Tongue-tied in Newfoundland
Corner Brook, Newfoundland — The hand-lettered sign on the restaurant door was a mite unsettling. "Fresh cod tongues," it said. "$4.95." But this evening, I was ready for it. In the matter of cod tongues, I was well schooled. A day in Gros Morne National Park, and an 11-year-old tutor, had transformed my outlook.
It happened on a "mausey" morning, the foggy, drizzly sort of day that one associates with Newfoundland. I was ready for that, too, with high boots, rain gear, and a car.
The drive provided an excellent opportunity to view the magnificent fjord country of Gros Morne Park -- monumental cliffs that were perhaps the more beautiful in the light fog. I had meant to hike the four-kilometer Western Brook Trail to the Stag Brook Spur. It's a nice easy walk over boardwalks and varied terrain, and at trail's end I would meet Reg Robert for a two-hour tour boat tour of the park's inner reaches.
The day was, to put it mildly, a little wet for such an enterprise. So I settled for an exploration of the village of Woody Point, and a 20-minute ride by car ferry to Norris Harbour, just across Bonne Bay.
Woody Point was the site of my education. It is an interesting village. The roadsides are lined with fields of lupins and patches of pearly everlasting, the fluffy weed that settlers used to stuff their pillows and mattresses.
The local school promotes "Life and Loyalty" in bold letters on its facade. The docks are piled with nets and lobster pots; the cafe serves cod burgers, and on the dock behind the mini fish plant, a passel of kids keep busy beheading the cod.
When I arrived at Woody Point, the catch had just come in -- boxes of atrocious wolf fish, piles of flounder, and cases upon cases of cod. Inside the plant, the filleting was as slick and sophisticated as you please. Outside, the young boys were earning a few pennies by removing a pail or so of fish heads to act as lobster bait.
One 11-year-old, a young "bedlammer" judging from the glint in his eyes, had earned the privilege of taking the tongues home to his mother.
The tongues are a delicacy in Newfoundland -- almost as pricey as salmon steaks.
The tongue is that awkward part of a cod's face that should have become a chin. An aesthetic result depends upon a firm hand. I did my level best, but my inept maneuvering produced a tongue that was decidedly vulgar.
At their best, cod tongues are very tender, silver-dollar shaped medallions that are succulent when simply fried. They are perhaps not as traditional a dish as Fish 'n' Brewis (a mixture of salt cod, hardtack, and "scrunchions" of crisply fried port), but they rank with lobster and salmon steak as the best things about Newfoundland cookery.
The Newfoundland menu is not, however, made up exclusively of fish. Meat is no longer rare on the island. Like the rest of Canada, Newfoundland now has its shore of hamburger joints and steak houses, and there are many things an enterprising Newfie can do to a chicken.
Not a one of them, of course, can measure up to the salmon and trout of the Humber River in the mountains only miles away from Corner Brook. And for a little diversion, it's not necessry to traves farther than Glynmill Pond, smack in the center of Corner Brook itself. The taxi drivers swear the depths are swarming with trout -- perhaps not lunkers, but sizable, nonetheless.
The trout, I cannot vouch for, but swans the pond most certainly has. They swim near a tiny circular "picnic" island, visible from the grounds of Glynmill Inn, a beautiful ivycovered Tudor mansion-cum-hotel. The whole scenario is reminiscent of Olde England. All of Corner Brook, in fact, is closer in spirit to the rolling beauty of the English countryside than to the rugged Newfoundland outposts. Cobb Lane proliferates with gracious homes and gardens placed elegantly on crazily contoured ground. Flower Pots line the main streets of the city. And there's a swimming hole in the center of town -- Glynmill Pond which terminates in a set of rapids at Margaret Bowater Park.
The Bowater family founded the town's main industry, a paper mill which, incidentally, makes an interesting two-hour tour. Margaret Bowater donated the park and the pool to the city.
Glynmill Pond, obviously, is a sizable body of water. We mainlanders would call it a lake. But to a Newfoundlander, I was told, a lake is no more than a hole in his boot.
This bit of incidental Newfie lingo was imparted to me by Larry, and it was Larry who gave the three-hour bus trip from Corner Brook to Grand Falls the down-home flavor of a Newfoundland soiree.
No one I know is enamoured of buses, but Larry likes 'em, because Larry sings. He carries a guitar, a harmonica, and a kazoo in addition to his cardboard boxes of luggage, firmly belted against breakage. And he sings songs generally tending to the exasperating nature of wives and mothers-in-law.
With Larry, we bus travelers leap-frogged across the island in style. He even took requests: "I's the b'y that builds the boat,/I's the b'y that sails her." And by the time we reached Grand Falls, we rounded the chorus for the third time: "Fogo, Twillingate, Moreton's harbour/ All around the circle." And even the bus driver was singing "That a boy, Larry. Heave 'er out, boy!"
And I left the bus in style, and fine humor, for Twillingate, as it happened, was where I was going.
Twillingate is two hours by rental car from Grand Falls. A causeway links the island to the "mainland." (Don't let anyone tell you that you'll need a ferry, as they're apt to.) The roads are excellent and the scenery inspirational -- even at 90 kilometers an hour.
The road meanders past scattered houses with fences that do a demented sort of ramble across undecided ground, past sale-water inlets and Monday morning clotheslines and roadside graveyards.
:"Down North," at Twillingate, the Newfoundland of the sea shanty comes alive. Fish "houses" and cod flakes spill across the rocks. Vast spring gardens and back yard root cellars are the most important features of town decoration. The town wraps itself around the harbors. but for the most wonderful sights of all, look to the sea.
Icebergs! Icebergs! with eyelets, icebergs with portholes, icebergs formed into sections, shaped and carved by the sea and the sun. They are surpassingly beautiful, and from the vista by the huge lighthouse at Long Point, as many as 10 have been sighted in a single summer.
It is incredible to remember that a full 90 percent of the huge bulk of a berg remains underwater. And Fanny knows. She has lived in Twillingate all of her life.
Fanny is the proprietress of the Ocean View Hotel. Follow the signs up the 45 -degree angle gravel road that stops at the back door of a tall white house. Don't hesitate. This is the hotel, and Fanny is a most hospitable woman. She has hosted Americans, Italians, Icelanders. She loves travelers, because she is something of a gadabout herself. Fanny has seen Tuktoyaktuk and Germany, but she's never seen anything to rival the beauty of her own town.
For a little fun, whe'll send you to the government wharf, where a fish plant , in the form of a boat, processes 20 tons of fish a day. The dock is fine place to loll away the hours before supper with a Popeil Pocket Fisherman -or simply a string and a hook. It sets you up for a dinner from the sea.
Cod tongues were on the menu that night, and I didn't hesitate a moment. I ordered lobster . . . and it was superb.