Sherbrooke Village – N.S. Jailhouse dining.

I was visiting Historic Sherbrooke Village in Nova Scotia to experience tastes of the past, so imagine my surprise when I was led to the town jailhouse for a cooking experience.


We walked from the Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia of today and into yesteryear almost without noticing. Part of the village has been spared modernization and Historic Sherbrooke Village has been created. Man has lived on this land along the St. Mary’s River since our Mi’kmaq nation; and was also settled by the French and eventually by the English who named the town Sherbrooke in 1815.


Sherbrooke Village 

In 1969, the Sherbrooke Village restoration project and part of the village was preserved to give us all the privilege of visiting the town as though it were the 1860’s.  Those were the days of sailing ships trading between Britain and the West Indies as well as farming, fishing, cutting and milling timber. In 1861, a gold rush hit the area and the opening of 19 mining companies caused a boom.

There are 80 buildings in the historic part of the village, with 25 open to visitors. It takes little imagination to return to history, as the costumed visitors and interpretive staff bring the village to life. The Hands on History program allows visitors of all ages to wear clothing like those of the 1860’s while visiting Sherbrooke. Hundreds of costumes are available in all sizes to be worn by the visitors. The class system was very much evident in the clothing style differences.


The author dressed for the Hands on History program by Durba Smith and Phyllis Jack


“It feels different, the minute you put the big hooped dress on,” said one visitor participating in the program. As I put on my costume, I immediately stepped into history.

Visitors can explore the blacksmith and printing shop, drug store, clothier, pottery studio, general store, woodworking shop and even an Ambrotype photography studio. Farm animals, gardens and the sawmill help us to learn about how the townsfolk  provided for each other.



The Jailhouse in Sherbrooke from the 1800’s to 1968

Karen Pye played the part of the jailer’s wife the day I visited the jailhouse in my big hooped skirt. She was busy cooking cinnamon buns and taught me about the jailer’s family and the interesting house that was used as a jail in Sherbrooke until 1968. From the outside the large, frame house looked like any other. Some bedrooms were turned into cells, barred windows and all, but the family lived in the same house as the prisoners. Many of those spending time behind bars were mischief makers who had ridden their horses through the town or were found drunk in the ditch. This was a Temperance town and alcohol use was not looked upon kindly. The jailer was paid a meagre salary so earned extra cash by working at the saw mill, gold mine or lumber camp. As well as cooking for the prisoners and her family, the jailer’s wife would sew to earn an extra income. The family and prisoners ate the same food prepared in the kitchen by the jailer’s wife.

The jailer’s diet back in the 1860’s consisted of such food as bread, stews, fish, soups, hodge podge (a mixture of garden vegetables cooked with cream) and cooked garden vegetables.  Sugar and molasses cookies, ginger cake and occasionally cinnamon buns are examples of the sweets served at the jailer’s home. Of course, preserves were made to allow fruit and vegetables to be used year round.

Karen whipped up the cinammon buns with the ease of an expert. As she mixed, she recited the amounts, although I know the jailer’s wife of the past was using tea cups to measure and could do it with her eyes closed.

“Measure 4 cups of flour, and mix in 2/3 of a cup of shortening with two knives,” Karen told me while demonstrating. She added a dash of salt, 2 fresh eggs and 1 cup of buttermilk, beating until  the dough was smooth.  Of course the cast iron wood stove was heating all the while. The jailer’s wife would have been proud of her stove.

When all of the ingredients were beaten to a smooth consistency, she would pat the dough into a square and use her rolling pin to even the top. She covered the whole surface with butter that she had churned the day before, sprinkled the surface with brown sugar and topped it all with cinnamon. Karen then rolled the dough up lengthwise and ended up with a long roll. She carefully cut pieces and placed each one on a baking sheet.

“How do you know the temperature of the oven?” I asked her. She told me that she would put her hand inside the oven and if she could hold it there and count slowly to seven it would be the right temperature for cinnamon buns. A slightly lower temperature was used for bread and she could regulate the temperature by opening the oven door a crack.

While the buns were spreading their irresistible odour throughout the house, we greeted visitors with Scotch cakes. Later Karen was busy making butter. She explained that the once the milk and cream were separated, the cream was skimmed off the top and put in a butter churner. Family members often took turns beating the cream to butter with the wooden paddle that was pushed up and down.


Karen Pye Churning Butter 

Not a bad deal being a lawbreaker in the 1860’s with tastes that came from that kitchen.

After all the work at the jailhouse, I went down to the Sherbrooke Village Tea Room for a lunch reminiscent of the meals that would have been served in the past. Fish cakes, baked beans, home baked bread, gingerbread, and many more traditional dishes were served. Afternoon tea is also served in the tea room. Although the eatery is now modernized inside, an old photo shows that building was once a hotel and restaurant and it looked much the same in days of old. To bring the tastes home to cook in my kitchen, I picked up a collection of hand printed recipes held together by a string. The print shop on site prints each page by hand and they are sold at the gift shop.

