And for good reason. That night, they offered seal five different ways. We ordered them all, a venerable pinniped pig-out that began with smoked seal—tender, lean slices suggesting a mild roast beef, in turn suggesting phantom rye bread, mustard, and dill pickles. The terrine and rillettes, with their added pork, put forth a heavier experience one would seek when the ground is frozen solid in January and an extra layer of body fat would not be a bad idea. The former was slightly livery, the latter more meaty, both equally spreadable. And both were whisker-free.
Waiting for the two final courses, I scanned a few black and white photos of fishermen cheerfully holding up cod, and followed the wood trim to the corner, where a mandolin, violin, and guitar hung, ready for a jam session of Madelinot folk melodies. Donald Painchaud, one of the owners who doubled as our waiter, mentioned that the band—that is to say, the Painchaud family, better known as the restaurant staff—plays several nights a week.
But another equally harmonious Madelinot accompaniment appeared on our plates: a brandy-cranberry sauce adorned both the seal sausage and seal steak entrees. I remember walking through the cranberry fields on the coast of Ile du Cap aux Meules, the central-most island of the archipelago, hearing the dull bonks of dry-picked cranberries hitting bottoms of plastic buckets. The field was near the coast where roly-poly seals arrive on ice floes in winter. Coincidence? I don't think so. The simple but magnetic combination—the tang of the cranberries balancing the meaty seal like blood brothers reuniting—echoed the culinary maxim of what grows together goes together. Yet each entrée offered its own personality, the sausage slightly sweet, reminiscent of wild boar, while the steak, flying solo without any porcine buttress, reflected the forward flavor of a free-range animal that enjoyed a protein-rich seafood diet. No factory farm antibiotics, no pastures, no deforestation. And it's a surprisingly versatile protein. I began to fantasize about seal sliders, seal poutine, maybe some indulgent chicken-fried seal…
Ginette Painchaud, the chef, emerged from the open kitchen. She had a matronly air without bearing the matronly mark of age. She shook our hands and asked us how we heard about the restaurant. Easy: I googled "Montreal" and "seal meat" together. Little turned up besides her restaurant. And several anti-sealing sites. Protesters claimed that seal meat has no market, it is an unsightly black, and it doesn't taste good.
For sure, the meat is lean, and to summon flavor from seal worthy of a linen-napkin dinner is a matter of knowing how to prepare it. No one should forget that lobster, too, was once viewed as sea junk. Lobster easily becomes tough and inedible in the pot of an inexperienced cook. But in the care of a knowledgeable chef, the overgrown sea bug becomes a tender entrée associated with luxury, taste, and seduction. Who knows? Seal may eventually become the gastronomic equivalent of a Barry White song.
But not quite yet. There is still just one licensed purveyor of seal meat in all of Quebec. Ginette is hopeful, though. "People thought I was crazy to open up a restaurant that serves seal and other seafood from the Magdalen Islands," she said. "Now we are on our third year."
Learning a little Frenglish
After dinner, at the restaurant's bar, we met Maurice, the family elder. My wife mentioned that when we visited the islands, we became enchanted with how the distinctly colored houses stood out on the treeless hills. He related stories of how the islanders used the house colors as landmarks for navigating the roads. "This was before GPS," he added. He also told a story of a real estate developer who attempted to build tall, hotel-like buildings on island, but the islanders stopped him. I could see why. The buildings would have ruined navigation.
In the company of the Painchaud family, I felt as if I could have been chatting with purveyors of jamon serrano in Spain, or shrimpers of the Louisiana Bayou. There was an undeniable connection to a localized lifestyle, one the family felt was worth preserving, and worth exporting—at least to other parts of the province.
I explained to Donald the difficulty we had experienced in finding the meat, and how I avoided a certain word. His grin, which had carried a touch of mischief in the corners, now grew wide and playful. "The hair on a seal's head is soft like cotton, or ouate (pronounced like "watt"). We call it ouate de phoque." Cross-language word play: a serendipitous benefit of a bilingual society.
Donald clearly beat out my seal flipper imitation for entertainment value. But I think I'll still avoid using his phrase in the markets of Montreal.
Darrin DuFord's debut book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also written articles for The San Francisco Chronicle, Transitions Abroad, World Hum, and Gastronomica, among others. Read his latest ruminations on travel and food on his blog, OmnivorousTraveler.wordpress.com.
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