Growing up in Newfoundland, mom always prepared fish for Christmas Eve; often the traditional NL dish of fish and brewis. It’s a mixture of salt cod, soaked over night and slowly brought to boiling, with hard bread (also known as hard tack or ship’s biscuit) also soaked and heated through. The whole thing is topped with “scruncheons”, small pieces of pork fat fried up. I hated it. To me there was nothing more bland to the sight, nothing more plain to the palette.
Ah! How the times change!
What I turned up my nose at as a child I know crave as an adult. I suppose it has something to do with nostalgia and availability – it’s a little harder to procure salt cod in Ottawa (although one year I proudly informed my mother that I spent $5 on bus fare to get downtown to Aubrey’d Butcher for a $1.65 piece of pork fat) get and it’s not a meal I get to eat every day.
I was therefore surprised and delighted a few years back to find salt cod – whole, split and salted fish (from Iceland) – available at the Pelican Fishery. A few Christmases ago when dad was visiting, he taught me how to prepare fish and brewis. I couldn’t help thinking that this was knowledge that had been passed down much the same way through my family over centuries. I know proudly serve fish on Christmas eve at my table too.
It’s not always fish and brewis though. Some years I make another traditional Newfoundland dish – cod au gratin. This is cod baked in a white sauce with cheese and bread crumbs on top; quite lovely! This year’s menu is the greatest departure yet – bouillabaisse! I’ve never figured out if it’s a soup or a stew but it is said it’s not “real” bouillabaisse unless there is at least 9 different kinds of seafood in it. Thanks to the good folks who set me up with all I need from the Whalesbone Sustainable Retail Oyster & Fish Store, I will be “keeping it real” and one of the 9 will be a lovely Ling cod fish (not from the Atlantic where cod is still largely unavailable).
This year we’ll also be helping to keep someone else’s food traditions alive. My culinary conspirator, Barb, as a birthday during the Christmas season (Happy Birthday Barbie!!). She revealed to me a few months ago that when she was a child growing up on the Prairies, she asked her mother for a buche de noel (that’s yule log cake for you anglos!) for her birthday cake every year. Since Barb’s mom still lives far away on the Prairies, she asked me if I would make her one this year. I was touched and honoured at the request and happily agreed. It will be dessert at our Christmas Eve supper this year.
So tonight as we prepare to welcome Christmas we bring together the memories and traditions of two families. And as we raise our glasses and enjoy the feast – of bouillabaisse and buche – I’m sure we’ll create some new ones too!
Whatever you are serving tonight, made it be generously seasoned with the love and company of family and friends – Merry Christmas!