Nova Scotia’s Historic Sherbrooke remains as a living piece of history – a gift so we will all remember how much work went into cooking and living in the past.




The Sherbrooke Hotel – then and now, tasty, home cooked meals are served reminding us of tastes of the past  




Wilno’s Kashub Polish Food History

We could have easily driven past Wilno on Highway 60 that leads to Ottawa, Ontario. However, as the first Polish settlement in Canada, the small town of Wilno was my taste destination.

The Wilno Tavern is well known for serving excellent Polish food. And the town itself has a story of Canada’s history to tell.

The settlers, who arrived in the Wilno area in 1858, were from the Kashubian (Prussian) part of Poland and their ancestors living in the area celebrate their unique culture to this day. It is said that they loved this part of the country because it reminded them of their homeland. They joined the Irish and German settlers also making this area their new home.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Wilno rang with the sounds of Polish lumbermen on their way to enjoy hearty meals after weeks of work at the lumber camps, located in what is now Algonquin Park. A thriving railroad between Arnprior and Parry Sound moved lumber from the area as far west as the prairies.


The Wilno Tavern Restaurant


A diner enjoys his dinner under the old Exchange Hotel sign

What is now known as the Wilno Tavern has been serving food for over 100 years. Historically it was named the Exchange Hotel and was located across from the train station where as many as 20 trains a day passed through, creating a need to feed and accommodate travellers. Over the years, different owners have run the hotel and restaurant and the current owner Corinne Higgins has owned the tavern since 1981. She is very devoted to maintaining the Kashub/Polish roots of the community through the food served in her tavern. She explained that the food now served is different from the original Kashub diet of the settlers, who changed their eating habits with time to include different types of Polish food.

A true Kashubian feast is celebrated on Labour Day each year, when chicken dinners are served at St. Mary’s Church to over 2000 people. The meals consist of boiled chicken, potatoes and vegetables, reflecting the more traditional Kashub diet. Chicken, pork and pickled fish dishes were served in the homeland, as well as potato pancakes, dill pickles and dried apples. Eventually Polish food such as pierogi, cabbage rolls and sauerkraut became part of the diets of those living in the Wilno area.

Another Kashub celebration is held each year on Labour Day weekend at the recreated Kashub historic village in Wilno. Log buildings, adorned with painted trim, in the traditional style of painting, gives visitors a feeling of what is was like to live in the past. The traditions of dancing in the clothing of the past, and music provide entertainment for visitors to the annual festival. Across the road, at the Wilno Tavern, cooks are busy serving up Polish fare.


Buildings at the Historic Village in Wilno

We were anxious to try some Polish fare at the Wilno Tavern and sat with the Corinne Higgins, the current owner who gave us a feel for the history and the food she serves.

“There was no time to be delicate,” Corinne explained when describing the unique appearance of the pierogi (also spelled perogi). She went on to explain that back in the day, cooks were making pierogi to serve to hungry lumberjacks and large families. They formed larger, rounded shaped pierogi to produce faster results in the kitchen, much different from the smaller, crescent shaped pierogi we are used to eating now. The filling was cheddar cheese, bacon and potatoes, adapted from what was available in Canada, rather than the sauerkraut, dried mushrooms and cottage cheese that may have been used as filling in the Kusab region of Poland.

Our hearty dinner began with a starter plate of Śledzie that included pickled fish, and rye bread with sour cream and tomatoes on the side. The pickled fish had a sharp and pleasing bite.

Our main course was a huge combo plate including a large cabbage roll, a round pierogi, mashed potatoes, a Polish sausage and sauerkraut. This was too much food for a man and woman who hadn’t chopped wood all day.

IMG_1098I was presented with a copy of the Canadian Kashub Cookbook, compiled as a project by the Wilno Heritage Society. This recipe book is full of traditional Kashub recipes as remembered by the community fondly recalling the dishes their grandmothers taught them to cook. To read this book is to get a true sense of the food history of the Kashubs.

I tried the Squash Bread, a 1908 recipe that was contributed anonymously.

From the Canadian Kashub Cookbook

  • 2 cups cooked squash
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3 cups very warm milk
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 yeast cake
  • flour (enough to knead)

Mash the squash with a potato masher. Stir in the sugar, salt and butter into the hot milk.

When cool, put in the yeast and as much flour as will make a dough that can be handled. Put on to a baking board and knead for 15 minutes. Return to the bread board and let it double in its bulk. Knead again. Shape into loaves, raise and bake in a 350 F for 45 to 55 minutes.

Kashub Polish Canadian history lives on in the town of Wilno, Ontario. Don’t drive through without a taste. 


Fiddlehead Nursery- Edible Landscaping

“Take a bite and tell me what you taste,” invited Ben, bending down and picking a leaf from a plant I did not recognize.

“Wow, that taste takes me to places I have never been” I said.

A slow smile spread over Ben’s face as if he had opened a new world to me, and he had.

