Upon meeting Saturday when I awoke, I was happy to see it resembled the name of the next day; it was a beautiful, bright, and blue September morning that was pleasantly crisp. I took a cue from yesterday and left my waking hunger unchecked as I ambled up to the shuttle school bus. Its population was a little greater today, so when I arrived at Elliston Municipal Park again, I wasn’t too surprised to see there were hundreds already on site to take in Saturday’s festivities.
Fortunately, the bus arrived with plenty time to take in the scene before the highly anticipated Food Hike. The entrance to the park played host to a dozen or more booths where local artisans and independent businesses showcased some of their wares, each of which offered a little piece of Newfoundlandia (and Labradoria?). You could find knitted items, moose and cod spice, photo prints from local photographers, amongst much more. I had a quick chat with Wilbur Smith, a carver and artist from Bonavista. Through his 23-year career, he’s worked with a number of natural materials including “moose antler, whalebone, soapstone, seal skin and everything in between.” Next door, Tracy Hayley of “Sealed wtih a Kiss” presented her unique sealskin products. She explained that she “works hand in hand with other artists and take all the material that is left [from the seal] so that there is absolutely no wastage at all.” Her products seem to be a hit – I would later meet up with a woman who proudly showed me her new sealskin flask.
After a little browsing and mingling and just in time for the Food Hike, I happily ran into Matt and Beth again. We set off along the rocky beach towards the first meal of the day, a late breakfast courtesy of Matty Matheson, Executive Chef of Toronto’s Parts and Labour. Rounding the corner of one of the area’s trademark root cellars (Elliston itself is known as The Root Cellar Capital of NL), Matheson’s impressive set-up was a very pleasing sight for a hungry carnivore: a full out pig-roast. He served up huge portions of beans that were cooked with the ribs, skin and fat of the pig (whose head was displayed on the table), alongside charbroiled pork belly and a slab of molasses bread topped with a large dollop of freshly-churned butter. As we sat in the sun and on the grass munching down this perfect hangover cure, the rustic scene was completed by some traditional instrumentals provided by last night’s trio of Sean McCann, Fergus O’Byrne, and Jim Payne. Matheson proudly noted that in his meal, the pig was fully represented and utilized so that “nothing was wasted here, nothing at all.” It seemed this was the theme of the day. When taking advantage of the bounties of nature, it was only right to use them to their full extent in respect of their sacrifice.
This carried over to the conservative use of plastics on the Food Hike. At the beginning of the day we were all outfitted with a single plastic cup that we were to use throughout the hike for the beverages along the way. However, I found that I myself was not so proficient at keeping my end of the bargain. As I lugged my camera around, my plastic wine glass was relegated to my pocket where it promptly snapped in two. Thankfully, Matt didn’t mind passing back and forth his cup to me throughout the day. What would you do without good friends?
We finished this hearty and delicious breakfast and meandered down the gorgeous coastline to our next gourmet treat thanks to Anthony Walsh, Corporate Executive Chef of the Oliver and Bonacini restaurants. His meal was full of contrast: atop some fresh sweet cornbread was Newfoundland lamb and potato simmered together with guajillo chillis, sweet rutabaga with cilantro, and cactus drizzled with what he called a “very zippy ‘nasty sauce.'” While it revolved around Newfoundland ingredients, the spicy touches were meant to be a nod to his heritage with the nasty sauce being credited to his grandmother. Through his food, Walsh means to “inspire conversation and a new dialogue between the East and West side of the country” that demonstrates how “Canada is truly a sum of its parts.” His impassioned description made clear the cultural significance of what is on our plates and the statement that our food can make.
With two meals sitting happily in our gullets, we soldiered on down the road to find an offering of rhubarb lemonade served up by the Bonavista Social Club. This sweet drink fueled us onwards to perhaps the most picturesque station yet, situated above a dramatic bluff over the Atlantic. Here I found my favourite meal of the day: turkey and pork sausage fired over an Argentinian-inspired wood-fueled grill and then wrapped in a fresh flatbread and drizzled with a delicious mystery sauce. All credit goes to Jessica Pelland of Calgary’s Char Bar for that treat.
Beef made its first appearance of the festival at the fourth stop thanks to Mark Lepine, Chef/Owner of Ottawa’s Atelier. Grilled ribeye cuts were bathed in a miso broth along with barley, corn, turnip, carrot and chantarelle mushrooms. While I’m not typically a fan of miso, the combined taste was truly a treat. Four big meals in and slightly tuckered from the sun and walking, myself and Matt and Beth elected to find a place along the coast to take a quick lie down to keep us going. Energy restored, we made our way back to the Park, only to be waved over by some folks we had met the previous night at Cod Wars and had a glass of wine on their deck. Truly, comraderie and Newfoundland hospitality was high at this festival.
Back at the main site, we found that the citizens of Elliston had a wide variety of sweet apertifs to top off an already successful afternoon of gastronomical delights. Thankfully, there was a bit of buffer between those delicious desserts and the evening’s Feast which promised to stuff us even more. To ramp up to the event, drinks were offered up, including some pairings by local wine distributor Dialog Wines, a sampling of Quidi Vidi beers, and a sweet partridgeberry mimosa with Iceberg vodka made by chef Chris Sheppard.
The start of the evening was marked by a commanding solo performance by Grand Falls-Windsor’s Matt Hornell, whose strong folk tunes made for an energetic pick-me-up. As people began taking their seats under the tent, we also had the pleasure of being serenaded by the enigmatic Amelia Curran and the narrative-based tunes of Ian Foster. Of course, the real attraction of the evening was the food, which was provided solely by chefs based out of our own province. As each took the stage to describe their dish, the chefs were greeted like rock stars by the crowd with catcalls and applause. The King of Cod, Chris Chafe, was responsible for the delicious maple bacon/roasted squash arugula salad with handmade ricotta, spiced pecans and pickled apples dressed in a chard vinaigrette. Bacaloa’s Ivan Kyutukchiev served up local duck wrapped in bacon, with chanterelles, yellow beet salad, and a yellow bell peppers emulsion. Roary MacPherson’s course was a homage to his parents and his family’s regular sturday night meal: stewed beans with salt meat, pork shoulder and Italian sausage. Chinced Bistro’s Shaun Hussey returned to the seafood side of things by presenting us with grilled octopus and sardines in a white bean and potato stew. Harbour Breeze Catering’s Garry Gosse enthusiastically presented a molasses-roasted pork belly with tomato fig ketchup. And to cap it all off, Roger Andrews had a glazed strawberry rhubarb pudding.
As you’ve probably presumed by the description, by the time the last bottomless platter came around there was not an unsatisfied belly in the house. However that didn’t stop everyone from working off the calories by dancing to a blistering set by The Navigators, who finished off the night with their unique “Another Brick in the Wall”/”The Islander” medley.
With that, the signature events of Roots, Rants & Roars 2014 came to a raucous close. Host Seamus O’Regan mentioned to me that this festival fills a particular niche for our evolving province: the “Newfoundland and Labrador palate has risen demonstrably in the last five to ten years and people demand good food and they get it here and it’s wicked,” he says. Elliston, being historically tied to food culture through its famous root cellars, is an apt setting for such a high-class food festival and will surely see more foodies visit their welcoming community in the coming years. I know I’ll be back next year with fresh recruits. That, and a bigger belt.