MONTREAL (AFP) — Seal, hunted as food for generations in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, is now drawing raves from big-city chefs keen to serve it up with apples, as a pate, or why not? -- with cocoa sauce.
With no fat and rich in iron and Omega 3s, seal is widely seen as a big nutritional winner.
For time immemorial seal has been eaten -- raw -- as a traditional food by indigenous people such as the Inuit.
It also has been a traditional food for generations of hunters in Canada's east who serve it up roasted, or sometimes with a hearty Burgundy sauce.
Now, rustic seal has been carted out by back-to-basics foodies dressed up as a gourmet delight, particularly inspiring diners in mostly French-speaking Quebec province, where there is a devoted food-lovers' culture.
Many diners are huge fans of its taste, describing the mammal's meat as somewhere between duck and veal.
"The texture and body of it really are unique," raved Benoit Lengnet, the French chef at Montreal's Au Cinquieme Peche restaurant. Seal arrived on its menu two and a half years ago.
But with a super-short hunting season, from late March to late April, seal is a seasonal specialty that is served, rather frenetically, for just a few weeks a year.
And it comes laced with a dose of controversy as the annual seal hunt is roundly condemned by environmental groups, both here and abroad. The European Parliament votes in the coming weeks on a total ban favored by most EU states on importing seal-related products.
The main Canadian hunt started on April 15 off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, with an estimated total seasonal kill of 338,000 animals.
"It has been a week since we have had it (this season), and it has been half the main courses ordered," said Lengnet, who was preparing a seal dish with truffle oil.
Luc Jomphe, head chef and owner of the Bistro du Bout du Monde restaurant, said seal "is a sort of unusual niche market product" that really has caught on here. A trailblazer in seal gastronomy, Jomphe helped start it all when he opened a restaurant five years ago on the Iles-de-la-Madeleine, in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the annual hunt kicks off.
The success still seems to be growing, Jomphe told AFP at a tasting in Montreal.
One of his specialties is a seal "magret", served a bit like duck magret, or duck breast, and accompanied by a cocoa-based sauce and legumes.
"It is surprising but really good. The meat is light and does not taste like fish at all," said a diner named Maude, acknowledging it was her first time, seal-wise.
Still, the trend has not yet become mainstream, as restaurants serving seal remain on the rather bold side.
Shipments of seal meat remain small amid the bad press surrounding the hunt, which many animal rights activists consider cruel.
The Canadian government counters that the 350-year-old hunt is crucial for some 6,000 North Atlantic fishermen who rely on the seal hunt for up to 35 percent of their total annual income.
Of the 338,000 seals authorized to be hunted in Canada this year, only 1,000 will be sold for their meat. That is the equivalent of 725 kilos (1,600 pounds), said Rejean Vigneau, at the Cote a Cote butcher shop, in the Iles-de-la-Madeleine.
One limitation on the sale of seal has been a law requiring commercial meat to originate from a slaughterhouse, and not outdoors as hunters often do for their own consumption, said Vigneau.
Vigneau says he owns the only butcher shop in Canada to offer seal meat.
The butcher has all kinds of menu suggestions: seal pate flavored with apple, grapes and orange; seal fat (rillettes); seal smoked with walnuts; seal sausage and seal filets.
"It's headed toward growing on a larger scale," Vigneau said. "Demand is increasing and in the past few years we have had to turn down a lot of orders."
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »