Newfoundland food history

Tasting Flatbread at L’ Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

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Britta sat in a dark, longhouse made of blocks of sod, mixing ingredients in a small pottery bowl. She wore the heavy, warm woolens of a Viking woman and was about to mix some flat bread. I was waiting back in time to taste the results.

After walking along a boardwalk through what looked like a miniature forest (the trees grow slowly because of the harsh environment,) I came to several buildings covered in sod. It was not hard to imagine I was visiting a Viking settlement one thousand years ago. But I was in Newfoundland, not Greenland. Archeologists revealed a Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960 and now Parks Canada protects the land where the Vikings settled and has recreated several of the sod structures where costumed characters bring the site to life. It is also a World Heritage site making this worth the long trip to the north of Newfoundland. Strangely enough Vikings travelled to Newfoundland in search of hardwood, something that was in short supply in Greenland. It was needed to build and repair their boats so L’Anse aux Meadows became an outpost. The journey from Greenland to Newfoundland took 63 days and was 600 nautical miles. Groups of Vikings would come to the outpost for periods of one to two years. After crossing the Davis Strait, their ships followed the coast of Baffin Island, to Labrador and Newfoundland. At L’Anse aux Meadows, the remains of eight buildings have been uncovered. It appears that each of three ships built a longhouse that became home for twenty to thirty men and women.

What the Vikings ate when they lived in Newfoundland

In Greenland they raised cows, sheep, goats and produced dairy products. But did they bring the animals with them? From the archeological dig findings they do know some of what the Vikings ate in L’ Anse aux Meadows. They ate caribou, seal, and fish. The grains they used included rye, spelt, oats and barley.

In the morning, they may have made porridge of grains. For other meals they likely ate stew made with caribou and vegetables or soups made of vegetables in broth. They are known to have eaten duck eggs. Pottery was found at the site, so dishes were made and hallowed animal horns were used as cups. A form of alcohol called mead was made from grains and honey.

Butternut shells were found and it is known that they did not grow north of New Brunswick.

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Vegetable soup cooking in an iron pot over the fire at L’Anse aux Meadows

The Viking interpreter known as Britta was making soup and flatbread when I arrived. The soup was a mixture of water filled with vegetables cooking in a round-bottomed iron pot that hung over the fire.

Viking Flatbread

Britta put into a pottery bowl a mixture of barley flour, rye, spelt and ground oats together with some water and mixed in some dried berries to add sweetness. She mixed it together until it became dough and formed flat bread. She melted some fat on a long handled flat iron skillet and held it over the open fire. She flipped it to cook the other side.  The bread tasted surprisingly delicious considering it was made with such simple ingredients.

I ate my piece of bread in the dark longhouse, lit only by fire and the few strands of sunlight. I sat beside big Viking Egil and in drifted a gruff Viking woman named Tora. I imagined what it would be like one thousand years ago, sleeping on furs on a raised platform, in the damp sod longhouses with the winds howling outside. It would have been a job just to keep the fire burning all the time. The Viking men would bring caribou meat to be cooked and between preparing the skins to be used for clothing and weaving cloth for clothing, foraging and cooking there would have been little time for rest.

Beside the wild ocean of the Atlantic I enjoyed a taste of Viking life and food at L’Anse aux Meadows thanks to Parks Canada.

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French Bread Ovens, Dot’s Bakery, Newfoundland

In the next few posts I will visit Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada where I found the food roots continue to reflect the past.

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There were buns the oven, but these were not ordinary buns and this was no ordinary oven. Port au Choix is one of six locations in Newfoundland, Canada to celebrate their French heritage by building an outdoor bread oven. A wood fire is started in the oven at 9:30 in the morning. The ashes are removed before the buns are put in the oven at 2 in the afternoon by interpreters dressed as though ladies of the past. Visitors were served by Audrey and Marjorie to a hot bun and butter with homemade jams made of local berries such as Bakeapple, Partridgeberry and Blueberry, and coffee or tea. A nominal fee is charged to participate in this taste of history.

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Marjorie Lavers holds warm buns from the outdoor bread oven.

While we enjoyed the warm buns, we learned of the past of the French fisheries on these shores. Marjorie Lavers shared this history with passion as this is part of her past.

In 1713, the French were given rights by the British to fish off the coast of Newfoundland, but were not allowed to form settlements. Port au Choix was an important harbour at that time and the French used the land only to salt and prepare their fish for the journey back to Europe. There were many Roman Catholic religious holidays all over Europe that required that fish be eaten and no meat, so the demand was high. The skilled “salter” was considered to be one of the most important men on the schooners from France because the salting of the fish had to be perfect. Pure white and dried to perfection is what was required for good sales. The baker was also an important person aboard ship and bread ovens were build on the Newfoundland coast to feed the young fishermen fresh bread after eating hard tack on the journey over the ocean.

Some of the earliest settlers of Port au Choix were French fishermen who chose to hide when the ships returned to France. They joined the community of English and Indigenous peoples, but could not speak French or let their ancestry be known. Those French fishermen are the ancestors of some of today’s residents in Port au Choix (Port of Choice,) who are now proud to show their French heritage.

But what recipe was used for those buns cooked in the French ovens today? They were the best I had ever tasted.

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Carolyn Lavers runs Dot’s Bakery and carries on the business started for her mother.

 

I asked Marjorie Lavers, one of the interpretive staff at the French Rooms and the Bread Oven. She sent me to meet her sister, Carolyn, who runs Dot’s bakery in town and makes the buns to be baked in the outdoor oven.

“This bakery started as a project to keep my Mom busy,” Carolyn told me. Her mom, Dot, was a good cook. All the women made their own bread in days gone by. But once the bakery started her mother could barely keep up with the orders from the fishing boats and soon she was making 12 loaves a day by hand. Eventually the bakery was enlarged with the help of Carolyn and just as it opened the “fisheries went down.” This was an event that her mother had always predicted. It was hard for a while to make up the lost business, but now the bakery is doing a booming business making bread for stores. It is open to the public only on Saturdays, a busy day at Dot’s.

Carolyn still uses her mother’s original bun recipe and she figures it may have come from her grandmother or great grandmother. Her breads use no artificial ingredients and are still made in the way of the past, with the help of one modern tool; a large commercial mixer.

She willingly shared her recipe, telling it from memory. After all, that’s what she does everyday. Eating one of Carolyn’s buns is a taste not easily forgotten. Thanks Carolyn for keeping food history alive.

Dot’s Rolls

  • 3 lbs., 5 oz. flour
  • ¼ of a cup of yeast
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 2 oz. sugar
  • 2 oz. of shortening
  • 2 eggs, beat up a bit

Mix like any other bread recipe, knead, let rise, knead, let rise and bake for 15 minutes in a 375 degree oven until browned on the top. Makes 3 – 4 dozen of the best buns you have ever tasted.