I was visiting Fiddlehead Nursery, Edible Landscaping, just south of Kimberly, Ontario, and this was no ordinary garden business. Ben Caesar, Kelly Hopkins and their daughter Harriet live in a traditional red frame farmhouse in the Beaver Valley, and run Fiddlehead Nursery on their property which is set against a stunning backdrop of escarpment cliffs.

Ben was inspired by the British technique of forest gardening, a method of designing edible landscapes that mimic the structure and diversity of natural ecosystems. The magic of Ben’s nursery is that it has been created in harmony with the environment. Growing land is carved out of the rocky landscape in this area. This growing method promotes the belief that edible landscapes can be grown anywhere. And Ben is here to prove that it can be done.

When I first stepped into the garden I saw a circular tangle of plants. The garden seemed to grow in front of my eyes, as we tasted leaves and flowers while Ben told me the origins and history of each plant. He grows plants from all parts of the world, as well as those indigenous to the area.

I began to see the unique shapes and textures of the leaves, the flowers that were in bloom, and the individual tastes and smells of the leaves. The garden became like a painting and although Ben would give all the credit to nature, he was the artist that had planted the seeds, blended the colours and created a masterpiece from what was once a patch of dirt.

As a blogger about food history, I asked Ben about the historic “roots” of his plants. He was very knowledgeable about the use of the plants he grows, both in Canadian and international food history. Some of the greens Ben grows can be traced back to being used for making salads and other foods as far back as the time of Pompeii.

As we wandered through Ben’s garden he pointed out plants that were foraged and eaten by our early First Nation’s community. Ben harvests from his plants with the same respect our First Nations peoples have always used to collect plants. He harvests only enough from the plant to allow it to thrive in the future.


THE CHINESE ARTICHOKE produces many edible tubers underneath each plant. Originating in China, they were exported to France in the 1800’s to the village of Crosne which translated means Chinese Artichoke. This recipe for preparing Chinese Artichokes is included on the website



Chinese Artichoke tubers- photo by Ben Caesar

  • 1 kg Chinese artichokes
  • 40 g butter
  • Parsley
  • ½ clove garlic
  • Coarse salt and pepper
  • Put a handful of coarse salt on a tea towel and rub the Chinese artichokes to remove the dry skin. Wash thoroughly under the tap.
  • Heat some salted water in a large saucepan and add the Chinese artichokes as soon as the water boils. Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
  • Like potatoes, Chinese artichokes should not be crunchy. As soon as they have finished cooking, cool them with cold water and dry them.
  • Then brown them in a frying pan with the butter. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Wash the parsley, peel the garlic and chop them finely together.
  • Sprinkle over the sautéed Chinese artichokes just before serving.


There are numerous plants grown at Fiddlehead that provide leaves or flowers that produce excellent salad ingredients.  Pansy flowers and leaves are edible, as are bellflower and daylily flowers. The leaves of columbine, bronze fennel, sorrel, sedum, musk mallow, chocolate mint, sweet cicely, anise hyslop, and scozonera are all edible and make for an interesting salad with a richer taste than the iceberg lettuce we often resign ourselves to buying at the grocery store.  Historic records show that green salads were eaten by early European settlers to Canada. For example, greens and flowers were grow for medicinal and culinary use at Fortress Louisbourg by the French in the 1700’s.


 Fiddlehead Nursery Perennial Salad-  recipe and photo by Ben Caesar 

  • 10 sorrel leaves                                      * 10 musk mallow leaves15 leaves of sedum ‘Autumn Joy’                                            *   25 chocolate mint leaves
  • 10 musk mallow flowers                       *  small handful of sweet cicely leaves
  • 10 pansy flowers                                     * 20 anise hyssop leaves
  • 3 daylily flowers                                      *  10 scorzonera leaves
  • 8 peach-leaved bellflower flowers
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

3 tbsp red wine vinegar (or other vinegar), salt and pepper to taste.

LOVAGE is a perennial celery that originated in Eastern Europe and is used widely as a soup base.

There is record of Mark Twain’s friend suggesting ingredients for a Lovage Soup using veal shank, tomatoes, carrots, onions,  potatoes and six stalks of lovage.



Streamed and blanched Sea Kale shoots – photo by Ben Caesar


Fiddlehead Nursery also grows berry and fruit trees and many are propagated from cuttings.

CHOKEBERRY is a berry bush that grows berries that were used by our First Peoples to make pemmican. The Metis were particularly known for their pemmican, a food that was eaten by those working in the fur trade. Buffalo meat was cut in strips and hung to air dry or over fires, then pounded into a powder. The powder was put in a skin bag and buffalo fat and at times various berries were added to give extra flavour. Chokeberries can also be used to make delicious jams.

SASKATOON BERRY is a berry that is indigenous to Canada and grows across the country. It was used as a food by our First Peoples and is beginning to regain popularity. The red berries are tasty from the bush and also make excellent jams.

Ben is knowledgable about the history and uses of the plants he grows and sells at his nursery. He is also an excellent cook and makes use of the plants he grows when making meals.

