“I grew up one of six siblings—three girls and three boys. During the day our mother and several other ladies would go out berry picking. They’d mark the trail with blue ribbons, so when we got home from school, we’d follow the ribbons and go out and pick with the grown-ups,” says 44-year-old Mona Brown of Fogo Island, Newfoundland.
Today, Mona is one of the busiest foragers on the island. She has supplied local businesses such as Fogo Island Inn, Growlers Ice Cream Store and Nicole’s Café with gallons of fruits during the past few berry seasons. She begins with bakeapples in the summer and ends with partridgeberries and marshberries in the fall.
Mona also makes and sells her own jams in Hart House Museum & Craft Shop. She opened the museum in 2009, in the house where her Great Uncle Tom raised her father.
When Tom bought the house, he moved it from the far side of his community, Joe Batt’s Arm, with the help of around 300 men. They rolled it on logs down to the harbour, across the frozen ice, then back up over the land to where it stands today.
Mona lives with her family next door. She converted Tom’s home six years after he passed away, essentially by putting up a MUSEUM sign in the front yard.
“About 95 percent of the old things were already here, I didn’t have much work to do,” Mona says, gesturing towards her displays in the living room.
Downstairs there are all kinds of trinkets and treasures. In the main display area, there’s a mini box-like cast-iron wood stove with a fish form and “Little Cod” engraved onto the front, in which fishermen boiled fish on their boats. In the back, a peacock-pretty cash register from a local grocery store announces sales with a bright ker-ching!
In the seafoam green kitchen at the back are lined up homemade jams, pickles and canned seal. Mona’s jam recipe is so simple that she looks puzzled when asked for a recipe: “All I do is put the pot of berries on the wood stove and let it simmer away, as I go about my day. Then I’ll add sugar at the end and bottle it.”
But these homecrafting traditions are being lost with the younger generation. “My kids don’t even eat jam,” says Mona, laughing.
Last year, Mona started foraging with English botanist Fraser Carpenter, who spends summers on Fogo Island. Mona wanted to learn about other edible plants, such as beach peas—like regular garden peas only smaller and ready-seasoned by the salty air—or chickweed, which has a sweet flavor and adds delicate crunch to salads. At first, these outings along the shoreline felt strange to the islander.
“Years ago we had slop pails here, before the sewers came in, and we emptied them into the ocean. As kids we were told: ‘Don’t eat anything from the cove!’ I’m still getting used to eating what’s down there.”
Fraser taught Mona how to make dandelion honey (syrup) by boiling down the flower heads, straining off the water, then sweetening it and reducing it till it thickens. It’s floral and delicious–perfect for sweetening teas, pouring over ice cream or spreading on toast.
As well as expanding her foraging and preserving repertoire, Mona has begun leading edible-plant walks in summer, at Fogo Island Inn, since working with the botanist.
She takes people out across the berry patch, where wild blueberries grow intertwined with juniper, mingling their flavours. Scrambling over the rocks, you spot oyster leaf growing out of the cracks, in lilac flower-tipped vines, like succulent climbing ivy. Spongy, ivory-white caribou moss underfoot makes it feel like you’re treading on a mattress as you pass a cemetery of marble tombstones peeking out over tall grasses.
Many of the plants people see on Mona’s walks, they’ll also see—and taste—on their plate or in their glass later when they’re dining and drinking at the inn.
Through this work, and sharing her stories and preserves at the museum, Mona is breathing new life into traditions that have existed on Fogo Island for four centuries.
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Partridgeberries are the last berry to grow in fall. They have a distinctive tangy flavour and are rich and juicy. You mustn’t pick them too early, or you risk finding moth larvae inside. They work their way out around the beginning of September, before the berries fully ripen. Mona likes to taste the tartness of partridgeberries in her jam, and she prefers a just-set, syrupy consistency. You can adjust the sugar and water quantities for a sweeter taste or thicker texture.
1 gallon partridgeberries
2 cups sugar (adjust to taste)
1 cup water (adjust to taste)
On the stovetop in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan, add berries and water, to prevent sticking. Bring just to a boil then reduce heat to very low and simmer for around two hours, stirring occasionally. When boiled down, stir in sugar, cook for 1 minute, then remove from heat and bottle in sterilized jars. (Makes around 4 L)