Wednesday, February 28, 2007

From Bannock to Boston Brown Bread:

Deep within my secret high-tech lair and fully-equipped kitchen, I begin my investigation of the cuisine of Canada. I must first admit I know nothing about Canadian cuisine. My only slight advantage is that I’ve covered significant stretches of Canadian. Back in the 1990s, a work assignment had me traveling by car through all of the Prairie Provinces. It was flat, I got dizzy counting telephone poles and we lived on doughnuts, coffee and club sandwiches.

I start by trying to understand a little more about the country. Some Canadian facts to chew on – the population was estimated at 32,227,000 in 2005 and the capital is Ottawa. People of British and French descent make up more than half the population. Canada was originally inhabited by various Native American peoples and the mainland was explored by the French and English beginning in the late 15th century. In 1605, the French established the first permanent settlement at Port Royal but gradually lost control of eastern Canada, which was ceded to England in 1763 after the Seven Years' War. The Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867 and extended to the western provinces in 1905. One reference says the name Canada originated with the word kanata, which means “village” in Huron, an Iroquoian language of eastern Canada. The French explorer Jacques Cartier used the word to refer to the land around his settlement, which is now part of Quebec City.

I’m beginning to develop a picture. The cuisine will likely have French, English and even Native American influences. I spend some time looking into one of the menu items Jill has given me, skillet-baked bread called Bannock. I find some fascinating strands of history that link the old and the new world. There are stories of early British settlers bringing bannock to North America where it became part of the diet of First Nations people. There are members of the Cree community who say they learned to make bannock from the Scottish who settled in Northern Quebec hundreds of years ago. Consistent ingredients appear to be flour and baking powder for leavening and it is often cooked as patties in a large skillet, sometimes over a campfire. I wonder about the practicality of building an open fire in my kitchen for the sake of authenticity, and then I decide to move on to investigate several vintage Canadian cookbooks online. Meanwhile, Jill in Ottawa is following a trail through early American culinary history to the city of Boston. She writes:

I begin researching my American meal with a trip to the library to pick up some cookbooks to join the stack already on my living room floor. Included in my selection -- I just can't resist -- is the "Miss America Cookbook". Much to my surprise, Miss America eats more than just salad: the book includes a recipe for Sweet Potato Pie, courtesy of Miss America, 1980. I set the pageant winners aside for the time being, however, as I decide to prepare a trial loaf of Boston brown bread, something I've never made before and may have eaten once, on a long-ago trip to Boston.

I discover that Boston brown bread is a steamed bread, made with a combination of wheat and rye flours (some recipes call for graham flour), cornmeal, molasses, buttermilk and baking soda. Raisins appear to be optional. The dish dates back to colonial times and features ingredients available to the early settlers of New England. Corn was a staple in the colonies and rye was also plentiful, while wheat was in shorter supply, accounting for the blend of flours. While one source suggests that the bread may have initially been sweetened with maple syrup, the rum trade made molasses a common ingredient in New England dishes. Sugar cane harvested by slaves in the West Indies was shipped to Boston to be made into rum, which was sold back to Europe or West Africa. (As a historical aside, I learned that in 1919, Boston suffered the "Great Molasses Flood", when a tank holding molasses exploded, killing 21 people and injuring another 150.)

Since many early settlers did not have ovens, cooking instead in large fireplaces, the bread was steamed rather than baked, traditionally in a tall cylindrical container. Most of the historic recipes I find call for steaming in a basin or mould, while modern cookbooks suggest a coffee can. The Puritans served the bread as the traditional accompaniment to baked beans, another dish featuring molasses. As their beliefs prohibited the Puritans from working on the Sabbath, this meal was commonly prepared on Saturday and reheated the following day.

For my first effort, I turn to Fannie Farmer. I consider the recipe in the original 1896 "Boston Cooking School Cookbook", but decide on a more recent - although virtually the same - version, using corn meal, whole wheat flour and dark rye flour. After two hours of steaming in a hopefully well-cleaned coffee can, the bread (pictured above) comes out beautifully, a rich, warm brown cylinder, slightly springy to the touch, similar to a steamed pudding, but less dense. Following Fannie's directions, I slice the hot loaf by using a crossed string, which works perfectly. The taste is sweet, although not overwhelmingly so, with a distinctive, slightly bitter molasses flavour that lingers. It reminds me of something which I can't quite pin down - a bran muffin maybe? Perhaps it will come to me on the next attempt.

Here in the states, my friend “Lee Sloan” a Grande Dame of food and wine – who is on the guest list for the Canadian food tasting on March 18th – starts to feed me some tidbits of information. Lee writes:

I don't have any Canadian cookbooks, per se, but I started checking out a couple of old traditional French tomes to see what I could find. Larousse had nothing on any of the proposed dishes.

But I did find, in the "Bouquet de France," 'Gourmet's Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces,' circa the 1950s, a recipe for La Tourtiere Poitevine (Poitou Chicken Pie). It's from the province of Poitou -- which is just below Anjou, Touraine and a corner of Brittany -- and, in fact, I don't see any vegetables in it.

Shortly after, Lee informs me that she has located a “source” that could move my research forward – a woman who lives in Canada -- and for several years worked for the Canadian consulate to market Canadian foods here in the United States. She has heard of every one of the dishes in the Canadian Challenge and would be delighted to talk with me.

The plot – much like the French Canadian Pea Soup – thickens.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Jann said...

I think you have your work cut out for you-this is really quite interesting and time consuming on your part-the plot may very well thicken!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting findings , T.W. !It's amazing how in history you can trace origins and evolution of a certain dish or cuisine.