Citizens, the last two weeks have been a veritable WONDERLAND for the Imperator of Immunization, the Anax of Antibodies – YOUR TFD! – as I am now fully immunized via the Pfizer vaccine! After *15 MONTHS* of strictest quarantine, broken only by walking my dog, driving him to the Vet and chatting at a distance with delivery people – I AM INDEED UNLEASHED ONCE MORE UNTO THE WORLD! My first grocery store trip in over a year was today, and I was reminded of how refugees from Soviet Russia reacted when they saw the bounty of our supermarkets – I nearly wept at the sight!
Despite a return to semi-normalcy, I have many friends in Canada who are sadly still waiting on their vaccinations, and who may in fact be waiting at least a month or two longer. For them, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a very visceral event with no end in sight. Far be it for the Sagacious One to ignore the plight of His Citizenry in need – so for my many Canuck friends, here is a classic comfort food dish from the proud province of Newfoundland to help you weather the final few weeks of quarantine! The history of Newfoundland – aka ‘New-Found Land’ – is a fascinating one, not well-known by those south of the border with Canada.
Newfoundland is one of the places that TFD could easily see Himself retiring to in His declining years – I have always loved the cold, the isolation and the raging Atlantic ocean and Newfoundland has all of these in abundance! As such, allow the Haruspex of History to bring you up to speed on the man who discovered Canada, by discovering Newfoundland – John Cabot – and his intriguing story!
John Cabot (Italian: Giovanni Caboto; c. 1450 – c. 1500) was an Italian navigator and explorer. His 1497 voyage to the coast of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is the earliest-known European exploration of coastal North America since the Norse visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. To mark the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s expedition, both the Canadian and British governments elected Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland as representing Cabot’s first landing site. As further expounded in this fascinating, excerpted exposition from heritage.nf.ca:
Not very much is known for certain about John Cabot – we do not even know precisely when and where he was born. It is likely, though, that he was born around 1455 in Gaeta, near Naples, and was the son of a merchant. His name is also associated with Genoa, and he may have spent some time there as a boy. But by 1461 Cabot was living in Venice, where he became a citizen. In about 1482 he married a Venetian woman, Mattea, and they had three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano and Sancio.
A merchant like his father, Cabot traded in spices with the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and became an expert mariner. Valuable goods from Asia – spices, silks, precious stones and metals – were brought either overland or up the Red Sea for sale in Europe. Venetians played a prominent part in this trade. Then, about 1490, Cabot and his family moved to Valencia in Spain. Why? It is probable that, like his fellow-countryman Christopher Columbus, Cabot wanted to be part of an expanding frontier of exploration, the Atlantic Ocean. The leaders in this enterprise were the Portuguese, and the Spanish were also interested.
The monarchs of both countries wanted to find new routes to Asia and its riches – routes which would avoid the Mediterranean and the virtual monopoly on the spice trade held by the Italians. There was another motivation as well. In a deeply religious age, Europeans wanted to spread knowledge of Christianity, and to contain the spread of Islam.
However, neither Portugal nor Spain was interested in John Cabot. The Portuguese pioneered their route to Asia by sailing down the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. And once Columbus had returned in triumph from his first transatlantic voyage in 1493 – he reached the Caribbean, but thought it was part of Asia – the Spanish likewise thought they had found their route to the east.
As a result, Cabot turned in 1494 or 1495 to England – to the Italian community in London, to the merchants of the port of Bristol, where he settled with his family, and to the king, Henry VII. His scheme was to reach Asia by sailing west across the north Atlantic. He estimated that this would be shorter and quicker than Columbus’ southerly route. Cabot was trying to go one better.
In England, Cabot received the backing he had been refused in Spain and Portugal. Italian bankers based in London agreed to invest in his scheme. So did the merchants of Bristol. They had sponsored probes into the north Atlantic from the early 1480s, looking for possible trading opportunities. Some historians think that Bristol mariners might even have reached Newfoundland and Labrador even before Cabot arrived on the scene.
These had been unofficial voyages. In contrast, on 5 March 1496, Henry VII issued letters patent to Cabot and his sons authorizing them to sail to all parts “of the eastern, western and northern sea to discover and investigate, whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” Whatever Cabot did was in the name of the English Crown.
Cabot made his first try in 1496. It was a failure. All we know about the voyage is contained in a 1497 letter from John Day, an English merchant in the Spanish trade, to Christopher Columbus. It states that “he [Cabot] went with one ship, he had a disagreement with the crew, he was short of food and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.”
The following year, Cabot had better luck. Henry VII’s northern Columbus returned to Bristol on 6 August 1497. Cabot and everyone else thought that a new, shorter route to Asia had been found. No silks and spices, but these could not be far away – and it was known that Columbus himself had not yet found anything of great commercial value.
So Cabot became a hero: “… he is called the Great Admiral and vast honour is paid to him”, wrote Lorenzo Pasqualigo, a Venetian living in London, “and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad ….” Henry VII granted £10 “to hym that founde the new isle”, and later a pension of £20 a year. These were lavish rewards in a time when houses could be rented for £2 a year. In February 1498, Henry granted Cabot his second letters patent. He was authorized to take six ships, and go to the “londe and iles of late founde by the seid John”.
