Easter Tidings

by Licia Canton

There’s a photo of our departure from the Milan airport in June 1967. My mother and her daughters are being escorted to the plane by the airline agent. My baby sister is in my mother’s arms and is not visible as we are walking away from the photographer – one of the relatives who drove us from Cavarzere (our hometown near Venice) to Milan. My mother left behind her parents and siblings to join her husband in Montreal. I can only imagine their sadness that morning as we set off for a distant land. No one else in the Busatto clan had emigrated to Canada.

My maternal grandfather cried as he watched us leave. He didn’t think he’d ever see his daughter again. Years later, my grandmother told me that she had tried to convince him not to go to the airport. She knew that he would be inconsolable after seeing us leave. While he watched us walk towards the plane, she had already chosen her plumpest faraona (guinea hen), plucked its white-spotted plumage and prepared brodo (broth), which cured all ailments. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers raised chickens and guinea hens, but the latter were for special occasions. Even today, when I tell my father that I made chicken for dinner, he’ll retort: “Chicken? Faraona is the best!”

brodo

My parents taught me to put a whole guinea hen into a big pot of water with celery, onions, carrots, a clove of garlic and very little salt. We then cooked small noodles in the broth, and sprinkled Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top. We usually ate the boiled faraona and vegetables as a second course.

At Easter time, we made tagliatelle or cappelletti. In dialect, taiadele in brodo are the thin ones in broth (tagliolini or taglierini in Italian) whereas taiadele sute (dry) are the wide ones served with sauce. As a young girl, I loved to help my mother make fresh pasta. She taught me to break one or two or three eggs into a little mound of flour. I remember how hard it was to turn the handle of her pasta maker. It was permanently set up on the brown table in the basement, and it took her very little time to produce lengths and lengths of fresh pasta.

pasta

Red or pink hard-boiled eggs were also part of our Easter tradition. They sat in a bowl looking pretty for a few days until we were allowed to devour them. I used to marvel at their elegant simplicity. I recall that my mother boiled the eggs with an old red cloth, but she says she used food colouring. It may be that I am remembering the early years in Montreal while she is remembering the more prosperous later years.

Eggs

In the 1970s, my parents owned a butcher shop at the corner of Sabrevois and Rome streets in Montreal-North. Just before Easter, they sold lots of lamb to their Italian customers. Fresh Quebec-raised lamb was much more expensive than the frozen one from New Zealand which cost 99 cents a pound. The butcher shop was exceptionally busy during Easter week. My father spent most of his time at the electric saw while my mother collected the pieces of frozen lamb into the original cloth bag that read “PRODUCT OF NEW ZEALAND KEEP FROZEN.”

“We didn’t like lamb,” my mother said when I asked why we didn’t eat it at Easter or any other time.

That has changed over the years and, today, we eat lamb regularly. That is in part due to my husband’s family traditions. This Easter season my Venetian father and Calabrian mother-in-law went shopping together for the ingredients to make le focacce di Pasqua (Easter bread). They each make them differently, but the ingredients are mostly the same. My father makes very dry, round fugasse (in dialect) that he cooks in his wood-burning oven. My mother-in-law makes a sweeter, prettier version and adds hard-boiled eggs to decorate her multi-shaped focacce.

This Easter we will eat lamb and faraona broth with homemade pasta, several focacce and lots of eggs – hard-boiled and chocolate ones!

 

Maple Syrup for Sweet Occasions

Text and Photos by Licia Canton

The year we celebrate our nation’s 150th anniversary also marks my 50th year in Canada. I must confess that, when I was growing up in Montreal-North, maple syrup was not a staple in my Italian parents’ household. We never had pancakes, waffles, muffins or whatever else my non-Italian neighbours typically ate. I cannot remember my first encounter with maple syrup, but I remember going to la cabane à sucre (the sugar shack) with my parents and sister. I would have been in my late teens.

Maple syrup was never on my mother’s grocery list. I always thought of it as a luxury when I was little. But my Montreal-born husband remembers it differently. “We often had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast,” he recalls. “My mother bought maple syrup at the Jean-Talon market all the time. It wasn’t expensive in those days, before producers banded together to control the price. A few cents for a jug.”

sirop d'erable

Today, in our Venetian-Calabrian-Canadian home, we always have maple syrup in stock. I routinely buy it when I see that it’s running low. I’ll admit that I add a little to my very healthy (but a little bland) oatmeal. And every Wednesday morning I make French toast for my kids. Why Wednesday? It’s a sweet way to acknowledge that we’ve made it to the middle of the week. And on Wednesdays my own breakfast consists of egg whites and spinach. What am I supposed to do with the yolks? I don’t have enough time to make sbattutino, so I add a little milk to the yolks and make lots of French toast with strawberries, maple syrup and lots of caffellatte.

