Mohamed is a bayman. No one had told me that all the Syrians I had known until I met him were of the townie persuasion.
I traveled to Grates Cove to meet Mohamed, his wife Fedaa, and their four sons after receiving a tip that there was a Syrian family in Grates Cove with remarkable food knowledge. Rural Syrians, they come from an agrarian background. Eyes light up as we watch some video of Syrian farmland, of grapes, grains, pistachios and other bounties that, for me, come out of a shipping container just off the Oceanex.
They thought they were headed for Vancouver when they left for Canada as refugees; a place with a climate much more in tune with their skills. Through the jigs and the reels of the process, they were matched with sponsors in Grates Cove, Terrence and Courtney Howell of Grates Cove Studio and their friends Rob and Deb Harley.
One strike of a shovel into the rocky soil of his backyard paints plain on Mohamed’s face the challenges of this new landscape; not so lush being an understatement. Raised garden beds, the Howells say encouragingly. Next summer they will have raised beds.
Funny things happen sometimes when you are least expecting it. A trip to the local mechanic last year left Mohamed’s family and the Howells waiting around for an hour. Mohamed disappeared into surrounding fields for a bit. He returned with pineapple weed, curly dock, and a look of amazement and joy on his face. He explains to me as best he can (he is still learning english), that he was very surprised to find these plants, which he knows from Syria, in this different terrain.
Grates Cove Studio has a well deserved reputation for incorporating local plants and seafood into their out-of-this-world Newfoundland/Cajun fusion cuisine. Courtney is from Louisiana, Terrence from the Grates Cove area and they met in Korea. The couple’s food reflects their diverse experiences.
Not often enough does passion meet fashion, but Terrence’s experiments with seaweed and alternative proteins have put him on the forefront of global food trends. It’s impressive for a rural restaurant to be ahead of townie glamsters.
So maybe it’s not the worst thing that Mohamed didn’t make it to Vancouver. He and Fedaa have been cooking up some new traditions with the Howells, incorporating the familiar foods they can find here into a whole new level of fusion cuisine, mixing Syrian foodways with the Howells’ already unique style.
Combining cabbage rolls with stuffed grape leaves, adding beet puree to a curly dock and zataar flatbread, they’re teaching new skills while they are at it. New skills that were once commonplace here in NL. I spent a day with the family and was present for the slaughter, butchering, and feasting that followed the acquisition of “the fattest lamb in Old Perlican.”
The expression “old hand” does not begin to express the skill and matter of factness that the family possesses. I had been worried the lamb would cry out and I would be sad, but such was not the case. I could find no issue with the quick, deft movements that brought the animal swiftly to the BBQ .
Father and sons working together, there was beauty to be found as the youngest boy sung a little song to Terrence he had written. Mohamed put his arm around this slender artist and chef who had been a total stranger not long ago, and said “Terrence. Friend.”
The Howells are discussing workshops at the Studio for this upcoming summer; a way for the family to share their knowledge and integrate into the work world. The meals they are creating now will be available, coming highly recommended by yours truly. The most interesting thing I learned that day? They have berries very much like bakeapples in Syria. Crazy, I know, but it just goes to show we have more in common than we know.