Feast and forage in Newfoundland

Making authentic connections with a local taste of food, culture, and nature

  • Sep 28, 2023
  • 1,064 words
  • 5 minutes
Chanterelles freshly foraged from the earth. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image

Never pass up an opportunity to let locals guide you into their world and cook you a meal in their house. Especially if you’re visiting Newfoundland, and those locals happen to be Chef Alexandra Blagdon and her cousin, cookbook author and culinary ambassador Lori McCarthy. It’s super fun to have Alex’s Nan at the table too.

Located about a 40-minute drive from St John’s, The Alder Cottage Cookery School offers in-person and online classes, dining experiences, and foraging excursions to nearby forests and beaches. We park at a trailhead not far from Alex’s cottage in Tor’s Cove and don’t get 20 steps in before she stops by an alder tree to explain how the buds can be ground into a lemony, peppery spice. A few steps later, she invites me to crush larch needles between my fingers to release an earthy, citrusy aroma, which Alex recommends for fish and chicken. Another few steps later, she hunches over some creeping snowberries, raving about their minty, wintergreen flavour. We pick juniper berries and chat about toxic rhododendrons, discuss fiddleheads, and the futility of baking with tart, tiny crowberries. The lush coastal forest of Newfoundland offers a bounty of unique and natural cooking ingredients, and thanks to the efforts of foragers like Alex and Lori, these ingredients now find their way into local restaurants and kitchens.

Alexandra Blagdon finds a bounty of chanterelles. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image
Alex Blagdon, Lori McCarthy and Nan Gerri. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image

“We grew up in the forests and on the beaches,” explains Alex, recalling how her grandmother was raised without a refrigerator, gathering produce from the wild the way one might shop at a modern grocer. Poor families would add seafood, foraged herbs, fungi and root vegetables in a large pot over a beach fire out of necessity. The origin of the hip summer boil-up lies in the fact that families only owned one large pot, and there were a lot of mouths to feed. 

Alex Blagdon in the kitchen. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image

Alex spots a cluster of forest gold: chanterelles sprouting from the moss. She pulls out a knife, severs the stems, and happily loads up her basket. When she started foraging with Lori, they took their foraged plants and fungi to a local university to be identified as safe to eat. These days, apps help to instantly identify different species, there are bestselling books (like Lori and Marsha Tulk’s Food, Culture, Place), and local foragers know exactly what they’re looking for. Alex hands me a small, raw chanterelle to sample. I plop it in my mouth and instantly get walloped with a multitude of spicy, earthy flavours. Having gathered beach salads like sea rocket, beach pea and the parsley-like Scots lovage, it’s time to escape the soft rain for the kitchen.

Trained as a chef in Ireland, Alex cut her teeth as a sous chef for restaurants in Newfoundland, France, New York, and her favourite, Italy. The homely cottage she shares with her husband – also a chef – is instantly inviting. She hands me slippers “knitted by Nan,” and we gather at the large kitchen island with a view of an expansive garden and lake. Fireweed dries in the window, mason jars pickle on the shelves, and smooth jazz plays on the stereo. The walls are decorated with tasteful art and family heirlooms, and the warm, wood interior is exactly what’s needed for a wet summer afternoon. It’s a scene that homely restaurants aspire to because it is indeed somebody’s home. From her cottage, Alex offers seasonal cooking classes, a popular Underground Supper Club, and multi-day culinary retreats. Lori, a passionate advocate for coastal foraging and game cooking, often participates, as does Alex’s grandmother Gerri, who imparts her culinary wisdom from eras past. Both show up for lunch, and we effortlessly chat about this, that and the other at a large homemade wooden dining table that took years to complete. Across Newfoundland, everyone and everything has a story. The afternoon floats into a six-course meal that Alex prepares from her kitchen, using freshly pestled alder and other plants we’d just foraged that afternoon.

Marinated mussels. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image

Ripe garden tomatoes explode in my mouth, seasoned with larch salt, homemade ricotta, nasturtium leaf, and purple chive flowers. Lori talks about creating locally sourced menus for Can Geo Official Partner Adventure Canada, which presented plenty of challenges in more remote areas. Delectable local marinated mussels arrive in fine olive oil to be dipped with puffy homemade brioche. A savoury macaroon palette cleanser is served with alder, chicken pate and partridgeberry relish. 

Gerri tells us about her childhood, how potatoes were kept on shelves built into the cool well, and how game was hunted by women as well as men. Newfoundlanders have always sustained themselves with the bounty from land and sea. Alex gives me some tips to make her delicious chanterelle pasta and follows it up with freshly caught pan-fried cod served with tomato gazpacho and beach pea. We talk about kids, Indigenous food, about travelling, and how fine dining can err on the side of pretentiousness. 

“In the past, everything was homemade, it was all real food,” explains Lori.  “Newfoundlanders wouldn’t have been able to survive without our food culture. My fridge is full of fur and feathers. Everybody’s got a six-foot freezer, and it isn’t for their husband!” The hours dissolve with the afternoon candlelight.

We finish up with Alex’s wildflower meringue served with mascarpone pastry cream, poached garden rhubarb, lilac, and fireweed. It’s been an extraordinary meal, forest to table, perhaps the most authentic foodie experience I’ve enjoyed anywhere in the world.  Best of all, this Alder Cottage Cookery School experience is available to both locals and visitors (bookings can be made online). Those looking for authentic encounters can expect to forage, feast, and connect in this warm, home-spun celebration of Newfoundland’s food, culture, and nature.

Tomatoes seasoned with larch salt homemade ricotta nasturtium leaf, and purple chive flowers. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
Expand Image

Watch Lori’s TED Talk about food culture in Atlantic Canada. 


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

Olympia oysters in water


Olympia oysters show resilience to ocean acidification, study finds

A new study out of Oregon State University offers hope that some marine animals possess natural defenses to ocean acidification

  • 775 words
  • 4 minutes


Robert Courteau on the fungiverse beneath our feet

The fun guy behind the mushroom hunt that became North America’s largest fungi bioblitz

  • 1303 words
  • 6 minutes


Farming a changing sea

Struggle and success in Atlantic Canada, where aquaculturists strive to overcome climate change and contamination while chasing a sustainable carbon footprint 

  • 4058 words
  • 17 minutes

Science & Tech

The hidden world of fungi

As fungi bloom into the mainstream, a research station hidden in the B.C. Rainforest aims to uncover some of the mysteries of mushrooms 

  • 2277 words
  • 10 minutes