“Put on the apron,” said Amy, “and we’ll get started”.
Dressed in garb of the1860’s, a long dress with a white apron and bonnet, Amy had the fire going in the bake oven beside the open-hearth fireplace and already had a good start on her sour dough bread production. Amy Scott is an interpretive staff member of the Black Creek Pioneer Village with many years of experience in cooking food using historic methods.
Earlier, as I walked up to the Halfway House Inn, I passed a tinsmith’s shop, general store and an old farm. I imagined I was living in the 1860’s. I looked up and saw a high-rise apartment building in the not too far distance and remembered my place in history. Black Creek Pioneer Village was developed on the site of the old Stong family homestead and keeps Toronto’s rural history alive in a now developed part of the city. There are more than forty old buildings, some original, others moved to the site with costumed interpretive staff to show how life was lived in the past.
Amy and I were cooking in the kitchen of Halfway House Inn originally built at Kingston Road and Midland Ave in Scarborough in 1847 by Alexander Thompson.
It was a coach stop for farmers taking their goods to the downtown markets and commercial travellers such as manufacturers from Montreal. The bedrooms were upstairs and a large dining room was on the main floor, where travellers sat at one large table and were served meals, family style. There was a tavern as well. There were no menus in this Inn. Guests were served meats, vegetables and lots of homemade bread and desserts.
I had signed on to spend a day as an apprentice in the kitchen and we baked as if we were serving bread to a room full of hungry travellers back in time.
The fire was burning away in the brick oven and it was easy to tell that Amy had many years of fire building knowledge. She kneaded her bread, added wood to the fire, washed her hands and got right back to kneading the bread.
As she worked, she kept track of all her ingredients and mine, the fire temperature, talked to visitors coming and going, and instructed me in my baking education.
My first project would be a loaf of white bread. I added all ingredients, learned her kneading method and we put it in front of the oven to rise with the sour dough loaves she had rising. White flour was the norm at that time, she told me. Next was a lesson in making braided loaves and buns. The recipe from the past called for a “starter”, so I learned a new technique in bread making. The tricky part was learning to do a braid with three flopping strands of bread dough. I have always wondered how that was done and there I was, doing it for myself. Amy showed me several techniques so I turned out both buns and small loaves and then we placed them in a warm corner to rise. Just when I thought I had learned a day’s worth of baking, we were onto the next recipe. After all, if it were the 1860’s, we would be feeding a dining room of hungry mouths.
As visitors from 2019 dropped into the Inn, Amy would stop what she was doing to tell them what was baking, and about the history of the Inn.
Amy gave me a choice of baking Lemon Cake or Spice Cake. I have made a spice cake before, but not without my trusty electric mixer beside me. My mixing arm had a good workout and we poured the batter into a baking dish.
We headed over to the wood stove to remove the fire from the brick oven. With a long metal rake Amy began to slide the red-hot ashes down a chute on the bottom of the oven. It looked easy when Amy was doing it but when she handed me the rake I realized it took years of experience to make that tough job look easy. Determining the temperature was our next step. Amy put her arm in and began to count, and invited me to do the same. If you could count to five before the heat forced you to pull out your arm, it was roughly one temperature, counting to three would be another. She knew by touch how hot the oven would be inside, an admirable and old skill.
We put our baked goods in the oven with a long handled paddle and with a sharp pull the pans released into the oven.
With a sigh of satisfaction, I looked forward to a break while the bread and cake baked.
The front door of the Inn opened and in came a group of curious visitors, drawn by the smell of baking bread. After learning about the history of the Inn, they were eager to come back to buy some of Amy’s lemon cookies and bread when they came out of the oven.
“Now,” said Amy, “We’ll start the meringues.”
There was to be no rest for the weary, especially not with this recipe.
We separated a few eggs and she instructed me to beat the whites to a stiff meringue. Without a mixer. Just as I thought my shoulder would never recover, Amy took over and then another interpretive staff also took her turn. Once we had a nice meringue, we added sugar, one spoonful at a time and beat it for a while. We added some red colouring and peppermint and piped it onto the cookie sheets like delicate little stars. They would go in the oven when the bread came out. All was choreographed perfectly.
Mid afternoon, the baking was pulled out of the oven and proudly displayed on the cooling table. I had learned so much that day and to my surprise Amy packaged up my baking to be taken home to share with my family.
I took away an important lesson from the apprentice experience at Halfway House Inn. Those that cooked in kitchens of the past, worked very hard to produce the delicious foods that they ate.
Thanks to Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto for this experience. Watch for a recipe in the future.
If you are interested in becoming an apprentice for a day in the skills of the village here is the link.