In May 1498 Cabot set sail with a fleet of five vessels – a significant advance over the previous year. This voyage is one of history’s puzzles. We know the fleet sailed, that one ship returned damaged after a storm, and that John Cabot disappears from the historical record. Everything else is speculation. It seems likely that some of the vessels retraced the 1497 route, explored the area in more detail, and returned to England with more geographical knowledge.
It has also been assumed that Cabot died during the voyage. One tradition asserts that he was shipwrecked not far from Grates Cove, where he got ashore with his son Sancio and some of the crew. There they died, either by starvation or at the hands of Beothuk Indians. The Grates Cove Rock story is associated with this tradition.
However, recent research suggests that Cabot returned to England in the spring of 1500 and died there four months later. The late Alwyn Rudduck claimed to have found evidence that Cabot spent two years exploring North America’s eastern coast before he returned to Europe.
Unfortunately, Ruddock died before anything was published and she left instructions that her research notes were to be destroyed. Researchers at Bristol University have investigated her claim, and think that they have located “evidence that supports the notion that John Cabot’s expedition returned to England in the spring of 1500” (Jones, In press).
Whatever Cabot’s fate, his 1498 voyage demonstrated that he had not found an easy and profitable route to Asia. He had found codfish and trees, but not the great cities which could provide wealth and power. What he and Columbus had found, it was becoming clear, was a new continent which stood between Europe and Asia. This was a considerable disappointment to those who had backed Cabot’s voyages.
Now, with the history made clear as sparkling, crystalline lake ice – let us move on to what is perhaps one of the most beloved recipes of the province of Newfoundland – scalloped potatoes, tweaked as only TFD can make them! As noted in an article I found on saltwire.com:
Scalloped potatoes are everything you want in a side dish: the rare mix of comfort food that also has an impressive presentation. Filling, creamy, and cheesy, you could scallop a napkin like my mom used to do scalloped potatoes, and I would probably have eaten it with a smile.
And, apparently, so would the rest of Canada. Scalloped potatoes were amongst the top 10 food-related searches across the country in 2020, coming in at number five. And here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we searched for it the most. At first, this might seem shocking. What about all those sourdough loaves people were making during the lockdown? Nope, your neighbour wasn’t making air fryer fries, they were looking for scalloped potatoes recipes. It’s even more surprising when you consider that a major component of the favourite Sunday meal, Jiggs Dinner, is boiled potatoes.
During these trying times (aren’t we all tired of living through ‘unprecedented times’?) it’s the comfort foods from our childhoods, like my birthday casserole or my sister’s honey garlic wings, that we’re turning to. They remind us of times with our loved ones, loud family tables, bustling kitchens filled with cousins, of holidays, of comfort. And let’s be honest, scalloped potatoes aren’t exactly a weeknight side; they take time (which, when you’re stuck inside, you have a lot more of).
And then I started thinking about ham. The smell of ham baking in the oven on a Sunday afternoon. The sound of the sizzling mustard sauce as the baked ham came out of the oven before a family dinner. And what’s always right next to it? Scalloped potatoes. At least, that’s the way it is in Newfoundland and Labrador. For many Newfoundlanders, ham and scalloped potatoes are a must-have during the holiday season. Some enjoy it on Christmas Eve, others ring in the new year with this dynamic duo dinner. It’s also popular at Easter when a ham is a must-have.
Traditionally, there is no cheese in scalloped potatoes at all, just layers of a bechamel-like cream sauce and potatoes, while potatoes au gratin (also known as potato dauphinoise) are first cooked in milk then layered and topped with tons of cheese, au gratin.
But classic definitions be damned, put the cheese on your scalloped potatoes. Everything you eat these days could be au gratin, couldn’t it?
I have taken my lead from this brilliant and heterodoxical idea of combining scalloped potatoes with cheese – being TFD, I have also made some further tweaks while keeping the soul of the dish intact. First off, since this is traditionally served as a side to ham and mustard, I have instead chosen to make this a one-dish meal by dicing ham into the potatoes and adding some strong mustard for zip. Obviously, I prefer to use my own hot pub-style coarse mustard, with the recipe shared as my previous post (yes, there is an established logic chain as to when I post my recipes, despite appearances!).
Cabot was himself a spice trader, and of course the British soon established themselves in India seeking their spices – as such, curry powder became a prized trading item that flowed through the province. As such, yes, I felt historically vindicated to learn that some versions of this dish included curry powder! So does mine – this is my preferred brand of Madras curry. I add a number of other spices as well as scallion, onion and garlic as well as a combination of Italian Parmigiano in honor of Cabot’s Italian background, English Cheddar and some French Gruyere for nuttiness.
Citizens, this is a fantastically-comforting recipe that pays spicy homage to the man who discovered Canada whilst looking for India – it is a dish that will warm your bones as aptly as it warms and comforts your soul – I hope you enjoy it, perhaps with a dessert of Canadian maple butter tarts as a sweet conclusion!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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