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Importance of Food in 18th-Century Louisbourg
Eighteenth-century Louisbourg was founded on the cod fishing industry and developed as a trading port. Most of the inhabitants were involved in these industries, and many others belonged to the military, who were responsible for the protection of the town and these industries. Unlike most colonial towns, Louisbourg was not self-sufficient, and from lists of imports into Louisbourg (these lists survive today), a fairly clear idea of the daily menu emerges.
The food eaten in the 18th century can be grouped under the same basic types we eat today: meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and "sweets". However, as a result of improvements in medical knowledge and food storage, our diet allows for balanced nutrition and greater variety all seasons of the year.
In the 18th century, lack of dependable refrigeration made it necessary to consume a great quantity of dried and salted foods, especially through the winter months. In Louisbourg in particular, the cold weather prevented ships from sailing, thus cutting off much needed food supplies from other areas and countries.
It was very monotonous fare in winter, as stated by Chevalier Johnston. The arrival of warmer weather brought supply ships, fresh food, and such delights as berries and fruit. With fresh flour available, the bread baked in ovens was wholesome and appetizing; and as bread was the staple food in the diet, this was a most welcome improvement over winter fare.
Some livestock was kept, especially hens for eggs and goats for milk. Pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, turkeys and geese are listed in many inventories recorded in 18th century Louisbourg. Large animals are difficult to keep over the winter due to the cold weather and scarcity of fodder, and were usually slaughtered in the fall. Many animals were transported live aboard ship, as it was easier to feed and water them than to keep the meat fresh during long sea voyages. These animals were butchered and sold upon arrival in the towns, and this method of importing was referred to as "meat on the hoof".
Hunting was a popular way to augment food supplies, and archaeological evidence indicates the remains of hare, lynx, moose, black bear and caribou, as well as many seabirds. It is interesting to note the absence of deer, however it is known that deer carry a parasite which is fatal to the caribou and, therefore, these two animals do not exist in the same area.
Large quantities of butter and cheese were imported, and there is scant evidence of either being made in Louisbourg.
Seasonings, which were brought by the trade ships, provided much needed relief in the wearisome meals, and herbs were dried and used for additional flavour. Some seasonings included salt, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger and coriander. Many herbs were grown in small potager (kitchen) gardens in Louisbourg, while others were imported. Some of these were mint, tarragon, parsley, basil, sage, thyme, cress, saxifrage, bloodwort, wintercress and nasturtium.
Molasses (the most common sweetner, since it was cheaper), and sugar, brought from the West Indies, came in great quantities.
Some of the more popular beverages included rum from the West Indies, spruce beer made locally, and coffee which came in on the trade ships. Children drank milk and lemonade when available and diluted coffee and wine.
While we have not found any cookbooks which were used in Louisbourg, we acquired several 17th and 18th century cookbooks, published in France from which we select recipes appropriate to Louisbourg. These selections are based on the foods available in Louisbourg, as well as the seasons in which particular items were in supply.
The attached recipes give an insight into the methods of preparations and presentation of various dishes. These recipes appear rather vague to us, but not to those who were familiar with cooking in the 18th century, as it was assumed you knew the particular details necessary and needed only to be made aware of the ingredients and manner of serving. We offer you the results of our experimentation and testing, but you may interpret the original recipe to your own satisfaction. We found them interesting, tasty, and economical; but the effort and patience demanded in the 18th century is just as indispensable today.