By Dan Nosowitz
The seal hunt is an incredibly controversial topic; the Humane Society and PETA condemn it, governments from the U.S. to the EU to Taiwan have banned it, and most people, when polled, don't like it. But to chef Todd Perrin, now gaining fame for his Newfoundland restaurant, seal is a non-endangered, delicious and unique ingredient.
“The meat is pretty much not like much else you’ve ever eaten,” says Perrin, chef/owner of The Mallard Cottage, a restaurant on the forefront of the new Newfoundland cuisine. “It has that kinda gamey, iron-y, almost kind of organ meat flavor. But when it’s fresh, it has a little taste of the sea. It’s super lean, but oily, it’s really a paradoxical kind of flesh.” He’s talking about seal, specifically harp seal, an ingredient that the Perrin and a few other chefs across eastern Canada have been looking to in recent years, while at the same time, organizations like PETA and the Humane Society have ramped up their anti-sealing efforts and Russia, the U.S., Taiwan and the EU upheld their ban on seal products or imports.
Mostly, the animal rights community and the progressive food community are on the same team, but sometimes their Venn diagram circles smash into each other instead. Seal meat is a perfect example: To the Humane Society, it’s a ridiculously cruel and outdated slaughter of cute and intelligent animals, but to Perrin, it’s a sustainable, indigenous product that’s an important part of his culture and also pretty damn delicious.
Perrin grew up just outside St. John’s, the capital of and largest city in the province. It can be hard to explain just how separate and remote Newfoundland is from the rest of Canada; imagine if Alaska was as far away from the continental United States as it is, but that it had the oldest city in the country and so retained a centuries-old tradition that only grudgingly and with difficulty absorbs culture from the rest of the country. St. John’s is the most easterly city in North America, far to the north and east of Maine, historically a cod fishery village that looks like it still might be an outpost of the Portuguese empire.
Perrin speaks with, by Newfoundland standards, a relatively mild accent, but I doubt most Americans would even pick it out as Canadian; it’s more like some kind of mutant back-country Irish accent. This is all to say that Newfoundland is just barely Canadian, and its traditions are very much its own. In the past decade or so, the explosion in interest in food traditions and regional cuisine has hit everywhere from Denmark to Brazil to Australia, but Newfoundland is just now realizing that its food history, a product of living in a difficult environment for centuries, is something to cherish and preserve. Perrin is on the forefront of that. He appeared in the first season of Top Chef Canada, bringing special ingredients from home that even the judges, Canadian food luminaries that they are, didn’t recognize. In his first episode he cooked seal flipper. In a later challenge, which had the chefs making their own version of poutine, he used minced moose-meat.
“Springtime, usually around Easter, seal flipper was just something we ate,” says Perrin. “It’s not an everyday kind of thing, almost a special occasion that time of year.” The most traditional way to eat seal in St. John’s (really, the only way most people eat it) is in a pie, much like, says Perrin, a steak-and-kidney pie: minced seal flipper, root vegetables, and a rich gravy, baked in a pastry crust. But he’s now working to expand what can be done with the meat. “Last year we had a couple chefs down from Montreal and other parts of Canada and we did a seven-course menu of seal, all done differently, including dessert,” he says. (The dessert was a seal oil ice cream; “to be honest it was a bit of an experiment and wasn’t the best thing ever,” says Perrin.)
Seal isn’t like most meats. Pretty much all the seal Perrin works with is very young harp seals, though not, he was careful to say, “whitecoats,” the term for infant seals that have yet to lose their white baby fur. It’s been illegal to hunt whitecoats in Canada since 1987, but the seals hunted are still typically the young, which Perrin calls “the veal of the sea.” It’s the same basic idea as using lamb or suckling pig: before the animal really starts to move around, it has little muscle tone and a lot of fat, which makes it enviable from a culinary point of view.
The meat itself is bizarre. It’s deep and dark like duck or venison, but the animal has developed a totally different way of storing fat, due to its life in the cold North Atlantic. It doesn’t have marbling; instead, the fat is liquid, like oil, and permeates all of the meat. “When you handle seal meat it’s almost like a lanolin kind of feeling, your hands get so soft,” says Perrin. But that oil is also one reason seal hasn’t caught on away from the coasts where it’s caught: like many oils (walnut and flax come to mind), seal oil goes bad incredibly quickly; there’s no good way to preserve it. That’s why the native seal-hunting peoples of Canada tend to eat it raw; it’s not for religious purposes, it’s simply because seal meat has a very short lifespan and is best when freshest.
Perrin, and a few other chefs in Newfoundland and elsewhere, are branching out from the typical uses for seal. The major edible parts, he says, are the flippers (which became the most-used part amongst Newfoundlanders because seal pelt-hunters were given the easily-transportable flippers as part of their pay), the loin, and a few of the internal organs. “The flippers, you can kind of treat ‘em like pork shoulder, they like long and slow cooking,” says Perrin. (On Top Chef Canada, the judges remarked that his braised seal flipper tasted a lot like pulled pork.) “The loins, kind of treat ‘em like tenderloin or lamb loin. You can do a tartare or carpaccio, or roast ‘em and serve ‘em rare or medium rare.” More....