"Excuse me, do you have any sea wolf?" That was how my question, in simple French, must have sounded to the butchers of Montreal's block-long Jean-Talon Market. Among the duck rillettes, hundreds of jars of fruit ketchup, and sweet-tart apples, my wife and I were looking for something more elusive, something we had tasted further east in the province. Sea wolf is the literal translation of loup marin, a Quebecois French term for seal.
But, as I was discovering, not all Quebecois are familiar with the term this far west. Half of the butchers had no idea what I was talking about. I could have employed the universal French word for seal, phoque. But due to its unlucky (or is it lucky?) resemblance to a particular English word, and considering my inescapable accent, I avoided it, lest the vendors interpret my attempts as volleys of insults in my native tongue. Those boorish Americans!
In front of a mercifully patient butcher, I even resorted to flapping my hands close to my body like flippers, doing everything short of balancing a beach ball on my nose to establish an understanding. My wife was not impressed and told me not to do it again.
Several years before, while traveling around Quebec's Magdalen Islands, an archipelago in the center of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, we had decided to eat whatever was local. The islands are home to almost a thousand of Canada's sealers, and we found ourselves buying up as much seal terrine and seal jerky that we could carry. A dark red meat that turns black when cooked has haunted us ever since.
Nothing Cute on the Plate Please
After that journey, we found seal meat, albeit frozen, in only one place outside of the Magdalen Islands: in a stand at Quebec City's Vieux-Port Market, run by a Magdalen, or Madelinot, who was handing out recipes for seal flipper pie (cooking tip: each flipper feeds two people). But here in Montreal, not a single flipper turned up at the market. Montreal's further distance from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was not the only factor working against the availability of seal meat. The European Union and the United States have banned the importation of seal products based on the perception that the way seals are killed is inhumane.
I fail to see how slitting an animal's throat and hanging it upside down, as is done with chickens, is somehow better than striking an animal on the head. They are both violent, both unpleasant, and both necessary if man desires to eat an animal. The difference? Apparently, chickens are ugly and smelly, but seals are just too cute and furry to eat.
Speaking of furriness, sale of the seals' silky pelts has also been a traditional source of income for Canada's 6,000 sealers. The sale of seal meat makes more use of a carcass, as does utilizing both the hide and loins of a cow. We were ready to support the sealers' share of the local Quebecois economy, but how?
Closing in on Free-range Flippers
We took the metro to Wellington Avenue, a funky thoroughfare of the riverfront neighborhood of Verdun. The avenue showcases a microcosm of the city's multicultural fabric, featuring Vietnamese, Turkish, and Lebanese restaurants sprinkled between musical instrument shops and cafes that serve fair trade coffee. In the midst of all its international amenities, the avenue returns to the province's own heritage, albeit from an archipelago hundreds of miles away, with the restaurant Les Iles en Ville (The islands in the city), a reference to the Magdalen Islands. Les Iles en Ville is one of only two restaurants in Montreal that serves seal.
The colors of the interior—bright blue, yellow, and red—took us back to the clapboard houses poking out from the bare, shorn hills of the islands. All staff were Madelinots. The chef lives upstairs. Where there are Madelinots, there is seal. We were encouraged.
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