The whole synopsis of the place sounded intriguing. French Newfoundland. The last colony of France in North America. Visiting the EU just over an hour away from Halifax. How could someone turn that down? I was sure the locals must be eating something interesting. A place culturally adamant that they were European had to at least prove it through their menus.
St. Pierre at least had the winding streets, a few cafes, and shops full of imported wine and meats. It had the same vibe as towns in rural Nova Scotia – decades past their boomtown days, but instead of coal and steel industries long given up on by the government, the islands had been hardest hit buy the cod moratorium due to environmental concerns. The main difference was that this is France and instead of a heavy reliance on employment insurance, the French government had placed everyone with some kind of job -tour guides, airport staff, bus drivers, and a fully-staffed police force. Our guide on Miquelon, Anya, who had followed and married a St. Pierre native from France after he finished his studies in Europe, gave us the impression that no one just sat around, but that their survival was highly dependent on subsidized employment.
Jean Claude, our grey haired and bushy moustachioed driver on the much more densely populated island of St. Pierre (a population of 6000 vs. 600 on the geographically larger Miquelon) insisted that the island wasn’t bleeding youth quite like the Maritime provinces of Canada. He spoke of the high percentage of high school graduates who brought back culture and knowledge after completing their education in mainland France. And that jobs were waiting for them when they returned. St. Pierre and Miquelon had spent decades earning this support from the motherland: thousands of seasonal fisherman had brought years of bountiful harvests of cod back to Europe.
Although Miquelon felt fairly desolate and almost like a place that time had forgotten, life was apparent in the rows and rows of potato plants which lined the backyards of most of the weather-worn wooden homes. Broken down fishing boats were docked adjacent to flashier ferries, and saltines – cod salting huts – still stood next to empty looking public buildings. A spattering of abandoned projects dotted the landscape surrounding the village: a nearly brand new seniors’ home stood locked and empty, wind turbines lay on their sides, never used.
It just so happened to be the 27th annual Festival des Produits de la Mer (Seafood Festival). One of the biggest days of the year in Miquelon, which on the usual afternoon, was home to a handful of cafes offering solely coffee, baguette and croissants. Tourist agents kept telling us how lucky we were to have planned our trip during the event of the season. It necessitated booking a spot on the typically spacious daily ferry ahead of time, to ensure we’d beat the crowds and be able to attend the festival.
It was part fundraiser for the local soccer club, part celebration of local ocean harvests, with a heaping dose of old-world culinary inspiration melted throughout. 70-90 varieties of dishes were laid out on a plastic orange tablecloth in the school gymnasium, all made from the homes of community members.
A few repeats of obvious crowd favourites included the tart aux molades – cheesy pies with varying levels of flaky, buttery crusts holding a dense casing of dairy surrounding a handful of mussels. There were cod breads and cod balls, crab breads and creamy lobster pâtés. Trout were splayed and garnished with flowers, hardboiled eggs were filled with seafood purees, shredded lemon pepper crab was coated in a crunchy cornmeal coating. There was a number of spam slice shaped gels and mousses were arrayed in a spectrum of pink and white shades. The theme of cream and pulverized seafood accompanied with crusty white bread seemed to really be the highlight of the celebration. White wine sold out early on, and the whole community was there to dance and eat the day away.
Certainly there is a history worth checking out here. The museum on Île aux Marins, the island just inside the harbour of St. Pierre, is full of artwork, artifacts and photographs of the heavily religious fishing glory days of the area. Informative signage around the small island makes for an easy self-guided day tour. Armed with a few baguettes and some tariff-free cheese, charcuterie and wine from one of the shops in St. Pierre and you’re golden. Come check it out, but don’t expect to uncover too many hidden secrets of local food production other than what is grown in household gardens. Eco-tours and hikes on Miquelon might be more worth your time than spending a day in the village. Take advantage of the opportunity to stock your suitcase full of European specialties and to bring some great pastries and baguettes home on your lap for brunch after the short flight back to Canada. Just don’t let the customs guards get too close.
Submitted by: Megan MacLeod