(Îles-de-la-Madeleine) Do you want to eat less farmed meat? That it is hormone-free and local? Madelinots have the solution: opt for the seal. Young hunters and entrepreneurs want to breathe new life into this traditional hunt. And that goes through the plate of Quebecers.
Posted on 13 Jul 2019
rectifying the seal
” Seventy-five. “
There’s a touch of pride in Gil Thériault’s voice as he utters those words. Seventy-five people applied for their first seal hunting license this year and received the mandatory preliminary training. “That’s a lot!” notes the director of the Intra-Quebec Seal Hunters Association.
Very ? Yes, when you consider that seal hunting is no longer a shadow of what it was on the Islands 10 years ago. In 2009, the last year before the European seal embargo came into effect, 20,314 seals were killed in Quebec, compared with a few hundred in 2018. Of the roughly 600 hunters who still have a hunting license in the Magdalen Islands, Gil Thériault estimates that at most 10% still use it. And they do it more often for recreational than commercial purposes.
But now, for the last couple of years, the wind has turned gently on the islands. “We are starting a 2.0 era of seal hunting”, summarizes Gil Thériault. Two Quebec companies have committed to relaunch the marketing of hunted seal products (at least in part) in the Magdalen Islands sector with a very different approach to that prior to the embargo: these companies mainly target the Quebec market. We want a stable market that does not suffer from foreign policies. But above all, we now want to use the animal from snout to tail, from fur to bone, marketing both the meat, the skin and the fat of the animal, whereas before it was essentially due to the skin, at the price of which was extremely volatile, depending on of the designers’ collections.
And that perspective attracts. “We’ve noticed real enthusiasm this year,” says Gil Thériault, all the more notable for mainly affecting young people. Intra-Quebec Seal Hunters Association President Jonathan Vigneau has just turned 25; Jacques Leblanc, chef at the Alpha bistro, a master in the art of preparing seals, is not yet 30 years old; Justin Turbide took his course last March… at age 15!
Two young women from Quebec are partly responsible for this revival. In 2017, Romy Vaugeois founded the company SeaDNA, specializing in the marketing of omega-3s prepared from seal meat and fat. Her partner, the butcher-and-hunter-Réjean Vigneau, takes care of the preparation and transformation of the meat into sausages, terrines, sausages, jerked beef, lark. The products are sold at their butcher’s in Cap-aux-Meules, where we hope to attract a good number of tourists during their holidays, who will then order more at the restaurant or the delicatessen and fishmongers in their neighborhood (the company has around fifteen sales or delivery points for online orders).
SeaDNA is also behind PhoqueFest, a gourmet festival that has been taking place for two years in Montreal and Quebec at around fifteen restaurants. The chefs served up seal merguez sandwiches (at Pâtes Bol), jerky poutine (Chez Chose), yakitori (at Montréal Plaza) and meatloaf (Chez Boulay, where it’s still on the menu).
“Seal meat has a bad reputation because people often taste it poorly prepared: when overcooked, it becomes dry and its ferrous flavor is quite pronounced. But we finally learned how to prepare it better: it’s delicious and excellent for our health”, explains Jacques Leblanc, chef at the Plongée Alpha bistro.
Jacques Leblanc is one of the Quebec chefs who cooks it more regularly (there is sea bass on the menu every day at the Plongée Alpha bistro in Grande-Entrée) and more skillfully (see the next guide for a recipe). Traditionally, meat is prepared “à la bourguignonne” in a stew, but chefs now recommend “tataki”-style cooking, with carefully expelled meat that, on the plate, resembles caribou.
That said, to seduce the widest audience possible, flavor is not the only argument put forward by seal agents. “It is a local meat, without hormones, very rich in iron, lean, excellent for health”, summarizes the butcher Réjean Vigneau. Well in tune with the times, where the consumer seeks to consume less meat, but of better quality, created nearby and without additives.
But eating seals is also – paradoxically – a way to continue to be able to eat fish, and not least: cod, say hunters and fishermen. “I hunt to keep fishing,” says Jonathan Vigneau. The seals are emptying everything. »
Indeed: stocks have not recovered after the adoption of commercial fishing restrictions, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada recognizes a link between significant adult cod mortality and seal abundance. Gray seals alone are responsible for 50% of the mortality of large cod, “which makes this species a limiting factor in the recovery of the cod stock”, we read on the website Pescas e Oceanos.
However, it is still a long way off when seal hunting will regain its pre-embargo form. Some expeditions take place every year for the seal, which must be hunted on the ice, but the poor configuration of the ice complicates the crews’ task: less than 300 animals were brought back last year and about 700 this year. Hunters think the future lies more in gray seal hunting, which is done on land. His flesh is thinner, less bloody. That’s why Madelinots asked for permission to hunt gray seals on Brion Island, off the coast of the archipelago, where around 10,000 specimens have settled. His request was turned down last November, but Quebec’s new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, André Lamontagne, showed openness in April. Meanwhile, by choice or necessity, it is in small doses that the seal will carve a place on Quebecois plates.
Number of harp seals counted in 2013. “This population has literally exploded to more than triple what it was in 1950,” reads the Quebec government’s 2018 diagnostic portrait of the Quebec seal industry. All things considered, the gray seal population grew even faster, rising from 30,000 to 505,000 individuals between 2000 and 2014.
The presence of omega-3s in seal fat contributes to renewed interest in seal hunting. The company Total Ocean has opened a processing plant in Cap-aux-Meules dedicated to the production of “pharmaceutical grade” oil, says one of its owners, François Gaulin. Eventually, we expect to handle 10,000 to 15,000 seals a year, far beyond current catches near the Magdalen Islands. SeaDNA already markets omega-3 supplements.
We cannot talk about seal hunting without mentioning seal pups, whose image is at the center of campaigns by animal rights groups – and Brigitte Bardot! – against this industry. However, the culling of baby harp seals has been banned since 1987 in Canada.
Cook the seal meat
Three tips for a successful seal meat recipe.
1. Seal fat has a strong fishy flavor and quickly goes rancid: the meat must be degreased well before cooking it (sophisticated butchers do this systematically).
2. Seal meat oxidizes quickly, while at the same time developing a stronger flavor: avoid leaving it outdoors before cooking it.
3. Be careful not to cook the meat too long: too lean, the meat dries out quickly. On the other hand, once cooked, it is imperative to let it rest for about ten minutes before cutting it and serving it to guests so that the blood is distributed on the meat and not on the plate (not very appetizing!).
A recipe by Jacques Leblanc, chef at the Plongée Alpha bistro at the Grande-Entrée
• 1 salted and peppered seal fillet
• 100 ml of soy sauce (the chef recommends using the Kikkoman brand and avoiding the VH brand)
• The juice of a lemon
• 1/2 tsp. Sesame oil
• 1ºC. sriracha sauce
• 1/4 cup frozen cranberries, sliced on a mandolin, lightly dusted with sugar
• 1ºC. tablespoon of seaweed flakes (the chef recommends the Saveurs de Forillon mix, marketed by Un Océan de Saveurs)
• 1 bunch of sliced chives
• 1 pinch of dried bonito flakes
• Canola oil (avoid butter or olive oil, which have a lower smoke point, the chef recommends)
1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat with canola oil. Add the seal fillet before the oil starts to smoke. Sear the meat without touching it, until it releases itself from the bottom of the pan, then turn it over to cook on all sides. The chef recommends cooking the meat rare (take it out when it reaches an internal temperature of around 53°C).
2. Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then cut it against the grain into 1/2 to 1 cm thick slices. Spread on a plate, add the cranberries, chives, vinaigrette and finish with the seaweed and dried fish flakes. Serve.