I grew up with hard tack. Not many people here in Quebec have ever heard of it.
It’s a dried bread biscuit from Newfoundland sold in chunks in paper bags. Once a staple for fishermen or folks in far-away regions when fresh bread wasn’t always available, food was scarce and you needed to stretch a meal..
My parents are from Newfoundland, my Mom from St-Johns and my Dad from Deer Lake, now well integrated Quebeckers, fluent in French with their cute accents, francophone grandchildren and all. They are the best, but when I was growing up, I hardly thought so. As a young one in Quebec city with innate survival skills, I hardly wanted to let on that I was Anglophone, let alone ‘a Newfie’. Already aware that we stood out like sore thumbs, the last thing I figured I needed was Newfie jokes. My mom made her own brown bread and composted, sent us to school with peanut butter sandwiches in recycled milk bags, I wore hand-me-downs and said chesterfield when my friends said sofa; it was a struggle to not to feel embarrassed next to my ‘fancy’ friends.
Nonetheless, I always knew my Newfie grandfather was cool, he hunted and fished and told good stories flecked with colourful expressions we barely understood that sounded so neat. We loved hearing tales about our ancestors in Newfoundland, both families pioneers (be it exploring the arctic or in civil engineering). As an adult, obviously that heritage is something I embrace, so it’s high time I pay attention to the culinary side too. I hear about exciting things happening on the dining scene, but for now, I’m more interested in the old school ..
Flipping through the spiral bound ‘The Treasury of NFLD dishes’, I felt a warmth, like with many old community cookbooks from Quebec/Canada. Objectively, the recipes seem quite boring, rustic or quaint, yet many dishes struck a chord with me because they reminded me of my childhood, which was a good one. Although I was very critical of much of what my Mom made (being a fussy contrarious brat), her chicken soup, stuffing, stew dumplings and molasses cookies evoke fond memories.
Sharing these food memories with François over the years, a mixed/pure-laine francophone Quebecker and curious gourmand, he couldn’t help but wonder about this hard tack stuff. I told him that I remember it tasting kind of like soda crackers which he adores (one of the few industrial foods in our pantry, he crumbles up handfuls into his soup?!) But no, these are Hard biscuits (as in hard like wood) that need to be soaked to add to a dish, not normally eaten as is.. Yet as kids, we used to crawl into the cupboard next to the Grand Prix milk (yuck) and pick out a piece each to gnaw on, when there was no more cereal or other accessible snacks, I guess.
So, it was on the agenda. I had to make some Brewis for François (and for me), which is what you call a hard tack dish, typically made with salt fish. The traditional recipes tell you to soak the hard bread in cold water overnight. Then you soak your salt cod in cold water overnight. The next day, you change the fish water and cook in fresh water gently until done. Clean and flake. The hard tack is supposed to be brought to a near boil in its soaking water and turned off (so warmed through). Then you mix the two together and sauce with scrunchions (fried pork fat bits somewhere between lardons and oreilles de crisses).
I got the precious bag by the mail from my mom via Aunt Carolyn. I don’t recall any French on the label when I was young, nor was there any mention of ‘low fat’ then, ha. Three ingredients: Flour, water, salt.
François went straight for a piece, didn’t seem to know what to make of it, but went on to nibble on it for an entire period of a Mtl Canadians hockey game. (Hard tack is good for stress, it seems).
I was eager to cook it for him! I thought I should go trad first, but c’mon that recipe is kind of dismal, calling out for a riff. I had to dress it up, and impress François with this novel Newfie thing. Being a chef, naturally, I used what was on hand and went from there for my brewis creation.
We get free fish heads from our fishmonger friends so often, we always have halibut cheek meat or some kind of fish stewing, so that was a good starting point. I added shallots, lardons, ramps, tomatoes (from Lussier), corn and swiss chard from our freezer, crinkleroot(wild horseradish), a touch of white wine and cream. I added the soaked, reheated hard tack in pieces and it turned into a beautiful hash. That stuff soaks up a surprising load of liquid, so I was happy that I kept it separate first (being inexperienced with this kind of dish but experienced as a cook). Afraid it would amount to a big mound of mush, I hadn’t used enough water at first, having to add some to properly rehydrate, controlling the two before mixing. Anyhow, now I know I can liberally soak and add it all to the fish. It turned out great, accompanied by a salad of wild spring greens.. And François really enjoyed it. He thought it tasted like Gaspésie.
Final verdict: Yes! For me, maybe not for you.
The hard tack does not dissolve into mush, keeping texture while thickening and boosting a one pot dish, kind of like cooked potatoes or dry bread stuffing or salad and it has a kind of bland but comforting taste, perfect to accompany a punchy, saucy protein. So, another starch option among the rice, polenta, pasta, potatoes and company. I might prefer rice or a fresh slice of bread with my meal, but I will definitely finish my bag of dried biscuits, try other versions of brewis and have some fun. Do I think others should order some up? No, not necessarily. I could easily do without in my kitchen, but perhaps it will become a pantry staple just so I can whip up the occasional brewis. I love the idea of preserves and a stocked larder in general, feeling like I’m ready for anything, always able to make a hearty fine meal at home no matter what storm or disaster might hit.. I also love ingredients with a story.
Especially in this case, it’s a with a nod to my Newfie heritage with respect and thanks, and a desire to share stories and mix cultures that makes me want to carry on this bizarre dry bread tradition. Next up, maybe some moose brewis for my Grampy.
Photos: Hard tack and my halibut head brewis, François eating with appetite