Keen to share his knowledge with aspiring gardeners, Ben offers a series of workshops once a month during growing months. Designing an Edible Landscape teaches participants how to incorporate a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, perennial vegetables, salad greens and edible flowers into a beautiful, low maintenance, organic garden. Plant Propagation for the Hungry Gardener is a workshop that teaches participants how to start edible perennials from seeds and plant and root division. Each person takes home a plant that they have learned to divide.

Also popular are garden tasting tours that give visitors ideas of which plants they might like to purchase from the nursery and include in their own landscapes.

Ben has created a number of edible landscapes on private properties and has planted one at the Beaver Valley Cidery, a business in the same area as Fiddlehead Nursery. He offers consultations to those wanting to begin edible landscaping on their property.

Fiddlehead Nursery is introducing a way of gardening, that allows us to use the land we have, to grow organic foods that do not appear on the grocery store shelves. Many of these foods have been eaten for centuries by people all over the world.

For more information about Fiddlehead Nursery –

Crow’s Feet, An Acadian green East Coast Delicacy


Crow’s Feet, also called Sandfire Greens, Samphire Greens.


The produce stand in Nova Scotia that introduced me to Crow’s Feet.

“Crow’s Feet, Lettuce, Raspberries,” read the sign in front of the garden stand at the side of the road in Nova Scotia. I almost cycled by, but wheeled in to talk to the two women behind the stand.

“What on earth are Crow’s Feet?” I asked curiously, giving away the fact that I was “from away.”

Their eyes lit up and they showed me a bag of odd looking greens. Crow’s Feet are a plant that is picked from the marshy areas at the side of the ocean, they told me. The greens are long and spindly and look, well – like Crow’s feet.

The vegetable stand women told me with great enthusiasm how to cook the greens, which I snapped up in a hurry, as it turns out that they are a great delicacy, and very popular. Turns out Crow’s Feet have been popular since the Acadians settled this area.

“Just fry them in butter with some garlic and add lemon if you want.”

“Then pull them off the woody stalks.”

Which I did that evening and this was a wild find that was out of this world.

After some research I found that this was a food that was foraged and eaten commonly by the Acadians that settled Canada’s east coast. They dined well back in the 1700’s and developed prosperous farms, using dykes to irrigate and lived from the land much more successfully than early settlers from other countries. They were eventually driven off their lands by the British and were forced to settle in the United States or live hidden in the forests. Their farms were burnt or taken over by the British.

Crow’s Feet, I learned are also known by other names. The Acadians called them Tétines de Souris, which translated to mouse nipples.

In my favorite book about cooking, in times past from Nova Scotia; Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, Marie Nightingale has a recipe for Sandfire Greens, another name for Crow’s Feet. They are also known as Samphire Greens.

Here is a recipe from Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens by Marie Nightingale

Sandfire Greens

In early spring these greens appear on the fertile marshes of the Bay of Fundy and are delicious.

Cut off the roots and wash well. Cook until tender in small amount of water. Cool enough so that they can be handled, and remove woody centers by grasping stem and pulling gently. Reheat with butter. Add a few drops of vinegar, if desired.

I noticed the Crow’s Feet advertised for sale from trucks, at the side of the road and at market stands. But the biggest surprise was to find Crow’s Feet for sale at a grocery store in a small Nova Scotia town. The chalkboard outside advertised Crow’s Feet.

“Do you know what Crow’s Feet are?” I asked the young woman at check out?

“ No, I know that we sell them, but I don’t really know what they are,” she said politely.

“Well,” I said, “They are delicious, and you should try them sometime, but be sure to take out the toenails.”

I smiled and walked off.

Big Spruce Brewing brews history


Jeremy White and Sarah MacKay of Big Spruce Brewing pose by their Silver Tart Beer.

Jeremy White put a taster glass of The Silver Tart beer in front of me. I found the pink colour curious, but was even more curious about the story because… Jeremy had used “history,” (as if it were an ingredient,) in the making of this beer. 

The Silver Tart – Big Spruce Brewing 

Jeremy began his organic microbrewery in Nyanza, Nova Scotia in 2013. He was working at developing different brews when Lorna MacDonald, a summer theatre director, approached Jeremy about producing a beer to be served in conjunction with an upcoming production. The Belles of Baddeck portrayed some aspects of the life of Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone,) and his wife Mabel

Rather than just slapping a unique label on one of his beer bottles, Jeremy decided to base his new brew on some fact of historical significance.

After searching in the museum archives, Jeremy learned that Alexander Graham Bell enjoyed drinking raspberry cordial made from shrub. Making shrub is an old method of preserving overripe fruit. It is used as a base for a refreshing drink. (see recipe at end of article.) Jeremy experimented with different fruits, but he found the best taste to add to his beer was a raspberry flavour.


The Silver Tart is a refreshing raspberry touched beer, inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s love of Raspberry Codial.

When completed, it was named The Silver Tart, rhyming with the name of Graham Bell’s first plane – The Silver Dart.

Jeremy says, “It has become the summer rage of craft beer.” This beer is produced using the same methods as the others but before completion he adds 120 lbs. of raspberries to each vat for another 10 days of polishing.

As I sipped my sampler on a hot East Coast day, refreshing and tart were the tastes I sensed. I could envision Alexander Graham Bell sipping Raspberry Cordial with his beloved wife on their lawn overlooking the Bras D’Or Lakes.

The Tip of the Spear  

In 2013, the site of Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, celebrated its 300th anniversary. This fortress (fort and town,) was one of the busiest ports in North America and was originally built by the French in 1713 and taken over by the British for the last time in 1758. During its glory days, the French upper class enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle but the lower class lived with the basic necessities of life. Beer played an important part in their daily diet, and as it was a safer option it was consumed more often than water.

The Mi’kmaq First Nations peoples drank spruce tea and taught early settlers to use spruce to prevent the disease known as scurvy, that had killed so many during the early days of settlement.


The Tip of the Spear is a brew that was created for the 300th anniversary of Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Again, the Big Spruce Brewing company was approached to produce a custom beer to be served for the anniversary. Sold in a unique brown bottle, the story of the original Louisbourg brewery is on the back of the bottle.

Jeremy started to research and found information in old records that supported his plans to base a beer on a fact of history.

The brewery at Fortress Loiusbourg made spruce beer and in the 1750’s records inform us that 4000 barrels were produced for the garrison of 2000 troops. The records that were written by the French were highly detailed and were destroyed by the British when they took over the Fortress, however, fortunately a second set of every record kept was sent to France. Those records paint a vivid picture of life in the Fortress.

Beer was originally made by using black spruce tips, that were collected from mid June to mid July. They were mixed with molasses and fermented in barrels.

Big Spruce was able to recreate a beer reminiscent of the flavours of the brew that soldiers drank in the 1700’s – a valuable contribution to the 300th anniversary.

Recipe for Spruce Beer

Spruce Beer – from the Hannah Jarvis Cookbook, health remedies, c.1811. By Hannah Jarvis.

Boil some spruce boughs whiteout bran till the water tastes sufficiently strong of the spruce. Strain the water and stir in two quarts of molasses to half a barrel. Work it with yeast. When sufficiently worked bung it up or bottle the contents.

Recipe for Fruit Shrub  

Use 5 cups of fruit that is overipe but not mouldy. Add 4 cups of sugar to the mashed fruit and let sit 24 hours. Strain juice from the mashed fruit. Add an equal amount of red wine vinegar and bottle. Store for 4 weeks. This mixture is delicious added to cocktails or soda water and ice.










Highland Village, Cape Breton Island Oatcakes, Tea and Fiddle Music


In the Highland Village, a stone home represents life in the Hebrides Islands in Scotland in the early 1700’s before the migration of settlers to Cape Breton in search of a better life.

We climbed the hill against the strong wind to visit the woman who lived in the stone hut with a grass covered roof. She was showing us what it was like to be living in Barra Lake in the Hebrides Islands, Scotland, in the 1700’s.

It felt like we were deep in the heart of Scotland, but I was visiting the Highland Village in Iona, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The village is a living museum that portrays the life of the Scottish and follows the immigrants journey across the ocean to Cape Breton Island. As many as 30,000 settlers left Scotland for a better life in the new world in the late 1700 and early 1800’s. The early Scottish settlers struggled to make their way in the new world, but rather than continue their lives as slaves to their landlords in Scotland, they sailed to Cape Breton and were gifted parcels of land. When they first came their lives were very difficult. They lived on fish, ice fishing in the winter. Gathering berries and wild plants helped them to survive until their gardens produced. Eventually, they became established farmers and are now part of the fabric of Cape Breton Island, with their Gaelic traditions still very much a part of the culture.

“What do you eat?” I asked the ancient woman in the stone hut representing life in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.

“Potatoes,” she replied, “potatoes and more potatoes.”

She told us that sometimes they also had smoked fish, bannock (bread made of flour and water), oats and any berries they could find.

Nettle roots were mixed with water and eaten. She told us that she couldn’t afford salt to preserve the fish, so the fish was eaten smoked, fresh or not at all.

“Belly’s pretty empty,” she said, “shallow whiskey will make an empty belly feel full.”

She went on to complain about mistreatment from the landlord.


Interpretive staff offers oat cakes and tea while we enjoy music in the kitchen of a Scottish home in Cape Breton Island.

We walked on to visit a frame house, representing the life of Cape Breton Scottish settlers later on in the 1800’s we could see a happier, more prosperous way of life.

The house was simply furnished but with enough rooms for comfort. The farming family had a cozy kitchen with a fireplace. Time slowed as we entered the kitchen for a visit and a feeling of nostalgia took us back to life in the 1800’s.

