It’s spring on the Forillon Peninsula way back in the day. Nets are mended; the small fishing boats are cleaned and caulked.
The cod season is about to begin.
Cod was fished along the Gaspé, the Labrador coast, and in Newfoundland for hundreds of years by Norsemen, Basque, British, and French, not to mention the native Mi’kmaq, who peopled this region for many years before that. On the Forillon, clusters of villages relied on fishing supplemented by small gardens, small livestock, and traditional skills like making clothes and preserving food.
When the fish came (and “fish” meant cod—any other fish was called by its name), the men and boys would go out in boats with baited handlines and, later, with nets.
Families with a stony beach close at hand were lucky because on the Forillon, beaches are small and cliffs are high. The trek up the cliff with a wooden pallet full of fish was backbreaking.
When the boat returned with the morning’s catch, the fish were processed in a small hut on the beach. They were slit and the head, guts, and backbone are removed. Livers were saved for cod liver oil, and in other places, cod cheeks and tongue were considered delicacies. The flayed fish are laid in circles in a barrel and each layer was salted (with salt imported from France—go figure). Too much, and the fish was burned; too little, and it wasn’t preserved.
After pickling in salt for a few days, the fish was washed and laid on the “flakes” to dry. You still see the staging huts and flakes all along the Atlantic coast.
The best salt cod came from the Gaspé. In other places, cod might be processed in the holds of boats or on land but more carelessly. Fishermen in the Gaspé took pains with their curing process, and their salt cod was called the “Gaspe cure” because it was good for what ails you.
Drying was overseen by the women and children, who turned the fish regularly and stacked and covered it during rain. “They always had their eye on the clouds,” said one interpreter. And there are a lot of clouds in the Gaspé.
The drying took “dix soleils”—ten suns, or about two weeks. I’m thinking there was a lot of rushing out to cover the fish—it rained a little almost every day when I was there. Then the cod was sold to the merchant for export.
The best cod went to the Europeans. It was translucent, amber-colored, and firm to touch. It was stiff as a board and triangular in shape. It was covered with a fine, white powder and would keep for years–this was the vital quality in the days before the factory-freezer trawlers.
Inferior cod that was “greasy, salt-burned, improperly split or dried, broken, soft, or blemished” was sent to Barbados and the West Indies, often to feed slaves. Or kept at home to feed the fisherman’s family in the winter. (Consider what a diet of heavily salted fish would do to the system.)
And after a long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous season, the fisherman barely paid off what he had borrowed on credit the season before.
While the fishing life was hard in the Gaspé, it was brutal in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the climate was harsher, and the dirt far less fertile. More on that later.
Salt cod is still sold in the Atlantic provinces. I even saw a guy selling it from the back of his truck. In a small fish market in Newfoundland, I asked the woman behind the counter how to prepare it. I was thinking it was something like smoked fish–dry and ready-to-eat.
Turns out that it’s pretty inedible without soaking and/or boiling the snot out of it. Then Newfoundlanders combine it with Purity Hard Bread to make brewis. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t up for the experiment, so I settled for salt cod cakes at a nearby restaurant, which were, by the way, delicious.
My second blog post in the “Newfoundland Diaries” series is on the Huffington Post. Check it out!