by Sadie Beaton
Everyone celebrates the holidays a little differently. Some cut down a Christmas tree, strapping it to their car like fir-scented carrion. Others decorate a tropical houseplant with sparkling LED lights. Still others light a series of candles, or a large, super-hard log. Some mantles are sporting an ‘Elf on the Shelf’. Others, a jumbo bottle of Mint Chocolate Baileys.
The one common element that we gather around and celebrate this time of year is food. In Atlantic Canada, as in many other places, that often includes seafood. In my family, growing up, Christmas Eve meant haddock chowder, kipper snacks and canned smoked oysters on Swiss Cheese Crackers.
For many- especially those with Italian heritage – Christmas Eve dinner becomes the ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes.’ This multi-course seafood celebration dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence. Why seven? Sevens show up in the Bible a lot, apparently, and the theory varies from a reflection on the seven days of creation to the seven deadly sins.
This year the wonderful Sea2Table has challenged seafood lovers to re-imagine the traditional Seven Fishes with sustainable fisheries in mind. As they describe, “our hope this holiday season is that whether you’re preparing a multi-course meal or a humble supper, sustainable and traceable seafood becomes a staple in your kitchen.” While a great part of the season is about satisfying hankerings for nostalgic holiday flavours – it is also a great opportunity to try new dishes and tailor your food traditions.
Atlantic Canada is teeming with local, seasonal seafood around the holidays, much of it exported for enjoyment elsewhere. Wouldn’t it be great if we did a better job of celebrating the best of our sustainable and delectable seafood this season? After reading Sea2Table’s post, I couldn’t help but compile a Nova Scotia version of the Seven Sustainable Fishes. I’d love to see more versions too, from different regions and holiday traditions.
1. Holiday lobster! This is the one we already do a pretty good job celebrating. While lobster has been abundant, the prices are brutally low again this year. Buying directly is the best way to ensure your money is supporting a local fishing family. Look for roadside vans, or, if you’re in Halifax, you can pre-order lobster from Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery, which will have live lobster deliveries on Christmas Eve day and New Year’s Eve day between 11am and 1pm. From each $10 hard-shell lobster, $9 goes directly to the fishing family and $1 supports their conservation work.
2. Chedabucto Bay trap-caught shrimp! It is long past time to cast aside the rubbery shrimp ring. Not only do they hail from far-off, environmentally and socially destructive farms, they are not very delicious! Our local trap-caught shrimp comes from a Canso winter fishery with no bycatch and no seafloor damage. Also, its been called “the sweetest shrimp I have ever been fortunate enough to eat and to cook with” by no less an authority than Tempestuous Culinary Chef Michael Howell. Local restaurants are working hard with the fishermen to have these shrimp in supply- look for them at Halifax restaurants and retailers in the new year.
3. Low-density farmed oysters! Atlantic Canada grows some of the best oysters in the world, and December is one of the best times of year to enjoy them. Oyster stuffing is a tradition for some, but there’s no shame in shucking them straight into your mouth with a little lemon and a sip of local L’Acadie Blanc. Oysters can be ordered from Shandaph in Pictou County, and picked up in Halifax at the Seaport Farmers Market or Ratinaud French Cuisine.
4. Hook and line caught haddock, cod, hake or halibut! No food could be more traditional in Atlantic Canada than the hearty staples that fed our First Nations and brought Europeans to fish and settle across the region.Whether you’ve wisely stored leftovers from your Off the Hook CSF subscription, bought from Alyssa Foods, or you’ve sought it out using Thisfish (frozen is best this time of year as local groundfish are spawning), now is the time to thaw some for seasonal chowder- or a gefilte Hanukkah dish.
5. Solomon Gundy! This pickled herring dish couldn’t be more down-home, and goes beautifully with platters of cheese and other hors-doeuvresy morsels. It even has its own festive children’s rhyme. Solomon Gundy is tricky to find, but the Polish lady at the Brewery Market makes a mean version.
6. Low-density Farmed Mussels! Farmed seafood has a bad reputation in Atlantic Canada because of the social and environmental impacts of open net salmon farming. Shellfish, on the other hand, are filter feeders and can be farmed very sustainably! If you’re going to be celebrating the fest of Seven Fishes in Nova Scotia with Italian panache, you might consider Indian Point mussels and linguine?
7. Dive caught Scallops! Okay, I’ve included this as a bit of a trick, because the fishery does not yet exist commercially in Nova Scotia. Which makes it tough to enjoy these hand-selected beauties (unless you know a fella who knows a fella). Right now our local scallops are all dredged, a fishing practice that is hard on the seabed and other marine life. But I’m excited about the very real future possibility that new sustainable fisheries can be developed in Atlantic Canada, while wasteful ones fade away. So start dreaming up your dive-caught scallop recipes, and let’s hope they appear on your holiday feasting table this time next year….
There are so many excellent small-scale fisheries and shellfish farms in Atlantic Canada and the above list is by no means exhaustive. Other great choices from Nova Scotia’s wharves include hand-dug clams, harpoon-caught swordfish, dive-caught urchin, and smoked mackerel. Whatever feast you choose to enjoy this holiday season, I’d like to chime in with own my holiday hope that we all take a moment to appreciate the important, hard work of our fishermen. After all they’re the ones out there toiling in this season’s variety of sleets, snows, and freezing rains while we cozy up to our bowls of chowder and Swiss Cheese Crackers.