Tea was poured and we helped ourselves to a plate of oatcakes (see recipe at the end of the article,) and a seat in front of the blazing open hearth fire. Soon we heard a story about a “goings on” in the village. Then a young woman grabbed her fiddle and played a mournful gaelic tune, while we looked out the window to the sun shining on the lake beyond. A bare footed girl stood and began a step dance.


Enjoying a fiddle tune and step dancing in the kitchen of a Scottish home in the Cape Breton Highlands at the Highland Village. IMG_1160.jpg

It was a taste of life in times when there was less noise. I could hear the slow ticking of the clock and the birds singing through the open window. A time when people entertained themselves with a cleilidh (a social visit, often involving music.)

The Scottish spoke Gaelic, a lyrical language that seemed to blend well with the music. It was a language with a long history. At school, the children were taught English and punished for speaking their mother tongue causing the language faded.

Food was simple in the time of the early settlers. Oatmeal had been an important part of their diet in Scotland and they missed oats when they first arrived. They were forced to use rough flours ground with stones. When they began to grow and grind oats they could return to baking their beloved oatcakes. The tradition of cooking White Pudding was continued in Cape Breton. It originally consisted of suet meat and oatmeal cooked in a cow’s stomach.

Other homes in The Highland Village portray a time when life was more prosperous and settled. Hot tea biscuits were on the kitchen table of a home with a wood stove, an invention that made life easier. Spruce buds sat waiting to be turned into a home brew made by boiling the buds with sugar, molasses and raisins. Toasted bread or yeast might be added.

The Highland Village ( )is situated on the hillsides of Cape Breton overlooking the Bra d’or Lakes. Eleven buildings represent different aspects of Scottish life from the 1700 to 1900’s. In each home a costumed character tells us a story as if we had just dropped in for a chat giving us a peek into their lives.

“Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” is a book written by Marie Nightingale that tells us of the roots of food in this province. She shared history and recipes that were brought with the Scottish.

On page 159, she writes about how the Scottish used “real” oatmeal and no sweetening. This old recipe from Pictou County used oatmeal ground at the Balmoral Grist Mill still grinds oatmeal today.

Pictou County Oatcakes (courtesy of Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens) by Marie Nightingale

  • 2 cups oatmeal          ¾ cup shortening
  • 1 cup flour                   ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup brown sugar     ¼ cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Combine dry ingredients and cut in shortening. Dissolve baking soda in the boiling water and add, continuing to mix with a knife. Mold with the hands into a long wedge. Slice off and bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.



Eskasoni Cultural Journey-Mi’kmaq cookery



Cooking Four Cents Bread over the fire

Over the fire, I held a stick wrapped with bread dough. Not unlike roasting a marshmallow, the bread turns brown and puffs up on the stick.

A Mi’kmaq Interpreter is teaching us to make Four Cents Bread as part of the Eskasoni Cultural Journey on Goat Island, in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Four Cents Bread was made traditionally as an inexpensive; take anywhere bread that was made with three simple ingredients.

Four Cents Bread

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tbsp. baking powder
  •  Water, as needed to make a dough texture.

This bread could be cooked by forming the dough into a disc shape and cooking over the fire on a metal sheet or by wrapping it around a stick and cooking it directly over the fire. And… it was delicious.


Interpreter at Eskasoni Cultural Journey shows visitors a loaf of Four Cents Bread cooked as a disc over a fire


To learn about the Mi’kmaq ways of the past on an Eskasoni Cultural Journey, we walked on a path with views of the lake through the forest. At different spots along the path, an interpreter in traditional Mi’kmaq attire greeted us. They spent time telling us of their traditional customs and ways. We learned of how they hunted moose and other animals, made and heated their homes through the long winters, made baskets and clothing, sang and danced, played games and lived a self sufficient life. A life that should not be forgotten.

The land provided all the food needed. Flag root was chewed, spruce buds made tea to help fever and sore teeth and many plants, roots and berries were collected for food

The Cape Breton Mi’kmaq fished the waters for the many gifts of the sea. In the Bras D’or Lakes, huge inland salt-water bodies of water there were many fish. Eels were and still are a coveted delicacy. They were fished by using a torch to attract them in the night. Eels were then baked, fried or used in stews soups.


Sugar serves Eel stew to guests at the Eskasoni Cultural Centre

When we returned to the cultural centre, I felt honoured to be served a bowl of eel soup, made by a woman named Sugar that morning. She shared with me her simple recipe of eel, cut in pieces, potatoes, onions and broth from cooking the mixture. Picturing a slimy, black eel cutting through the water did not match the fine taste of the tender, tasty flesh I pulled away from the bone.We ate it with Lu’sknikn bread and fresh strawberries.

After our meal, Sugar showed us a centuries old game, played with sticks, dice and a wooden bowl. It is still popular today. As she showed us, someone pointed out an eagle. Sugar stopped what she was doing, looked up and quietly sang a chant.

“A very good sign,” she told us, “when an eagle flies over.”

The food I tasted that day was made with all the care and using the flavours and methods of the past. It is a Mi’kmaq custom to give thanks daily for what the land has given them. I felt a deep, heartfelt privilege to learn the food customs of our First People.

