17 January 2014

The Island. The Winter.

In which Fefe Noir and caribougrrl are reminded what winter on an island in the North Atlantic Ocean can be like.  Plus, instructions for making corn tortillas whether the power is on or not.

Even the boats outside our kitchen window were feeling the cold during the polar vortex.

When you live on a large island with highways and cities*, cheap long distance phone rates, television, radio, and the miracle of the internet, it can be easy to forget you live on an island.  Not forget, exactly, just not think much about it.  Then, out of the blue, a series of events can stick you in the eye with how very much indeed you live on an island.

*well, one city anyway... er, with a bit more than 100,000 people - twice that if you count the sprawling suburban/ superural area around the city

The Deep Freeze

Winter happens every year, it's no surprise.  Contrary to popular belief, a vast expanse of Canada gets much harsher winters than Newfoundland does.  Sure, the Labrador current is like a refrigerator for the island, but we're still surrounded by water, so we aren't used to the extreme cold of a continental winter. 

But, hoo boy, did we get cold.  Laugh if you will (I probably would before I was acclimatized), but we were well below freezing for days (double digits Celsius below freezing! during the day!)... with wind chill temps that made you look around for Dementors, just in case.  Unfairly, we also got snow.  (We labour under the illusion here that it can either be bitterly cold or it can snow, but not both.)  Massive amounts of snow fell over several days...10 cm here, 35 cm there... and it added up. and it piled up.  We shoveled ourselves into fatigue. 
The snow was pushed up level with the eight-foot
retaining wall that runs along the side of our property.

So we hunkered down and stayed inside.  Perhaps we let our cupboards deplete in an attempt to add more insulation to our frames and, let's face it, to avoid the cold 14-second walk between the house and the car.  Besides, we were still leftover-turkey-complacent and steamed-pudding-sluggish.

Our thermostats fought against the deep freeze.  'Twas the season that many were home rather than at work or school, so our thermostats didn't get a break during the day.  Feeling like we could never get warm, we might have even turned up the heat because you can only put on so many layers of wool socks before you can't actually walk.    

The Wind

Along with the snow and the cold, it was windy, making both seem worse.  It's no surprise though, Newfoundland is a windy place: gusts in the 60-100 km/hr range are not all that unusual.  The thing is, our connection to the rest of the world relies heavily on our ferry system.  Stormy weather leaves those ferries tied up at the docks instead of making the crossing.  Which leaves produce sitting in trucks, going nowhere and feeding no one, as it continues to approach it's sell-by date.  Then when it does get here, blowing snow slows traffic to a crawl, causes accidents, closes highways, and generally creates further delay.

The province only produces a fraction of the vegetables and fruit we consume. In the mid-late summer and through the fall, getting a variety of local produce from the garden, from farm markets and from roadside stalls is fairly easy with little effort. By late December, the garden has long stopped producing and the markets are shut down until the new season. We are more reliant than any other time of year on supplies from the mainland, at precisely the time when transit is most unpredictable.

The more disruptions to the ferry schedule, the emptier our shelves and refrigerators got.  Normally common items became rare.  Coming up to New Year's Eve, it took stopping at 5 stores in 3 different towns before finding a bunch of green onions. 

All that snow we were shoveling in the frigid air was blowing back in our faces anyway.  More motivation to retreat to our houses, turn our electric fire places on and watch a marathon of Glee.

The Power Outage

The lights went out.  The lights, the heat, the stove, the hot water.

The refrigerator and freezer cases in the shops. 

Toasting orange-almond flavoured marshmallows over
an open candle fire was a good replacement for screen-time.
Rolling blackouts had been going on for days, no big deal: an hour to two without power.  We were vaguely aware that there was some sort of scheduled or unscheduled maintenance at a generating station, and what with all that heat being turned up it was no big surprise when the cordless phone beeped its protest at suddenly and unceremoniously being shut off.  What was a surprise was finding out it wasn't a planned outage.  The entire island was in the dark. 

