Friday, April 22, 2011

From the archives

Seeing as I’m knee deep in Passover this week, I’ve decided to take a look back at a Semitic-tinged story I wrote for enRoute magazine a couple of years ago: Forget Screech and cod. Kosher wine and gefilte fish are Newfoundland's hot new exports.

But before you get reading about that, here are two recent stories written by others, in which I have a wee guest role. First up, the horseradish tasting I participated in for A. Brouwer & A. Wilson's monthly Shelf Life column in the National Post. It was pretty funny stuff as we were totally dying during the tasting: Some of the horseradishes were beyond hot (read: Totally addictive.) Gotta get me some of that hot Kozliks!

It just so happens that the day that story came out, I was sitting in Caplansky’s, elbow deep in gefilte fish during the first annual Gefilte Fish Derby (round three of Battle of the Bubbies). A few of us were judging both peppery and sweet versions of this uniquely nostalgic dish, and Jennifer Bain, who was trying it for the first time (and against all odds, liked it) wrote about the event here.

At Caplansky's, not only did I learn that my friend Joanna’s mom, Andrea Sugar, now officially makes the best gefilte fish in Toronto, but that Caplansky’s has the best cheese cake in town. And apparently, award-winning Andrea Sugar has agreed to share her recipe with Zane Caplansky -- so soon enough they'll have the best gefilte fish in town, too.

Kosher Quality (from enRoute magazine)

A rabbi, a Newfoundlander and a fish walk into a bar... Why Newfoundland's burgeoning kosher industry is no joke.


“Over-Gefilte-Fishing Sparks Greenpeace Cry for Gefilte-Fishing Moratorium” is the fairly hilarious headline on a fake news story I read recently, the joke being that gefilte fish is not a fish but in fact a traditional Jewish “delicacy” fashioned from chopped pickled carp covered in aspic and studded with boiled carrot. (Think of it as a cod cake in a yarmulke.) I recall this joke as I drive toward Fair Haven, Newfoundland, on a sunny spring afternoon, where everywhere I look there’s nothing but marble-blue ponds and rolling hills that will eventually tumble into the great Atlantic. I remember this joke because not only am I driving through the land of fish moratoriums, but I’m also headed toward Neptune Sea Products – Atlantic Canada’s only kosher-sanctioned secondary fish-processing plant, with a pit stop at the country’s only kosher winery.

Here in cod’s land, Bond Rideout Jr. leads me on a tour of his kosher processing plant, bought just a year ago, with gleaming white walls, concrete floors, high ceilings and stainless-steel everything else. I see hundreds of capelin, the tiny iridescent fish that start rolling into nearby coves during springtime, smoked and resting on racks.

“There’s no question that kosher is growing,” Rabbi Chaim Goldberg tells me over the phone from New York, in a voice that’s a cross between Jackie Mason and my cousin Irv. Goldberg is a Rabbinic Coordinator at the non-profit Orthodox Union (OU), the authority that, among other things, stages surprise inspections of kosher-certified institutions to make sure that everything’s, well, kosher. “As the world is getting more global, manufacturers in places that have never seen a Jew before, and may never see a Jew, see kosher as a very easy way to market their product.”

It’s a US$14-billion-a-year business in North America, say the reps at Manischewitz, the king of the kosher brands.

Newfoundland’s Neptune has secured a bissel of that kashruth pie by producing some 200 different products, from wasabi salmon to Cajun cod. Rideout figures Neptune Sea Products’ sales will top $2-million this year.

Typically, people have their own ideas of what kosher means, with “healthy,” “clean” and “pure” being common descriptors. While the A-okay from a mashgiach – the specially trained kosher inspector – has more to do with complex Talmudic and biblical laws than idyllic coastal scenes, even the non-observant perceive the OU symbol as a standard of excellence.

Local fishermen bring in all the codfish, mackerel and herring. Smoked salmon – cold-smoked on-site in one of six large smoker rooms, using a secret 400-year-old recipe from the Isle of Man – is the bestseller. “We only use fish that have fins and scales,” Rideout explains. “The other main thing is, my employees can’t bring in ham sandwiches for lunch.”

Danny Bath, a former fisherman who does research and development for Neptune, has just perfected a line of spreads that he’d like me to try. The cream cheese-based shmears are reminiscent of every happy Jewish brunch table I’ve ever noshed at, all smooth and creamy with an intoxicating natural wood-smoke finish. I almost single-handedly polish off two tubs, yet still want more. Products this good cross religious and cultural lines.

After leaving the plant, I drive about 15 minutes down a rural road to the Rodrigues Winery in Markland, where Hilary and Marie-France Rodrigues rolled out their first batch of fruit wine in 1993. This being Newfoundland’s first winery, the government ended up applying the same regulations as for a dairy: You couldn’t put milk in barrels, so you couldn’t put wine in barrels. In the end, the nonsensical rules that had forced the Rodrigueses to ferment their fruit wines in stainless-steel double-lined milk tanks made it easier to be kosher, as part of the process involves letting water boil in the tanks for a certain amount of time. The result: a tasty niche product and the only kosher and sulphite-free winery in Canada.

Rodrigues Winery now produces 12,000 cases a year, and its bottles are found on wine lists in restaurants like Bacalao in St. John’s to as far away as Japan. Made from hand-picked fruit, the kosher quaffs come in a dozen varieties, including local blueberries, cranberries and indigenous cloudberries harvested from creeping plants found on the northern peat bogs of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Rodrigueses’ son, Lionel, leads me through a wine tasting. The blackcurrant wine tastes of pure local blackcurrants. The strawberry reminds me of the real thing – like juicy summer strawberries, not strawberry candy. Lionel says they’ve also held wine tastings at the Beth El synagogue in St. John’s, but when I ask if he’s heard that old joke about Jews not being big drinkers, he looks puzzled.

“Really?” he says. “At the temple tastings they seem to drink.” Then he takes another thoughtful sip of his kosher blueberry wine and concludes, “But then again, we’re all Newfoundlanders.”

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