A real spring is great, but a boil-up is even better
Andie Bulman discovers a local tradition, and provides a bread recipe perfect for a boil-up of your own
In other parts of Canada, cherry blossoms are budding, teenagers are wearing shorts, and gardens are being started. Not here, though.
Newfoundland and Labrador doesn't have many cherry trees, shorts stay packed away until July, and anything planted outside now would be dead before nightfall.
But this province does have one tradition that makes up for most of these seasonal shortcomings: spring in Newfoundland and Labrador is boil-up season.
From February to May, we trek into the woods, build fires and sip tea mixed with tinned milk while huddling near a warming flame.
I, on the other hand, usually spend these months hiding in my house, watching Netflix and working my way through the aisle's worth of chip flavours.
This is not the healthiest way to spend a season, so this year I vowed to get out and enjoy a few boil-ups.
This tradition should be right up my alley — I'm a chef and I love smoky food. But the idea of lugging a bunch of cooking gear into the woods on my day off has prevented me from taking advantage of boil-up season in the past.
This year, I decided, that would change.
Boil-up vs. mug-up
I'm not from this province originally, so boil-up wasn't familiar to me. Neither was its cousin, the mug-up. I once accidently confused the two at a party, only to be enthusiastically corrected by everyone there.
Chastised, I reached out to Phillip Hiscock, a retired folklore professor from Memorial University, to find out a bit more about the origins of these two expressions.
I assumed mug-ups had come from the British tradition of four o'clock teatime, but Hiscock set me straight, telling me that a century ago, fishing families would eat six or seven smaller meals over the course of a day at the height of the fishing season, fitting them in around the work from the early morning hours to the late evenings.
"It is that sort of thing which is the grandparent of the modern mug-up," Hiscock said.
Interestingly, the boil-up seems to have an even longer history, telling me about a report from the 1600s of someone using "boil the kettle" as meaning "to have something to eat, including a cup of tea." This, of course, is still a widely used phrase in the province.
In the current usage in the province, a boil-up is essentially an outdoor winter picnic in the woods or on a beach, and a mug-up refers to taking a break to enjoy a cup of tea — kind of like the local version of the Swedish tradition of fika.
Into the woods
Armed with some knowledge, I recently went into the woods with my friend Brendan Walsh for my first Newfoundland boil-up.
Brendan is a real expert. He has boil-ups several times a week throughout the winter and spring. He asked me to pick up matches, crusty bread and water for the kettle while he provided the mugs, plates, tea, cans of beans, hotdogs, tinned milk and a beautiful cast-iron kettle. That sounds like a lot of gear, but it all fit into one bag.
As we hiked, we chatted and gathered dry scraps of wood. Once we found the spot, I sat and tried to calm my dog — keen on the scent of rabbits — while Brendan built the fire.
Everything was vaguely smoky, the bread was lightly toasted, and I've never had a better cup of tea. My Come From Away status has led me to turn up my nose at tinned milk in the past, but it's surprisingly delicious.
Boil-ups are a proud Newfoundland and Labrador tradition. They are infinitely better than most everything on Netflix, and are only a little harder to execute than firing up a binge watch. I've included a recipe here for honey buttermilk bread that will go down nicely with your next cup of tea. Just like a boil-up, it takes a bit of work — but it's worth it.
Buttermilk Honey Bread
Total Time: 4 hours
Don't be scared off by the time estimate — most of it is spent waiting for the dough to rise, which is time you can use to do other things, even leave your house.
Yield: 1 loaf of bread
1/4 cup water (warmed, 110 F)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, warmed
1/3 cup of Lester's Farm Wildflower honey — local honey makes a big difference in the flavour and supports a local business
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp salt
4 cups + 1/2 to 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly whisked for brushing
Kosher salt, for sprinkling
Optional: ½ tsp lavender sugar
Mix the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Most people don't have a digital thermometer at home, so the water should be the temperature of bath water. Let it get nice and foamy for about 7 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 4 cups of the flour and all of the salt.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the buttermilk and warm gently. Remove from heat and stir in the honey and the yeast mixture.
Dump the buttermilk yeast mixture into the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon to form a shaggy dough. Once it comes together, throw some of the remaining flour onto your table and start kneading until you've got a firm, elastic dough. This should take about 5 to 7 minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball and set in a lightly oiled bowl. Sprinkle with a bit of flour and cover with a clean towel. The dough needs to rise for 2 full hours. Set a timer, get a glass of wine and curl up with a book while it does the work for you.
Once your timer goes off, punch that dough down, form a loaf, place it into an oiled loaf pan, cover the pan with a towel, and let rise for another hour.
This is a good time to preheat your oven to 375 F.
Once the second rise is finished, brush the loaf with the egg wash, sprinkle with some salt (Newfoundland Sea Salt Company's salt would be ideal), and maybe add a dusting of lavender sugar. You can have fun and improvise at this step — rosemary would work well, but the possibilities are endless.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-45 minutes until golden and hollow sounding when knocked on the bottom. A thermometer should read about 190 F when the bread is done. If the top seems to be getting too brown, cover with foil for the rest of the bake time.
Allow to cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 30 minutes to an hour before slicing. It will be tempting, but try to resist cutting into it early!