Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Beginning of a colony

 

 

Food

The first immigrants survived on the hardtack bread, salted meat and salt fish they brought from France.  Monotony and hunger led them to try local foods in the new land such as corn, squash, game, fish and wild fruits.

 

As soon as practical, however, colonists resumed their French diet.  Bread made from wheat flour was a staple, as in the Old Country.  Gardens provided some variety in beans, cabbage, turnips, onions, lettuce and herbs.  Imported and local livestock supplied plenty of pork and beef.  Eel, salt cod and freshwater fish were served on the meatless days decreed by the Church.

 

As in France, bread was the staple of every meal.  The higher the social rank, the lighter the bread: so wealthy habitants ate white bread.

 

Around 1690, bakers in Quebec City offered three kinds of bread: white bread made with fine wheat flour; brownish-grey bread made from unrefined flour (pain blanc bis); and dark bread containing bran.  In 1700, the governing sovereign Council (Conseil souverain) adopted a regulation that bakers must always have “white and brownish-grey bread in their shops”.

 

For several centuries before the arrival of the French, Aboriginal peoples had cultivated maize, or Indian corn.  The colonist learned to plant this crop on newly cleared land, and it suppplemented their diet.

 

Maize was popular with the voyageurs because it was easy to get from Aboriginal peoples at trading posts and missions.

Handmade coffee mill (1750-1800)

 

In Montreal and Quebec city, with many bakers and wheat flour available, immigrants preferred traditional French bread. The quantity and variety of food at home depended on personal income.

 

 

 

 

There was pork and beef on every table, while poultry and mutton were sometimes available. In towns, game was occasionally eaten but in rural areas this was an important part of the diet, especially in winter.  Fish was always served on meatless days.

 

Imported items such as wine, sugar and coffee were readily available in towns.  Everyone relied on vegetables from their gardens and tried to be self-sufficient in dairy products, meat and eggs.

 

Most of the colonists came from northwestern France and they preferred the taste of butter over vegetable oils or animals fats, such as suet and lard.

 

Fish – especially eel, cod and salmon – was served on the two or three meatless days each week.  Eggs and dairy products were also permitted on those days, but they were banned during Lent and other special fast decreed by the Church.

 

Salted meat and salt fish could be preserved for a long time.  Gruyere and Dutch cheeses were first imported, but after 1710 local cheeses became available.

 

Three-quarters of the population lived in the country.  Baron de Lahontan, an officer stationed in New France (1683-1693) observed that « â€¦the peasants there live more comfortably than an infinite number of gentlemen in France.  It is wrong of me to call them peasants; one must habitants… Â»

 

The growing season lasted four to five months.  Around the beginning of May, the habitants ploughed the soil and prepared it for sowing.  Continuous good weather was a miracle, as there could be frost at any time.  Drought, hail or too much rain could ruin everything.  Work schedules were all organized around the wheat harvest, which could make or break the habitants.

 

Legume beans and string beans, commonly called «peas», where the second most important crop.  The habitants also grew vegetables and raised livestock.

 

 

Wheat took up 75% of the land being farmed. Peas and oars were a distant second.  Corn, barley and rye were marginal crops.  The dominance of wheat had disastrous effects if the harvest was bad; the poor suffered greatly when there was a shortage of food.

 

New France had 76 flour mills.  This was a vast territory, so agricultural conditions varied from one area to another.  Livestock breeding was important in the west but in the east people relied more on fishing.

 

By the end of the 17th century, the habitants often ate better than ordinary people in France.  Abundant local produce was supplemented by imports.  Table manners gradually improved.  Cookbooks were shared.  Chefs and innkeepers influenced taste and cuisine.

 

 

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