Sunday, 10 February 2008

Culinary Time Travel: Supper from 1750 in New France

A very grand pleasure this weekend: Elin’s conjoint Emmanuel Nivon—with her help—presented Lee and me and Sophie and Lukas with a delayed Christmas present, a 10 course meal from the New France of 1750. Emmanuel is a passionate historian, who has worked a lot for Parks Canada as a guide and who has an amazing collection of 18th century objects. The menu, he explained over drinks, olives and almonds, was what an upper middle class family in Montreal or Quebec City might enjoy on a special occasion during the height of the French regime. (One of the things he does is give workshops to school and interest groups on life in New France in English and French: I can’t imagine a better way to learn about the past.)

We were to serve ourselves from the dishes as they came to table, he explained. The custom was to present as many dishes a possible, but the company was not expected to eat everything since the left-overs would feed the rest of the family, its employees and servants for subsequent meals. That’s a good thing because we couldn’t possibly have eaten everything, even though it was delicious.

The table was set with rimmed plates that somewhat resembled a soup dish, a soup spoon, napkin (on the right), two pronged-fork, a broad, unsharpened knife and a small loaf of bread. When we got to the meats that needed to be cut, Emmanuel feigned surprise that we didn’t have our own pocket knives with us (in 18th century New France we would have, it seems) and produced folding knives for us to use.

The first course—a farmer’s soup of rich home-made stock and vegetables--was served in the dish, and Emmanuel said to sop up any left with the bread broken off the bread. We kept our plates for each of the following courses: very few people would have had a service large enough to provide separate plates for each new dish, Emmanuel said. In between we scoured our plates with bread. There were pitchers of blonde beer, and carafes of red Bordeaux, white Burgundy and water to drink, all served in the same glass too.

Next came boudin noir and boudin blanc, sausages made from blood and ground fowl, followed by a kind of empanada (he said they show up as paté espagnol in the old documents) filled with salmon, and white fish rissoles. After that there was a ragout of capon in a cream sauce and roast pork with tangy mustard sauce “à la diable,” accompanied by wild rice, and green peas cooked with ham..

When I found myself struggling with the peas—ever try to scoop them up with a two-tined fork?--Lukas suggested I try the broad knife, which he was using. Emmanuel nodded in agreement. Suddenly I remembered my father chanting: “I eat my peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life./ It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife.” Ah yes, the world connects in the most amazing ways!

After that we had a little break with radishes and cucumbers to dip in salt—white salt from Camargue, not the gray stuff that would have been imported from the west of France and which contained impurities we might find delightful now. Gruyère and Gouda—both of which were imported into the colony in the 18th century—followed as a cheese course. The dessert was fresh cream cheese, with apricot and cherry preserves. accompanied by coffee and Italian macaroons. Rum from Saint Domingue (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic today) rounded things off.

The meal lasted five and a half hours with much laughter and good talk. Truly an unforgettable evening!


Anne C. said...

How amazing! Your family sounds lovely.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Thanks. I think they're pretty great too.