The entire 110,000 km2 island.  Because of a transformer fire.  Okay, a big important transformer by the sounds of it, but still, what a way to find out we're wired up in series instead of parallel. 

But the power companies and the Powers That Be reassured us. 

Not to worry, the light and power b'ys were hard at it (and they really were, I'm not being saucy) and additional help was on its way.  From the mainland.  They could get here in two days.  As long as the weather cooperated...

Not to worry, this was all perfectly normal: if you stress the system, things go wrong. Electrical doohickey bits and pieces trip to prevent problems. Large bangs and blue-green flashes and fires are just part of doing business.

Not to worry, some minor overcapacity issues.  The only thing that's wrong here is that we're on an island.  By 2017, we'll be all geared up to tap into the continental power grid if we need some extra juice once in a while. 

Nothing to see.  Move along.

In the meantime, in the cold and dark, we began to regret staying at home eating our way through our pantries...

Why (a) you shouldn't throw out the burnt batch of pork
buns and (b) maybe you shouldn't bother putting away
your barbecue for the winter: you may need to produce a
feast during a power outage.
Chez The Moose Curry Experience, we were luckier than many.  A 20-ish hour blackout followed by power for most of the day, then a 14 hour black out.  I'm not sure if our house guests saw how lucky they were, but we managed alright.  What was probably the best cup of coffee in the history of time (or tea, or hot chocolate depending who's mug you sipped from) was produced with water boiled up on a campstove.  Sure, we looked a bit kooky, playing Doctor Who Yahtzee by candlelight, wearing an assortment of mix and match hats and scarves and socks and robes, but we were warm enough.  And there were left over slightly burnt New Year's Eve pork buns in the freezer which, wrapped up in aluminum foil, heated up rather nicely on the barbecue I had serendipitously not managed to put away for the winter yet.  And we learned that home made marshmallows toast up nicely with a fork, an unscented candle and a bit of patience.

Post-Apocalypse Shopping

I made the mistake of going into a grocery store the day the power came back on.  I was over-tired, not because of hardship, but because of an early morning trip to the airport of deliver house guests into Air Travel in the Canadian Winter, which would subsequently turn their 3 hour flight into a 36 hours adventure of delays, cancellations, re-bookings, more delays and misdirected luggage.  But I digress...  

The supermarket was complete and absolute madness.  The battery displays were stripped bare, bottled water shelves were practically empty... nary a candle, flashlight, propane cylinder, or Sterno can to be had. 

I got swept up in all the panic.  I know full well that it's obscene to buy canned salmon when you live in a place that produces fresh salmon year round.  Yet there I was, standing in line with 2 cans of baked beans, a tin of salmon and what might, for all I knew, be the last bag of masa harina on the island.  It was certainly the last bag on the shelves of one of the largest grocery stores and although I walked by it initially, I practically ran back when I started to worry that might be my last chance ever to buy masa harina.  (Ridiculous, I admit, but the atmosphere was heavy with foreboding, it's amazing I didn't buy every olive in the store, just in case...)

Besides, tortillas are cooked on dry cast iron, which means they can be done with a skillet and a single-burner camp stove.  And the dough doesn't require precise measurement, as long as you know what it should feel like.  You can make them in the dark, more or less.  Perfect bread for a power outage.  And 2017 is still a few years away.

Lettuce could not be got for love nor money...
But never mind the mad-rush-anxiety-shopping that happened in those brief interludes between power outages.  A full week after our last blackout, the shelves in the grocery stores still hadn't recovered.  I can only hope this is because the delays at the ferry docks are still causing slow downs in deliveries, but I can't discount the possibility that what arrived was in such poor shape it never made it to the shelves.  And if that's the case, it's frightening if the best of the shipment was put out.  What little fresh produce could be found was in sad, sad shape.  Tomatoes that were flat on one side and held your finger prints if you dared pick them up.  Lettuce that looked like it was dug out of our composter.  Wax beans better suited as kindling than as food. 

