Oh phoque: top Quebec culinary school, the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ), will showcase seal meat at this year’s installment of the YUL Eat food festival.
For one day of the Labour Day weekend festival, ex-Laloux chef Jonathan Lapierre (now at ITHQ) will lead a group of students in prepping Japanese-tinged dishes with seal cooked over a firepit. It’s based on Lapierre’s knowledge from living in Japan, where seal has traditionally been eaten: he notes that Japanese flavours meld well with the part-gamey taste of seal. Those dishes will include maple-glazed yakitori (skewers cooked over charcoal) and burger-like buns with “pulled phoque”, using seal shoulder.
Former chef and co-owner of Montreal bistro Au Cinquième Péché Benoît Langlet was behind the push for ITHQ students to work with seal meat — he tells Eater it’s an opportunity for students and chefs to work with a truly wild meat, with “no antibiotics, no hormones”.
“It’s the only wild meat you can serve in restaurants...you know where it comes from... no antibiotics, no hormones, [it’s] natural meat,” he said.
Lenglet also works with SeaDNA, a small company run by Réjean Vigneau, the owner of Magdalen Islands butcher Côte à Côte. SeaDNA supplies ITHQ and other Quebec chefs with seal.
Seal meat is known as a staple of Inuit cuisine, and Lenglet highlights that it has historically been in the diets of non-Indigenous groups, particularly on the Magdalen Islands and in the Gaspésie region of Quebec, where dishes like seal rillette and seal bourgignon were devised.
Despite common misconceptions, commercial seal hunting is legal in Canada for anyone with the appropriate permits, not just certain Indigenous groups. It is, however, banned in the United States and European Union. While not common in Montreal, it is sold in some restaurants, including Manitoba, in Mile Ex.
The Canadian government allows Harp and Grey seals to be hunted: While Grey seals were endangered around 1970 (with just 13,000 seals alive at that time), the population has bounced back to around 505,000. As of 2014 the number of Harp seals was estimated to be around 7.4 million.
Sealers target both breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, between Quebec and Newfoundland. Government quotas mean up to 400,000 Harp seals and 60,000 Grey seals can be hunted annually, but Lenglet says that because the March hunting season is just three weeks long, sealers don’t even come close to the quota. In 2016, just under 67,000 Harp seals and 1,612 Grey seals were hunted.
The seal meat SeaDNA sells also holds a sustainability certification, Fourchette Bleue, an organization that gives stamps of approval to ecologically responsible uses of seafood from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Seal meat has had a bad reputation, historically drawing protests from animal rights groups — the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s stance is that “the commercial slaughter of seals takes place in an unpredictable, unmanageable environment where humane killing is impossible to achieve consistently.” That organization also takes issue with hunting of seal pups, although SeaDNA does not harvest any seals that aren’t independent.
Lenglet says this is something he’s fully aware of.
“I remember at the beginning at Cinquième Péché [which served seal], I received threats...if you want to eat meat you have to kill an animal, if you are against seal hunts, you are against tuna in restaurants.”
He also says that the approach to seal hunting has changed.
“It had bad publicity, 30 years ago we used to hunt for the fur and leave the meat on the ice. [Activists] were outraged about that, I understand that...we use the animal head to tail, so there is no waste.”
That means seal skin is used for artisanal purposes, fat is used for Omega-3 oils, and parts like livers and flippers are used for charcuterie.
Lenglet adds that the method of cleaning seal meat has changed over the last ten years — it’s now brined for 24 hours, giving a cleaner flavour.
“Now it’s more like deer, instead of the iodine taste it used to have.”
According to Lenglet, that’s drawing people back to seal meat — as was proven at a recent ITHQ tasting.
“They can’t believe how good it is, one of them had a tear in the eye.”
Jonathan Lapierre and the ITHQ students will serve seal meat on Sunday, September 3, at YUL Eat at the Clock Tower Quay in Montreal’s Old Port. YUL Eat runs September 2 to 4.