Labour dispute threatens fishy treat

Fish and brewis has been a popular dish in Newfoundland and Labrador for generations, but its fans are without a key ingredient.

Fish and brewis has been a popular dish in Newfoundland and Labrador for many generations, but fans of the comfort food are scrambling for a key ingredient that's been knocked off the market by a St. John's labour dispute.

To make brewis — it rhymes with "bruise" — a cook needs hard tack, or hard bread, that needs to be soaked in water for many hours before it can be cooked.

However, the only company that manufactures hard tack is Purity Factories, which has not produced anything, including its range of cookies, biscuits and syrups, since it locked out its workers in early September in a fight over wages and benefits.

Many stores have run out of hard tack, leaving aficionados wondering how they'll be able to make fish and brewis without it.

"I stocked up as far as I could," said Velma Rose, whose Velma's restaurant on Water Street in downtown St. John's is a favourite with locals and tourists for homegrown Newfoundland cooking.

"I sell a lot of it, so today is the last one that will be made until I can somehow come up with hard bread," she said in an interview this week.

Hard tack dates back to the era before refrigeration, when outports were often cut off from shipments of fresh goods for long periods of time.

The item still has a following, though, particularly to get the authentic flavours for brewis, which is often mixed with saltback pork.

"It's got a taste all its own. A lot of things in cooking you can substitute something, but you can't for this," said writer Des Walsh, who has just two pieces of hard tack left, and not enough for a proper meal.

"It's one of those things — when it' s not there, it's kind of when you miss it the most."