Or is this just the state of Newfoundland in the winter?  Do I forget year to year as a defense mechanism against fear and dread?

Not to worry, there's always root vegetables.  Guaranteed Fefe Noir can find some devious way to serve turnip up in a tortilla. 


How to Make Corn Tortillas

for 8 small or 6 medium tortillas:

1 c. masa harina
a good pinch of salt
3/4 c. water

In a mixing bowl, combine masa harina and salt.  Add water in mix with a fork or your fingers until thoroughly combined.  The dough will form large clumps and crumbles but will stick together easily with a bit of pressure.  If it doesn't stick easily, add water, a bit at a time until it does.  If it feels like it's actually wet, add masa harina a bit at a time until it feels like fresh playdough.  Knead lightly a few times in the bowl until it forms a ball.

Don't worry if some of the balls of dough are smaller or
larger than the others.  Unless you are obsessive that way.
Break dough into 6 or 8 pieces about equal in size, but don't get hung up about even-sized pieces.  Worst case scenario, you have a tortilla or two bigger or smaller than the rest.  Roll the pieces into round balls.

If you have a tortilla press, get it out.  Put your cast iron skillet, dry, on med-high heat.  Tear off a sheet of plastic wrap big enough to lay over the top and bottom parts of the press.  (In my ideological fight against plastic wrap, I have tried waxed paper, parchment paper, and used plastic bags, but have had to admit that plastic wrap works best here.  I am, however, open to suggestions for things I haven't tried yet.)  Place a ball of dough on the press, just above center (toward the hinge).  Lower the top, press with the lever and, voila, beautiful round tortilla.

Top left: Plastic wrap is draped over both sides of the press.  Place the ball just above center, toward the hinge.  Top right: Drop the upper plate, then press down with the lever.  Bottom left: Nearly effortless round tortilla.  Bottom right: Cook tortillas in a dry cast iron skillet.  Or if you are so lucky to have one, more than one at a time on a griddle.
If you don't have a tortilla press, you can roll these out with a rolling pin, but you should consider buying a press.  It might be the best $15 I ever spent. 

Place the tortilla on your hot skillet cooking for about 1 minute on each side.  Adjust the heat as needed to cook through in the two minutes, but not so high as to burn it.   You have time to press the next tortilla while this one cooks.

Cover cooked tortillas with a cloth to slow the escape of
steam and soften the tortillas.
As the tortillas are cooked, put them on a heat proof plate and cover with a cloth napkin or tea towel.  The cloth will slow the escape of steam, and this is what makes the tortillas soft and flexible.  Stack them up under the cloth and leave them there until you are ready to eat. 

If you won't be using them right away, allow them to cool completely, then wrap and store in an airtight container at room temp (if you are using in the next couple days) or in the freezer (thaw before use).  To soften them up, you can reheat on a hot dry cast iron skillet, one at a time, or you can wrap the whole stack in aluminium foil and heat in a 350 F oven for about 10 minutes.


  1. Cheers for the tortilla recipe. It has been SO hot here! I am only just starting to think of wanting to cook again. If we could have lived on raw carrots I think we would have over the last week it was that hot. I am SO looking forward to autumn :)

    1. I was reading about your very hot weather... while your candles melted in the heat, we had ice building up in our dishwasher. It would be tempting to suggest we trade weather, but I probably handle very cold much better than very hot. Maybe just lay a skillet out in the sun for cooking some tortillas! :)

  2. Glad to hear you too weathered the storm ok. I agree, the BBQ is pretty much essential when this sort of thing happens, especially if you're on electric heat! We did a couple of frozen pizzas on the BBQ, as well as some assorted frozen nibblies.

    1. Amazing what a bit of warm food can do to make you comfortable in a cold house, isn't it? Hadn't thought of pizza, but I'm adding it to my mental list of things I can cook in the winter on the bbq. Thanks for reading us, Matt.


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