The community of Elliston, nestled in on the northeast side of the Bonavista peninsula, played host to a world-class festival this past weekend as it welcomed some of the best chefs and musicians from across our province – and the country. This is the sixth year of the unique Roots, Rants & Roars festival, but it was my first time attending. I had only heard positive reviews from friends who were there before and, even more tellingly and enticingly, the festival had a near-mythic status for my buddies who are in the cooking industry. While I didn’t completely know what to expect coming into it on Friday, at the other end of the weekend I found myself with a few extra, happy pounds, and the resolution that I’d be back next year in whatever capacity. It’s a rather hard to resist a festival that embodies and showcases the best touchstones of Newfoundland and Labrador: delicious food, rousing music, beautiful scenery, friendly folks, flowing drinks, and an unparalleled good time. As a native to the province, it was like a little shot of provincial pride; to the come-from-aways – and there were a lot of them, of varying displacement – it was a great introduction to our culture.
I arrived mid-afternoon on Friday in the historic and gorgeously antiquated town of Trinity. Upon getting there, I checked into my rented apartment, which was the top half of a cute little saltbox house, one of many buildings that comprises the Eriksen Premises. After a brief nap and a skipped lunch (both of which were fantastic decisions), I walked up to the Trinity Mercantile to meet my ride. The weekend’s in-flux of hundreds of festival-goers to the region means that people have to rent rooms all throughout the surrounding communities. Trinity itself is about 50 km from Elliston and while at first this could appear like a problem, the distance between communities is adroitly overcome by including a shuttle bus option to and from the festival at convenient times.
Just to be clear, when I say “shuttle bus” I mean “shuttle school bus.” So, with a chuckle, myself and a dozen or so adults hopped aboard the familiar yellow vehicle and made our way to the next stop north, Port Rexton. Friendly conversation ensued over top of the driver’s choice selection of traditional Newfoundland tunes, which primed us for the party to come. It’s quite the pretty drive along the way and the obligatory “ooos” and “ahhs” were heard from the crowd as we caught glimpse of the gorgeous Skerwink Trail (which really should be a mandatory hike if one comes anywhere close to it; it’s one of the province’s best trails). Next, we shot off to Bonavista to pick up the last of the Roots, Rants & Roarers and lurched jollily to our final destination, Elliston Municipal Park.
The park itself is a relatively small clearing encircled by forest and flanked by two campgrounds. Its set-up necessitates that the festival will be a very intimate and personable one, as there is no real room for an “off-limits/backstage” area. You’ll find that the stars of the show – the chefs and musicians – mingle among the crowd and are indeed a part of it. This neat feature paid off very well in light of Friday night’s event, the “Cod Wars.” This annual tradition features seven top NL chefs battling it out for the title of “The King of Cod” and the bragging rights associated with it. The issue is put to vote and the winner determined by the crowd. With this hefty responsibility, it is particularly nice to be able to chat with each of the chefs about their individual takes on the province’s most famous fish.
My first sampling of the night’s dishes was that of Roary MacPherson, who is the Executive Chef at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland. A native of Highlands on the West Coast, MacPherson has competed successfully in international competitions, but is a fan of this particular festival because he is “a big supporter of…anything that happens in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.” MacPherson says his dish was created in consideration of the fact “that at this time of year, it’s a bit of a guessing game whether it’s going to be warm or cold.” Given that it was a clear but chilly September night next to the Newfoundland ocean, this thought was appreciated. It was one of the few warm dishes featured that night; not only by way of temperature, but through Indian spice. His crispy pakora cod fish featured “coriander, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, tara masala,and anything you’d find in a good curry dish,” said the chef. Myself and some newfound foodie friends felt this dish set the bar pretty high and we often used it as a benchmark to measure the other offerings of the evening.
Next we tried what Murray McDonald, Head Chef of the new Fogo Island Inn, had for us. His dish was simply billed as “Fish.” Murray successfully justified his title by observing that “Newfoundland is one of the few places in the world where you say the word fish and fish is cod.” Staying true to his current sub-island, his dish featured Fogo Island-caught cod, which he takes care to note is the only sustainably-fished cod. It was a mix of fresh and salt cod along with a different take on split peas and in-season swiss chard chutney and leaves; all of this made for a fresh take on a very provincial dish.
