Fish and Brewis – Classic Salt Cod Comfort from Newfoundland

A traditional Newfoundland dish with the peculiar name Fish and Brewis (bruise) is one of the cultural elements that have been lost since the days of the Gloucester Schooner fleet. I hear it referenced now and again when I listen to the hokey but fun tunes on the Jigg’s Dinner Canadian radio program.

Back in the days of sail, when Gloucester was the greatest fishing port in the Western Hemisphere, much of the famous schooner fleet was made up of “white-washed yankees.” Men from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland who became US citizens in order to prosper doing what they did back home: catch fish.

Those days are gone of course, but we still have connections to our cousins up North. We still race our dories against the Lunenburgers and many of us Gloucesterites have some Novie and Newfoundlander blood within us. However, one thing that I wish still lingered is the food traditions that these burly men used to keep up their strength out on the banks.

salt fish

What they ate out there, especially the men who fished for weeks or months in the salt cod industry, was certainly not health food. If you were lucky enough to survive a lifetime out in a two-man dory hauling fish in by hand, you usually had a heart-attack or stroke in your future.

Fresh food ran out quick on a schooner with 18-24 hungry fishermen, and what they did eat was loaded with salt, and usually cooked in fatback (my god that sounds so good). In lieu of much sleep, these men ate to keep going and so a good cook was a vital cog in this fishing machine.

Fish and Brewis
Credit: Keith Pomakis CC BY-SA 3.0

Surprisingly the Nova Scotians and Newfoundlanders did not eat as much fresh fish out there as you would think, but they did like an occasional fish chowder. When they ate fish at all, what these men looked forward to was an old favorite from home called fish and brewis (pronounced fish and bruise) that is still popular in Newfoundland.

It wasn’t just the fishermen who enjoyed this hearty (and heart threatening) dish. I found this exceprt from a book about a sealing expedition’s enjoyment of fish and brewis.

Fish an’ brewis;, how many youse?” It rhymed, for brewis; is pronounced “bruise.” “Anny man don’t get up to braffus got to go widout un!” As the men told how many portions they wanted for themselves and for those they were serving, the cooks slopped out the famous dish renowned in Newfoundland lore: hard-bread boiled with cod. “Putt a little grase on un, b’ys. An’ gi’s us a drap o’ tay, too, ye sons o’ guffies!” Liberally the cooks drenched the fish and brewis; with liquid pork grease and bits of crackling. With this, the sealers jostled away to their foul, underdeck quarters, to crouch and eat…

You can boil the hard-bread and fish in water or milk; condensed milk if you can’t get fresh, which generally you can’t. To thousands of Newfoundlanders it furnishes a staple, the hard-bread substituting for vegetables. As for “fish,” that always means cod. The story is time worn of the old livyere exclaiming: “If ye can’t gi’ us fish, gi’ us haddock!”

Vikings of the Ice – George Allan England (1924)

How to Make Fish and Brewis: Bonita’s Kitchen

The other day I found this great video by the lovely Bonita on how to make fish and brewis, which has only made me want to try it more.

I have wanted to try this for some time, but one of the ingredients – hard tack or another hard-baked bread – isn’t something I’ve seen locally. I’ll have to get some of my friends together to try it since nobody in my house wants to try it.

There is another variation that Bonita mentions called fisherman’s brewis that is the same dish, but you keep the ingredients separate. I personally think mixing it all together sounds much better, a real comfort food dish that has the potential to change my opinion on salt cod.

If you want to try it yourself, check out the recipe over at Bonita’s Kitchen along with many other traditional Newfoundland dishes.