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Fish Chowder In Bermuda

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Bermuda has long been associated with stormy weather. The first permanent settlers arrived rather unceremoniously after their ship, en route from England to Virginia in 1609, was blown by a hurricane onto the reefs that surround the island. Shakespeare, writing "The Tempest" two years later, referred to "the still-vex'd Bermoothes". In more recent times it has given its name to the infamous Bermuda Triangle, that sinister region of ocean in which ships are said to disappear mysteriously.

All this history seems rather hard to believe when you walk under a brilliant blue sky, powdery pink sand under your feet, gazing out at the tranquil waters lapping the beach. At such a moment it is easy to understand why Mark Twain once said, “You can go to heaven if you want. I’d rather stay in Bermuda.”

Heaven is exactly what Bermuda seemed like during our recent visit. Walking on those blushing pink soft sand beaches, dipping our toes in the cerulean waters and admiring the gorgeous rugged, mountainous scenery made us want to move there permanently! Our celebratory family get together was made even more special by being in Bermuda together and we all left with warm memories that will never fade.

The food that we ate and the lovely hospitality that we encountered on the island definitely added to our wonderful experience. One of our most favourite dishes was the local fish chowder and we ate it every chance we got!

Decidedly Bermuda's most famous national dish, with many an interesting legend attached to it, this chowder was first introduced centuries ago by British settlers. Over time, it grew into something uniquely Bermudian with the addition of local fish and vegetables, many herbs and spices and the taste boosting sherry pepper sauce. This addictive sauce, which improves the taste of anything it is sprinkled on, was brought to Bermuda by sailors who pickled hot peppers in barrels of sherry on board ship to improve the flavour of their rations.

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My favourite legend is one where the chowder used to be cooked right on the beach, in huge cauldrons set over a bonfire. This was a good way to make the most of the day's catch and relax with a glass of black rum, after throwing some into the soup pot. That is a scene I would have liked to come across in my wanderings on the beach!

That first taste of authentic Bermuda fish chowder is like none other! The rich, smoky flavours of caramelized vegetables, black rum, fragrant island spices and fresh local fish simmered long and slow in a tomato based fish broth, all of it doused liberally with sherry pepper sauce will leave you craving more!

Bermudians take great pride in preparing their secret family recipe, handed down through the generations. I was fortunate to get the recipe from the chef of Barracuda Restaurant, where we had a delicious meal.

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The fish generally used in this chowder is local Wahoo, Rockfish or Red Snapper. However, any of the ones listed below or a combination works just as well. Although fish heads are generally used to make the flavourful broth, my recipe is a simplified version. Serve with a wedge of lemon, some crusty bread and a bottle of sherry pepper sauce (of course!).

Bermuda Fish Chowder

1 lb white fleshed fish fillets such as Cod, Sea Bass, Haddock or Halibut

2 tbsp each: butter, olive oil

1/2 cup each, finely chopped: onions, sweet red or green bell peppers, carrots, celery, potatoes

2 each: thyme sprigs, bay leaves, garlic cloves (chopped)

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, oregano, smoked paprika,

1/4 tsp each, ground spices: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice

1 cup dry white wine

4 large canned whole plum tomatoes packed in puree (preferably San Marzano variety), lightly drained and mashed

1 cup tomato puree from above canned tomatoes

1 tbsp each: hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp each: Black rum, sherry (optional)

Rinse fish, place in a deep saucepan and cover with 4 cups of water. Bring to a gentle boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer 15 min.

Gently lift all of the fish pieces out of the broth and remove skin and bones, if any. Flake fish gently with a fork, leaving in a few bigger pieces for texture. Reserve flaked fish and fish broth separately for later use in the recipe.

Meanwhile, warm butter and oil in deep, heavy soup pot set over medium high heat. Add onions, peppers, carrots, celery, potatoes, thyme, bay leaves and garlic. Saute, stirring for 10 min, then reduce heat to medium low and continue sauteing for another 20 min until vegetables are tender and golden in colour.

Add salt, pepper, oregano, smoked paprika, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. Saute 1 min.

Add wine, cook 1 min until it starts to bubble.

Add tomatoes, puree, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to mix.

Add reserved fish broth, cover pot and bring to a gentle simmer on medium high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook for 30 min, stirring occasionally.

Add flaked fish, stir gently to mix and continue cooking covered on low heat for another 30 min.

Fold in the rum and sherry, if using.

Serve immediately.

Serves four