Welcome to our series, Iconic Canadian Food! You know which classic Canadian dishes you love, but do you know the stories behind them? Gabby Peyton shares the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes. This time Gabby gets figgy with it, exploring the history of a Newfoundland specialty that's still true to its 16th century roots: Figgy Duff.
Figgy Duff is so synonymous with Newfoundland there’s even a band by the same name. This prolific folk band toured around Canada in the 1970s and 80s, characterizing something warm and familiar, just like the boiled cake they’re named after.
Like most traditional Newfoundland cuisine, Figgy Duff is hearty, rich and sticks to your ribs. The history of Canada’s last province to join Confederation revolves around survival on a rocky outcrop in the North Atlantic and hard work on frigid waters. This history is mirrored in the culinary tradition and backed by our British connections, with recipes passed down from one kitchen to the next. You can bet your bottom dollar every grandma knows how to throw together a Duff for Jiggs Dinner on Sundays.
So What’s in Figgy Duff?
If you aren’t a Newfoundlander, or don’t know anyone from the island, you’re probably thinking to yourself; “What the hell is is it?” Figgy Duff is a traditional boiled pudding made with flour, butter, sugar, molasses and raisins. There are also some variations in the recipes: some use flour, while others use breadcrumbs, and sometimes spices like ginger, cinnamon and all-spice are used.
The duff is boiled in a large pot of water in a pudding bag (used exclusively for pease pudding or sweet puddings) or one can also use a clean tea towel. The pudding bags are commonly found in grocery stores in Newfoundland, or in Newfoundland stores across the country.
Like all crave-worthy confections, there’s a delicious sauce in which to smother the Duff. Molasses Coady (sometimes spelled Cody) is made with molasses, water and butter. A hot rum sauce is also typically used with cinnamon.
Figgy Duff is a traditional part of the Sunday dinner in Newfoundland, otherwise known as Jiggs Dinner. Figgy can be served as a component of the main meal, a giant slice resting on the plate amidst the boiled potatoes, cabbage, turnip and carrot, offering a sweeter element to the salt beef and turkey. It’s also served as the headliner for dessert with the warm rum sauce. Many families enjoy this special treat on “duff days” other than Sunday.
What’s in a Pudding’s Name? A Quick Etymology of Cake with Fruit
By now you’re probably wondering why a cake is called Figgy Duff. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we’ve got to make a few things clear about pudding. Pudding doesn't just refer to instant Jello spooned into eager children’s bowls. While the North American understanding of pudding is runny and served at recess or the 1950s dinner table, for the Brits (and many Newfoundlanders) it’s also boiled cake. In England, pudding can also refer to dessert in general.
Probably the most famous cousin of Figgy Duff, thanks to a certain Christmas carol, is in fact, a pudding: Figgy Pudding. You might recall hearing “Now bring us some figgy pudding!” and wondered what it was. Figgy Pudding was developed in 16th century England and is also known as Christmas Pudding or Plum Pudding. In pre-Victorian times, most people called all dried fruit plums, especially raisins. Likewise, in Cornwall, raisins were known as figs. Are you confused yet? Add all this together and you can begin to understand how a boiled cake with raisins can be called Figgy Duff.
Duff is also an English term for pudding, and varieties of the doughy delight can be found throughout the British Empire. For example, in the Bahamas, you can find a dessert known as Plum Duff or Sailor’s Duff, a treat on board ships. In Northern England and Scotland, the term duff also refers to dough.
Figgy Pudding is similar to another British dish: Spotted Dick. Spotted Dick is made with suet, the hard fat that surrounds the kidneys of an animal, while Figgy Pudding is made with butter and has raisins or currants. The Royal Navy referred to it as the Figgy Dowdy, and it was available on ships in the 18th century. Made with hard tack, this might actually be Figgy Duff’s closest relative. It was often served with salt pork, pease porridge and hardtack — hello Jiggs dinner.
Where’s the Modern Duff?
Unlike other foods previously discussed and drooled over in this series, Figgy Duff has not undergone much evolution since the 16th century. Unlike bannock or poutine, there are few culinary iterations or high-end versions. The beauty of the dish is not in its malleability, but in its consistent state of comfort food.
While the dish can be found on many restaurant menus across Newfoundland at places like Rosie’s Restaurant & Bakery in Gander and Classic Cafe East in St. John’s, its recipe rarely veers towards modern cuisine. Even the highly-rated Fogo Island Inn produces a traditional duff, though they do use gluten-free flour. The Black Spruce in Norris Point does a traditional duff, but jazzes it up with Sea Buckthorn ice cream.
Across Canada, the dish is found in the homes of transplanted Newfoundlanders more than in restaurants, but there have been a few high-end inclusions. High atop the 54th floor of the TD Building in Toronto, Canoe included Figgy Duff in their Jiggs Dinner Terrine on their Taste of Maritimes menus in 2014.
At its delicious core, Figgy Duff is all about family, and while the etymology of cake with fruit is enough to make your head spin, it’s freaking delicious. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be having many more duff days in the future. Want to try making your own Figgy Duff? Head over to Rock Recipes for a traditional Figgy Duff recipe.
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Iconic Canadian Foods is written by Gabby Peyton. Gabby is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.