frozen in time.

From Blow Me Down Lane I saw rickety red sheds on rickety jetties rough-hewn from spruce and stacked with crab and lobster pots jutting precariously out over the frigid harbour where fishing boats were trapped in the ice floes still stubbornly refusing to melt.

On one of the jetties I found Jack Pardy mending lobsterpots, a fisherman and a friendly bloke who’d been grounded by the ice and whose ancestors came originally from the West Country of England, he thinks.

“Seen the icebergs?” he asked. “There’s some really big ones comin’ down about thirty miles to the north and there’s a growler (smaller iceberg) around in Twillingate Harbour that blew in overnight.”

He was right. I returned to Twillingate and on a raft of ice floes near the main street black-backed gulls, the world’s largest seagulls, vied for a share of a dead seal as the latest growler loomed in the misty distance.

This was the heart of Iceberg Alley, the best place in North America to see icebergs, where some 400 to 800 monsters float south each spring from the Arctic, some as big as 15-storey buildings like the one that sank Titanic a century ago just down the coast.

Twillingate, the region’s commercial hub in the 1700s, is now a fishing and lobstering town of 5,000 sprawling around a harbour often ice-bound well into spring.

When it is, fishermen are frustrated, losing precious income until the ice floes melt sufficiently to navigate around them, just one more hurdle in an unforgiving climate. In the meantime the desperate ones cut small holes to fish through the ice.

Newfie joke: How many Newfies does it take to go ice fishing? Four. One to cut a hole in the ice and three to shove the boat through.

Overlooking the harbour, the Anchor Inn Motel had a downstairs lounge with half a dozen Newfies playing pokies and nobody behind the bar. “From away are you?” one asked pleasantly. “Just help yourself.  You can fix ’em up later.” I felt strangely at home.

I helped myself to a Moosehead beer marvelling through the gathering fog at a line of towering icebergs that had drifted into the harbour. They were the only icebergs I saw. I was joined by motel owner Gus Young who seemed a typical Newfie, witty, irascible and a bit eccentric.

A retired fisherman who had worked half his life in the High Arctic, Gus had since circumnavigated Newfoundland twice on a Seadoo, a local version of the jetski, and he was the first to do so. Why?  “It was just something to do and nobody else was silly enough.”

Draining a couple more Mooseheads, we scanned the ice-bound harbour through a misty picture window. “This bay used to teem with fish,” he said. “You could pick them up with your bare hands but the cod stock’s down by 95 per cent. It’ll be completely gone one day.”

This is why the Kittiwake Coast was pulling out all stops to attract tourism, furiously promoting its main attractions on the Internet. Every spring and summer, charter boats weave around the icebergs and whale watchers can see humpbacks, minkes and pilots when temperatures occasionally soar to 25 degrees C.

Summer is when Twillingate revs up for the Fish, Fun and Folk Festival, an ancestral celebration of West Country English dancing, folk music, fireworks and the sort of fish dinners that some might consider unusual.

Gus Young conceded Newfies were different, in a sense. “We’re about the only people who leave home and always come back again,” he said.

“People here depend on each other. We never bother locking our doors and we always leave the keys in the car. One of these days we might get a surprise but there’s very little crime.

“We’ve been clinging to this rock for centuries,” he added. “This is our heritage, it’s how we’ve survived.”

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2014 (Copyright Agency Limited)


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4 thoughts on “A Twillingate Taste of Cod Tongue

  1. Lovely story and images. I loved Newfoundland, but I went there in summer and didn’t see it looking like this. The Newfies are great people, but just don’t mention Annie Proulx to them! And I’m afraid I couldn’t develop a taste for cod cheek or any other of the Newfie delicacies that I tried.

  2. So many great details in this piece! And the photos, oh the photos. I’ve lived in places like this and it takes a long time sometimes to capture the essence of the place the way you have in both word and image! -Renee

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