Picture a plate of plump ravioli, each one stuffed with a rich blend of tender braised moose, caramelized onion, and potato purée. The pasta is sauced with emulsified butter. A scattering of finely diced carrot and celery lends some colour. There’s also a drizzle of the moose braising liquid, reduced to a syrup, a sprinkle of grated parmesan and—why not?—some toasted breadcrumbs for texture. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And emphatically Canadian, too.
“My favourite thing to cook is moose,” says chef Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John’s, where he cooks this dish, as well as moose ragù and other variations on the theme, every fall.
And again: Why not? You can’t get much more Canadian than moose. The towering beast is a national icon. It appears on Ontario’s coat of arms, but calls nearly every province and territory home. All told, there are about a million of them shuffling about in our woods. And given their weight—adult males can tip the scales at 700 kilograms—we have enough moose to fill every pot.
All the same, chances are good that you haven’t a clue what it tastes like. Or that if you are one of the few who has tried moose, it was cooked for you by an incompetent—and that by dint of this experience, you mistakenly consider its meat to be second-rate.
That false assumption largely comes down to access. Most wild game can be sold in the territories, where it is essential to the local diet. And you will also find it on menus in Newfoundland and Labrador, where restaurants such as Raymonds can obtain licences to sell game. But that’s about it. (Nova Scotia restaurants are permitted to serve certain types of game, including bear, beaver, rabbit, pigeon, and even raccoon and crow—as long as the butcher shop or restaurant can attest to the meat having been inspected.)
Elsewhere in Canada, the game meat you might find on a restaurant menu, such as venison and pheasant, has almost certainly been farmed, because conservation initiatives dictate that wild game cannot be sold. And even if some mad restaurant or butcher-shop owner wanted to give the stuff away instead of charging for it, they would likely run afoul of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency—which dictates that meat products must be processed in federally or provincially regulated slaughterhouses—or municipal public-health inspectors, who deeply mistrust any meat unaccompanied by a receipt.
All that might well add up to good conservation policy and food safety. But it hasn’t done much for our culinary identity. By keeping game out of the professional kitchen, and effectively legislating that it be confined to the rural home, we have all but ensured that most Canadian chefs don’t know how to cook it properly.
Game cookery requires a specialised skill set. The meat is always lean, and if improperly treated will be dry and tough. It is assertively flavoured—usually, but not always, in a way that you want to enhance. Yet few good restaurant-calibre game recipes are being handed down and improved upon from one generation to the next. Such northern favourites as muskox burgers or caribou haunch braised in Coca-Cola are not showing wild meats at their best. They are revolting.
Game-specific Canadian cooking has generally been stuck in the 1970s, when we were a culinary backwater. At the time, Canadian chefs seldom had the right skills, so when we wanted something of quality, we turned to the Europeans in our midst—or at least to the European-trained. When I want a good game dinner conjured today, I do the same thing: I turn to Toronto-based chef Marc Thuet, who has been hunting as long as he could walk, and learned to cook in his uncle’s game-focused restaurant in Alsace, France. Or to David Lee, who has been handling wild meat since his first restaurant job, in Hertfordshire, England. Or to Jason Bangerter, who spent a decade working for Anton Mosimann, the royal warrant–toting chef Prince Charles calls on when in the mood for some Scottish grouse.
But a Canadian-trained chef? Never—unless they work in one of the small handful of good kitchens in Newfoundland (or in Quebec, where culinary traditions run stronger than elsewhere). Meanwhile, I could make a lot of enemies by cataloguing some highly regarded Ontario chefs who’ve been known to turn wild duck or venison or pheasant into inedible shoe leather. This disconnect with our culture is regrettable.
When you’re travelling abroad and someone asks you to define Canadian cookery, can you supply them with three or four classic dishes to make a case for its quality? For my part, I figure if the foreigner I’m conversing with has not yet got wind of guédilles and poutine, I’m sure as hell not going to be the one to let the cat out of the bag. Cod swim bladders are a good conversation starter, but the Chinese were tossing them into hot frying oil long before they became a popular crispy snack in Newfoundland. Quebec pork and beans is merely a riff on cassoulet, and tourtière a minor variation on a British meat pie.
The fact is, outside of Canadian Indigenous communities, we have scarcely enough dishes of our own to justify claims of a distinct cuisine. Our best cooking is a hodgepodge of styles, mostly borrowed and seldom new. That moose ravioli from Raymonds combines Italian technique with an English sort of filling (braised meat, mashed potato) and a French-inspired reduction. But the moose is a made-in-Canada stamp. Replace it with veal or beef, and the dish could have come from any restaurant stateside or in Western Europe. Put the moose back in—or substitute it with shredded braised leg of Arctic hare, or a confit of ptarmigan or Canada goose—and you’re emphatically back in the North again. It could be the northern US. It might even be Scandinavia. Yet the combination of ingredients and multidisciplinary methods suggests Canada—and to anyone who knows a little about cooking regulations, that means Newfoundland.
“We live in such a vast wilderness,” says chef Todd Perrin, from Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi village, a neighbourhood in St. John’s. “There should be a direct link from that to our cuisine.”
Wild food is connected to its place of origin in a way that farmed food can seldom boast of. Your average North American supermarket shopper is so accustomed to buying South American produce six months out of season that they are completely detached from the growing cycle.
That’s why ambitious culinary tourists arrange travel around wild food’s local cycles. Every year, discriminating gourmets will book trips to the UK around August 12 for the opening of shooting season for Scottish red grouse. Or make pilgrimages to Alba, Italy, for white truffles in late October. And lately, they’ve been heading to Raymonds and Mallard Cottage for the same reason: distinctly Canadian wild foods, prepared right.
Charles spearheaded Newfoundland’s new culinary movement. During the East Coast’s oil boom, the itinerant chef decided to return to his home province. In 2007, he left the kitchen at a private hunting lodge in northern Quebec for a gig in Portugal Cove, just outside St. John’s; in 2010, he and sommelier Jeremy Bonia opened Raymonds.
Other Newfoundland chefs began to follow his lead. “Wild game—it’s only flourished here for six or seven years. It’s at a new level [of quality] now, and that’s mostly thanks to Jeremy,” asserts Perrin, of Mallard Cottage. Aside from this restaurant-driven local revolution in wild game cookery, Newfoundland’s game traditions are unsophisticated and plain. “It’s very simple cooking. You know, throw a rabbit or a piece of moose in a pot and cook it within an inch of its life.”
In other words, exactly the same way most amateur home cooks still do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If Newfoundland’s best chefs can turn the page on Jiggs dinner and start attracting international culinary tourists, the rest of the country could do the same. Visitors would cross oceans for our caribou and elk and woodcock, the way they flock to British Columbia for spot prawns, or to Quebec for lobster and snow-crab festivals. Wild foods would be front and centre on our restaurant menus and in our cookbooks, just as they are in Europe.
But the way things are now, most of our chefs aren’t prepared for such an opportunity. Even if the commercial game regulations were to change, all we’d get would be a new product line from Loblaws, featuring caribou meatballs and boiled whale blubber, and branded “Memories of Nunavut.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.