Elliston has quick become one of my favourite places in Newfoundland, and the Roots Rants and Roars Festival this week was the icing on the cake. Or the dressing on the cod. Or the beans on the pork belly. Whatever.
What is Roots Rants and Roars? It’s a “regional celebration of the Natural Gifts of Newfoundland and Labrador Food, Culture, Land and Sea.” In shorter form, it’s a two-day binge-eating food fest featuring dishes from some of Canada’s best chefs, and it all takes place in rural Newfoundland.
The Cod Wars
The Friday night big event is the Cod Wars, an epic battle among Newfoundland chefs to come up with creative new ways to use cod. Festival-goers bounce from booth to booth sampling the dishes, and then everyone gets to vote for the next King of Cod. The winner is crowned with a rolling pin and a cutting board. True story.
First thing’s first: I should have read the media letter a little better because it was FREAKING COLD. I showed up in a leather jacket and flat shoes without socks. No mitts. I’m an idiot.
But it’s not too cold to enjoy the evening – oh no. Just, you know, maybe come a little better prepared than I did.
And so I made my rounds.
It’s kinda neat to be in such an intimate setting with such renowned chefs. I mean, Murray McDonald was there, from the famous Fogo Island Inn. The sign for his booth simply said “Fish.” In quotation marks. He flipped a piece of cod onto my plate and said, “Y’knows that in Newfoundland ‘fish’ refers to da cod, right?”
The above photo features some of my favourite cod dishes from the festival. In the top left: Roger Dewling’s cod dog with salsa, sausage, and buttermilk slaw. Top right: Roary MacPhearson’s cod pakota with partridgeberry chutney. Bottom: Todd Perrin’s pickled cod cheek, smoked cod belly, and cod roe yogurt.
Did I mention this is really not a vegetarian-friendly event?
My absolute favourite, though, was Tavola’s cod wrapped in Mount Scio savoury and cabbage, like a little sushi roll, created by Kyle Puddester. It came with cured pork cheek, chickpea puree, and honey mustard apple and pickle relish. Like a mini Jigg’s Dinner.
But in a shocking chef twist, the winner ended up being the young Chris Chafe, from The Doctor’s House (the same one I visited a few weeks ago). I DID love his creation, I just couldn’t seem to capture a good image of it: fried cod with sweet corn and bacon (bacon always wins), organic chili peppers, a fritter, and black bean and tomato jam. Um, yes. These are a few of my favourite things.
I love the little community that’s popped up around Newfoundland food culture. I ran into so many prominent people involved in the scene, and felt like I was chatting with old friends. And then Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case took to the stage – something I had somehow missed in the itinerary – and there we all were swaying along to the music, wrapped in toques and scarves, cold beer in hand, and full-and-happy as can be. And very Canadian.
I urge, nay, force you to listen to some of the band’s music. Start with Annalee.
The Food Hike
I was most excited about the Food Hike for this event. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a roughly five-kilometre easy coastal hike interspersed with five food stations. Because that’s the best thing that’s ever happened on the face of this planet.
I love the characters that such an event pulls in. Matty Matheson and his counterpart were tattooed and determined, scooping up whipped butter with our bread and plopping down pieces of beans and pork belly into our dishes. Mike and I sat down in the grass with our meal, the brittle partridgeberry bushes serving as a table.
I wondered how the chefs were faring with the autumn nip in the air, but everyone seemed pretty happy to be there. Jessica Pelland from Calgary’s Charbar restaurant & Rooftop Grill was in the middle of telling someone how much she was enjoying Newfoundland when I showed up, and then she handed me some kofta. Did I mention this event isn’t vegetarian friendly?
At this point, I laid back in the grass, too full to move. Mike was shooting video over me, and he got down on one knee to hand me a lens cap. To everyone else, apparently, it looked like we were getting engaged. Oh the love.
And our final stop: Marc LePine’s grilled beef ribeye in miso broth with barley, corn, turnip, carrot, and chanterelles.
Back at the start point: puffin mittens, more live music, and a full mile-long table of desserts made by the locals.
Where to Stay
Elliston’s Bird Island Inn, where Charlotte will cook you up a darn fine breakfast while icebergs drift around like lost souls outside the front door.
Or you can stay in Trinity, which I did on this trip, at the Eriksen’s Premises.