Breathing the sea air, touched with a fishy aroma and walking over the uneven cobblestones, I followed the smells of food cooking into the homes of Fortress Louisbourg.
To visit this reconstructed French fortress in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia is to spend a day living life in the 1740’s. On an often foggy peninsula, the stone buildings and characters wandering the streets in garb of the past leave little to the imagination. During my visit there was so much to see, but I was there to learn about the food, and there were surprises around every corner.
The smell of freshly baked bread drew me into the dark, close room of vats and ovens where the rations of soldier’s bread were made daily. Each soldier was allotted a 6 lb. loaf every four days, and that made the bulk of their diet supplemented with salted meat and vegetables. The hearty round loaves were made of 80% whole wheat and rye flour. White bread was only for those of the upper classes and wealthy. The soldiers shared their bread to ensure that they ate the most freshly baked.
From the bakery I headed into the upper class home of the Engineer and into his kitchen, where food was being cooked by servants in a large open hearth fireplace. They were mixing hot chocolate for the cool summer day. Those of privilege, like the engineer enjoyed food that came on the ships from abroad, in addition to food that was locally grown, hunted or fished. Servants cooked over the open hearth even on the hottest summer days, using heavy wool aprons to protect them from the flames. The variety of food was impressive for a small colony so far from everywhere.
Chocolate was fashionable and was shipped from the West Indies. Hot chocolate was a favorite drink and was considered to be medicinal. It was used as a stimulant to heat the body. It came in a hard chocolate ball that was melted over the fire, added to milk or water, sugar, and an egg yolk. It was the spices that made the hot chocolate exquisite and cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and orange flower water were often used.
The chocolate drink was made the night before, kept cool overnight and heated, whipped or frothed in a special pot with a wooden tool before it was served.
The cost of chocolate was high with one pound costing the same as a pair of shoes, so it was considered a special treat.
There was always a fragrant pot of soup hanging over the fire to warm and help fill the stomach.
A sample menu for the Engineer’s dinner might be:
Chicken in herbal wine sauce
Green salad – to cleanse the palate before dessert
The wealthy often enjoyed a different wine from France with every course for special occasions.
Roast chicken was cooked on a Spit Jack – a mechanical device that turned the chicken over the open fire using weights that rotated somewhat like on old clock. Rice came on ships from the Carolinas.
Salad ingredients were harvested from the gardens planted around most homes. Vegetables, flowers and herbs for food and medicinal purposes were planted. At the time, common root vegetables such as turnips, carrots, and parsnips were grown, but no potatoes as they were considered poisonous. Some of the greens grown in the Louisbourg gardens are not common today. Oseille also known as sorrel was a green used in salads. The flower, Sweet William was used to treat the medical condition of gout and pansies were used as an edible salad ingredient.
Cuisine was surprisingly sophisticated among the wealthy. Edible flowers were used to make colourful salads. It is said that France’s King Louis X1V loved certain vegetables and so it became stylish.
Pasta was made and eaten in Louisbourg in the 1700’s as culinary practices of Europe were being exchanged and other cultures like Italian began to influence the French tastes.
Rich or poor, those who lived in the French Roman Catholic settlement ate fish rather than meat for 140 days of the year. Cod was fished and dried, but was exported for income so they most often ate haddock and lobster, at the time considered a poor man’s food.
Exotic ingredients were imported on the ships that sailed into the Louisbourg harbour. Lemons from the West Indies, rice from the Carolinas, coffee from Turkey via France and the much prized chocolate from Java and Manila.
I left the Fortress Louisbourg with a full stomach and mind full of information about how life tasted in a small foggy French settlement in Cape Breton in 1740. I walked back into the future taking culinary ideas of the past into my future.
Dining Out in Fortress Louisbourg
After stopping by the homes of the villagers of Louisbourg, visitors can choose to dine in the style of the common folk or the privileged, in two restaurants that serve food as it would have been served in the past. One eatery outside the Fortress also provides a historic dining experience.
At the HÔTEL DE LA MARINE AND GRANDCHAMPS, sailors, soldiers off duty and common folk of the town came to eat. Visitors can enjoy simple but delicious fare reminiscent of the past.
Food is served at wooden tables and benches shared with others. The menu includes Pea and Vegetable Soup and Bread, Fish Soup and Bread, Mussels and Bread. The main dish consists of soup, meat or fish of the day and vegetables. Desserts are Bread Pudding or an Apple Tart, Cookie or Chocolate Cake. Food is served on replica pewter and all meals are eaten with just a spoon and a large cloth napkin.
L’ÉPÉE ROYALE served finer fare that would be served to sea captains, wealthy or upper class. Visitors can dine in the fine style of the past at this eatery where food is served on replica dishes imported from China. The same company that made the original china used in the 1700’s continues to produce today, so dishes continue to be purchased from that company.
Menu items change by the day and include a four course meal.
THE BEGGAR’S BANQUET is a dining experience outside the fortress in the modern day village of Louisbourg. Diners are provided with the opportunity to dress like common folk of the 1700’s for dinner from the restaurant’s wardrobe of replica clothing. Dinner is served buffet style and consists of local specialties such as lobster, snow crab, halibut and chicken, salads and desserts. East Coast music provides entertainment while diners feast. There are old games for children to play and much dancing and merriment.
To Learn to Cook from this Period.
French Taste in Atlantic Canada 1604 – 1758 – A Gastronomic History
Written by Anne Marie Jonah and Chantal Véchambre this book is a collection of information about the French cuisine and food as served during the time of the Fortress of Louisburg. Considerable research was done to complete this book that is full of photos, recipes and historical information. It is available through Chapters and Indigo and is highly recommended.