“We use every part of the dandelion here,” said Greta Mossman standing proudly beside Mya Chidiac. They were dressed the part of women who lived in the 1700’s. The passion and knowledge Greta had for discovering the food secrets of the past was impressive.
I was visiting the Ross-Thomson House and Store Museum on a quiet street in a Shelburne where the old homes have preserved Nova Scotia’s past.
Back in 1785, George and Robert Ross escaped the American Revolution, and established their international trading business in Shelburne. They ran a store inside the large warehouse that they built to house the goods that came from the ships. They traded lumber and fish for tobacco, salt and other goods. Part of the warehouse was their home, furnished to show how their family would have lived at that time.
Back to Greta and her dandelions. I remember my father spraying and digging to get every last dandelion out of his lawn but Greta spoke of the dandelion as though it were a weed of great value. She told me of the earthy taste of dandelion root coffee, and offered me a recipe card that she had handwritten with a quill pen and ink. The petals were used to make dandelion jelly and the leaves could be used as a green for salads. Cooking back then was all done in the huge open-hearth fireplace that was surrounded with cast iron pots and pans for every function. There was a reflector oven for roasting meat in front of the fire and even a waffle iron with a long handle to reach into the coals.
In the warehouse was a display of what appeared to be ropes. Surprisingly, it was twists of tobacco leaves and Greta showed me how it was cut and sold by the inch to be smoked in clay pipes. A very large barrel in the storeroom is the oldest barrel in Nova Scotia dating back to 1760 and held 1,100 pints of port wine from Porto, Portugal. Below Murray Hagen stands by the barrel that once held port and Greta shows the ropes of tobacco.
When the butter was churned in Shelburne, it would be put in a container and stored in the community well to keep it cool. Each family had their own container.
The day I visited, Greta was busy making Rose Water. She showed me the petals that had been boiled and how pink the water had become. This water was then used for cooking or preserved for using on the skin. Heating vinegar until warm and adding it to jars of the purple flowers made chive Blossom Vinegar. After storing for two weeks, the mixture was strained and the flowers discarded and aromatic vinegar remained to be added to dressings. A garden was growing beside the house to provide the family with the vegetables and herbs that they would eat fresh or preserve during the summer and fall to use during the long winters. Insect repellent was made using the herb, Lemon Balm. Those secrets of the past could be useful to avoid using the chemicals of today.
The interpreters at the Ross Thomson House always have a cooking project that opens up the kitchen door of the past to visitors and helps them to learn old culinary recipes for such tastes as mushroom ketchup, fairground lemonade and hard tack biscuits. Hard tack biscuits properly made would last a long time and were a staple of long sea voyages in the past.
When it was haying time, Switchel was made, a 1700’s version of an energy drink for the farmers working the fields.
Here is the recipe to try the next time you are out haying in the fields or alternatively mowing your grass.
- 8 cups of water
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- ¾ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup of molasses
- ½ tsp. ground ginger
- Mix all ingredients over low hear until sugar dissolves. Let cool and serve warm diluted with water.
Ross Thomson House puts another piece of the historic puzzle together, showing us how a merchant ran his business and home in the 1780’s, thanks to the hardworking staff who search to find creative ways to show us how it was to live back in time.