Recipe for Lu’sknikn Bread – recipe courtesy of the Eskasoni Cultural Journeys

  • 4-6 cups of flour
  • 5 tablespoons of baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 2 cups of water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl
  • Part dry ingredients in the centre and 2 cups of water
  • Mix ingredients together (adding more water if needed)
  • Form dough to fit frying pan
  • Add vegetable oil to frying pan and pre-heat over medium high temperature
  • Place dough in frying pan (adding more oil if needed)
  • Cook until golden brown and then turn over.





Dining on Ship’s Biscuits in 1607



Ship’s Biscuits,(Biskits) formed a major part of the diet of those sailing to America

The year was sixteen hundred and seven and three ships of 105 men were sent by the Virginia Company from Britain to America to begin a settlement. It took five months make the crossing with stops in the Caribbean.

To celebrate that journey, the original archeological site, a re-created settlement,  three replica ships and a Powhatan village help us to learn about life as it was centuries ago.   Several interpretive staff at Jamestown, Virginia and the Yorktown Victory Centre – both passionate and knowledgeable about food history gave me helpful information about what we think may have been the diet of those travelling on the three British ships sent to colonize America in 1607.


How a sailor might have looked on the way to Jamestown.


Replicas of the Godspeed and Discovery ships that brought settlers in 1607

I have described the food that those sailing in 1607 might have eaten on their journey inside a short tale.

In the hold of the Godspeed, the wood creaked as the ship tossed and turned in the wild waves of the cold Atlantic. The year was sixteen hundred and seven.

I sat propped up against the side of the ship, in the hold and all around me were the other men, cold, sea sick and weak from the many days of sitting. We were fifty-one in total. We could not go above, to breathe the fresh air, unless we would not be in the way of the sailors. We brought no women on this journey.

We left England for a better life, to start a colony and make money for The Virginia Company. Would we find gold? I was starting to wonder if we would arrive at all. I was a gentleman in England and am not sure why I left. I closed my eyes and dreamt of dinner back in my mother’s kitchen back in England. Our stomach’s groaned with hunger like the ships timber around us.

The Godspeed was packed with food supplies and we survived by eating dried meats, rice, beans, pickled goods and lots of ship’s biscuits. It was damp in the hold and those biscuits started to get buggy. They were made back in England of flour, water and salt and are hard as a rock on the shore, so it is hard to imagine how a bug could settle into one of those biscuits. They are made to last a lifetime, even if ours doesn’t. Our cook made food over a fire burning in a barrel by the opening to the deck or up on deck, but food was getting scarce. We ate mostly soups and stews, and put the ship’s biscuits in the soup so we would fill up. We hoped to land in the Caribbean to take on fresh food and water.

I remember one day the cook was making us some food; we called it Drowning Baby Pudding, as unsavoury as that may sound. I am watching. The cook took some ship’s biscuits, pounded them finely and put them in a pot to mix with some scraps of salt pork. He found some onions, chopped several and added water to the pot. It was a special day because he added some eggs. He mixed up all the ingredients and wrapped it up in a cloth, forming a large ball and put it in boiling water to cook.

Believe me, it tasted good, very good. The ship’s wood groaned, but our stomachs were full, and the Godspeed tossed in the waves. We hoped we would land someday soon.

I baked some ship’s biscuits, to taste them myself. Here’s my “recipe” based on the ingredients that they would have used.

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • bit of salt

I mixed all together an kneaded the mixture for about five minutes. I rolled out the dough and used a round cutter to shape and prick with a fork as well as a second method of forming a flattened ball and pricking with a fork. Put on a cookie sheet in the oven at a 300 degrees for one hour or so.  They would often bake several times to ensure dryness, but mine were very dry. I ate one and – my teeth are still intact.



Colonial Williamsburg-Dining with the Governor


As I entered the kitchen building of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, I could smell turkey roasting over the charcoal fire. The slow ticking of the clock jack (a device of pulleys and clock like cogs) turned the turkey slowly. The year was seventeen and seventy-five. Spread out on the table was an array of dishes that would have been prepared for just one of the courses of dinner, should you be one of the gentry (upper class,) invited as a guest at the Governor’s palace.


The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg was the capital of the British colony of Virginia from 1699 until 1779. The large wall map in the palace shows Virginia as a much larger piece of the continent than it is at present. Many gentry lived in Williamsburg because it was the political centre of the state. Colonial Williamsburg stands proudly all these years later, and many original buildings exist as well as reconstructions that allow us to live in another time, if just for a moment…

The city had an elegant air that continues to this day and is reflected in the architecture of the buildings. Interpretive staff dressed in garb of 1770, bring history to life. Master food historians, and tradesmen such as wig makers, tailors, blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers continue to pass the skills of this time on to future generations.