While chowing down on these tasty treats, the attendees were being treated to some impressive music by some of the province’s best. Jim Payne and Fergus O’Byrne started us off with a spirited set. The pleasant smallness of the festival was demonstrated by the willingness of Payne and O’Byrne to take a request; to pay him back for the favour, my foodie friends, Matt and Beth, waltzed to a great rendition of Matt’s favourite, “Stars of Logy Bay.” The musical duo would reappear later and become a very natural trio when joined by Sean McCann, delivering more NL favourites to the dancing and singing crowd. Between these two acts, the very talented Craig Young took the stage, who wowed all with his amazingly versatile voice and impressive command of the guitar.
Former Roots, Rants, & Roars organizer, Todd Perrin of Quidi Vidi’s Mallard Cottage headed up the next station. His delicious meal played to the neo-traditionalist strengths of his acclaimed restaurant by featuring pickled cod cheeks and smoked cod belly, swiss chard stem relish, cod roe yogurt, a crispy cod cracker and some slawed fennel. By this point, rankings were becoming debatable, but with the clock ticking to the voting deadline, we washed down our latest meal with a complimentary wine pairing and got our next plate.
This time, Roger Dewling of CNA-Bonavista and Feast Catering served up something that the chef meant to be “playful and fun.” It was a hot dog-inspired sample that used “as much of the cod as we can… the cheek, the face, the belly, the salt, the fresh, the nape, all made into a sausage” and served with fresh salsa verde, a little lemon jam, a mascarpone cheese and corn reduction, slaw with buttermilk, and two types of cabbage. On top of all that, there were beet, parnsip and potato chips with a caplin tapenade on the side. Dewling is certainly no slouch.
Keep in mind that each of these “samples” were probably 500 calories plus. This is where I started to applaud my decision to skip out on lunch earlier. Nonetheless, we soldiered on; my buddy Matt went to get some of the (thankfully) moderately priced Quidi Vidi products to wash down the food that I retrieved from the next chef, while Matt’s wife Beth saved our seats.
The next impressive meal was an inspired dish born out of necessity. As described by chef Roger Andrews, who is an Instructor at CNA-St. John’s and owner of Relish, he came up with this take on cod when he was “in a bit of a pinch” and all that was on hand “was peaches, cream and cod.” Since then, he’s (figuratively) beefed up the meal with peaches and cream corn and peach salad. These seemingly disparate ingredients made for a pleasantly sweet take on our star fish of the evening.
Executive Chef of the up-and-coming St. John’s restaurant Tavola, Kyle Puddester, masterminded a “kind of play on Jigg’s Dinner” for my sixth sampling. He wrapped cod in cabbage with dressing to make what he describes as “a kind of Newfie sushi roll if you will.” On the side, he mixed mustard pickles with apple to complement the cured pork cheek and layered together carrot and turnip in a little pavé. While trying to savor the unique flavours and textures that Puddester presented to us, we sent a delegate of the group to secure us a taste of the last chef, relatively young Chris Chafe (26 years old) of The Doctor’s Inn & Spa.
Myself and Beth were quite happy that we got this one in under the wire. Chafe was inspired by “what he could get fresh and in season,” so he included corn from Lester’s Farm, creating a corn-meal fried cod as the star of his dish. With three corn-bacon velouté, an organic chili pepper fritter that hails from Portugal Cove, and a three bean and tomato jam. This was the second hot meal of the night and by this time, it was appreciated. The trio had a quick huddle and we discussed our favourites. While Matt was voting (emphatically) for Roary MacPherson”s Indian-inspired dish, Beth and I were swayed by Chafe’s meal. We cast our ballots and waited as the votes were counted.
You’d think we were completely stuffed, but our taste buds convinced us to attend the Newfoundland Chocolate Company’s stand where we sampled their truffles, made right there on the spot. It was a perfectly portioned dessert that couldn’t really be turned down. Without having an opportunity to reflect on our full bellies, special host of the festival, Seamus O’Regan (formerly of Canada AM), took the stage along with the seven chefs to announce the victor. Chris Chafe was the number one pick and took home the “King of Cod” moniker for 2014. Matt was placated to learn that his fave, Roary MacPherson, was a close runner-up.
At this point, the moonless sky was dotted with the Milky Way and the out-and-out party started by way of Corner Brook’s Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case. Their tight set and high energy impressed the crowd and kept everyone lively and dancing until the sad moment when the shuttle school bus reappeared to ferry us home. While it was sad to see a banner first day come to a close, bed didn’t seem like too bad of an idea. God knows it was a necessary stopover as we prepped for Saturday’s marathon back-to-back events.
Stay tuned for Part 2!