Frank Clark, (pictured above) the Master of Historic Foodways at Williamsburg knows those ways of the past. He studied for years to become an expert in his field. After I spent some time in the kitchen, watching the food preparations and took a tour of the Governor’s Palace, I imagined what it would be like to be invited for a meal. One governor brought his French trained cook from England to ensure the quality of his food. Other cooks and slaves helped in the kitchen.


The grand finale course of sweets

Guests were seated in the elegant dining room for their main meal at 2 in the afternoon. A dinner invitation had great social importance and the meal would last for hours. Guests were seated according to rank and importance. Many dishes were prepared for this meal, and no one was expected to taste or dine on all of the dishes, after all, they may not enjoy what was being served.

Above is a sampling of dishes that may have been served for the first course: egg croquets, pie made of sweet breads (the thymus of veal), buttered onions, rabbit, pork dish, chicken cooked the French way, stuffed cabbage, creamed turnip, rolls and likely more dishes. Then a second course, equally as impressive, followed by dessert of crème brulee, Portuguese cake, and sweet confections.

Ornate table setting plans show where the dishes would be placed on the table as some are served, there are replacement dishes to be added. When each guest was seated, one serving platter has been placed in front of each guest. They were expected to cut, carve, and serve that dish to the others who wished to partake. There were so many dishes to be served that the table was covered. When one course was finished, the guests retired to anther room to visit and after a time, a second course was served with different, but similar plates of food.


This plan illustrates where each dish was placed on the table. The small circles outside the large table plans are dishes that would be substituted when another meat dish was completed. Each guest would serve the dish that was placed before them. The contents of the plans also show us the seasonal food eaten.

Food was not wasted at the palace, the governor had paid for it from his personal income and it was an honour to be invited for dinner. Leftovers were eaten as the morning meal the next day or for another meal.

The sweets course was followed by tea in the sitting room for the women and drinks in the dining room for the men. Cards, and games might have followed and the afternoon dinner often stretched into the morning hours.



Elegantly set sweets table at Governor’s Palace


Fruit gelatins made using pig’s feet.

That was dining at it’s most elegant, and those traditions remain alive through the skill and dedication of those preserving food history in Colonial Williamsburg.

Cuban Flan – Making Flan in a Can



Postre, (dessert) that evening came in a tiny green glass dish and was the tastiest flan I had ever enjoyed. We dined in a humble casa particular in the small, quiet seaside fishing town of La Boca on the south coast of Cuba. Our tables were on a porch that hung over the water and the moon reflected in the surf. Arianny Diaz Malcolm cooked for six guests that evening in her tiny kitchen with one electric burner. After soup, we enjoyed two grilled fish, caught fresh that morning with salad and rice. All delicious, but it was the delicate flan that caught my attention. Flan is the most common dessert served in Cuba, and I had tasted many flans. But Arianny served the creamiest flan I had tasted.


I asked Arryanny if she would give me a lesson on flan cookery the next afternoon. Keep in mind that the lesson was taught in Spanglish; she spoke Spanish and a wee bit of English and I spoke English and a wee bit of Spanish. But through demonstration and gestures we understood each other well.

Before I arrived, Arryanny had prepared the caramel by cooking 2 cups of sugar until reduced to a caramel, and put it in the bottom of the molds. The molds were the big surprise. She used beer cans and Cola cans cut in half.

She began by putting 2 cups of warm milk in a blender, added 1 ½ cups of white sugar and 1 cup of a powdered product called Coppelia – Leche which I believe was added to thicken the milk. She then added one egg and whipped it all up in the blender until it was thoroughly blended.

When blended, Arryanny poured the mixture into the cans. She topped each can with a pieces of plastic bag that appeared to have been used many times and put an elastic bands (which may have been the top cut from unused condoms) on the top to hold the plastic in place. In Cuba, people use what they have available.

She placed each can in a pan, added 1 inch of water and when the water boiled, she turned the stove down and simmered for 40 minutes. She placed them in a pan of cold water to cool but mentioned that they could go in the refrigerator.

Before serving, she instructed me to run a knife around the inside of the can and flip it into a bowl.

Arryanny made heavenly flan, slowly and with love and made it look very easy.I tried to make make Flan using Arryanny’s technique and the results were not so perfect. I will keep trying.

The History of Flan

Flan as a postre (dessert) has a long history in Cuba. It is a popular dish, and is served in many countries that were colonized by the Spanish. Mexico, the Phillipines and many central and South American countries serve a variation of this dessert. I did some Google digging and came up with some theories on the origins of flan.

Gourmet Sleuth, has a good description of the history of flan.

It states, “Flan is the term used to describe the Spanish, Portuguese or Mexican version of Creme Caramel.”

The word has Latin origins that mean “custard”. This method of cooking has been found in food writings of the Roman and Medieval European times and it was believed that eggs had both health and medicinal benefits. One theory states that this dish was served to the Romans as they travelled in their conquests and so spread across Europe.

It is hard to believe that three simple ingredients – eggs, sugar and milk could have such a heavenly result. But I believe there was a touch of magic in Arryanny’s