Often, when I travel, I purchase maple syrup products at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. I usually buy the maple-leaf-shaped bottle and maple candy – the typically Canadian things I can bring to friends and acquaintances I visit abroad. When I landed in Tokyo last July, I brought maple syrup to my friend Yakup (originally from Turkey) who greeted us at the airport. We hadn’t seen each other since 1990, when we were both studying at the University of Kent at Canterbury. My children were impressed that Yakup and I were still in touch. Yakup had given me a “forget-me-not” cup and saucer when I left Canterbury. Growing up, my children knew him as “the friend who gave you the cup we cannot touch.”

A few days later, I gave another bottle of maple syrup to our friends Taka and Hiro, who took us on a tour of Mount Fuji. Taka and my husband were in graduate school together in Montreal. A maple-leaf-shaped bottle of the sweet golden liquid would bring back memories of our vast and friendly land, the cold, white winters, skiing and sugaring off. At least that’s what I hoped.

Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse

When the Culinary Historians of Canada announced that “Maple” was the March topic for the Canada 150 Blogging Challenge, I immediately thought of Alice Munro.

Munro once famously described her affinity for the short story through a maple-inspired image. Rather than writing novels, she prefers to condense a story to its essence – “boiled down like maple syrup” is how she puts it. (“Alice Munro”)

In the world of literary cookbooks, maple also appears to be Munro’s signature ingredient.

Judith Choate’s A Reader’s Cookbook targets book club members with the aim to “amplify” texts through “literal tastes” tied either to setting or to a writer’s country of origin. In the chapter “Under a Maple Sky—O Canada!” Choate includes a recipe for Maple-Walnut Bread with Maple Butter alongside a passage from Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.”

This short story describes the distinct character of the Ottawa Valley as the place where “maple syrup has a taste no syrup produced elsewhere can equal.” (4) Munro’s own Ontario roots in Huron County, or Ontario’s West Coast, mean that maple syrup sometimes makes appearances in her fiction.

A Reader’s Cookbook claims that “the maple flavor sings of the Canadian table.” But just as actual maple syrup is classified by colour and taste, Munro’s stories reveal a range of meanings suited to her characters’ far-from-sweet circumstances.

Consider Munro’s “Spelling” from Who Do You Think You Are?  To my mind, this sombre story is akin to the “Grade A — Very Dark, Strong Taste” variety of maple syrup. When the protagonist, Rose, visits her elderly step-mother, Flo, readers discover a home in a state of decay, the fridge full of “sulfurous scraps, dark crusts, furry oddments.” (235) Flo has started placing kitchen tools in strange places, and with her mind unravelling, she turns to sweetness in excess — a culinary charm against a world that seems nonsensical and filled with bitter experiences too difficult to resolve:

“She might tip the jug of maple syrup up against her mouth and drink it like wine. She loved sweet things now. Craved them. Brown sugar by the spoonful, maple syrup, tinned puddings, jelly, globs of sweetness to slide down her throat.” (235)

Swilling maple syrup may not appeal to most, but Munro offers a lighter serving suggestion in the form of Maple Mousse.  Margaret Atwood’s The CanLit Foodbook includes Munro’s “own recipe” for this dessert, one that I’ve always been curious to try.

The ingredients are simple: milk, gelatin, whipping cream, egg yolks, sugar, salt, a splash of rum, and of course, a half cup of maple syrup to give it a subtle flavouring.

Munro recommends serving this moulded dessert with extra syrup “if you want to be fancy.” A maple candy provides an “O Canada!” garnish.

Maple mousse makes a brief appearance in Munro’s “Sunday Afternoon” from Dance of the Happy Shades. This story perhaps falls under the “Grade A — Amber Colour, Rich Taste” maple syrup classification with its depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Gannett’s affluent, leisured life in the city. Every Sunday, the extended Gannett family gather for lunch. On this particular afternoon, tongue, aspic, and maple mousse are on the menu. Alva, the farm-girl hired as the summer-time maid, works in the family’s midst — living under their roof, following their daily rhythms, eating their food.

We are told that there is “plenty” of maple mousse dessert for Alva, but she will never be part of the family. She eats all her meals alone. Hers is an isolated existence distinguished by subtle humiliations: her name summoned by Mrs. Gannett “in tones as … penetrating as those of the bell,” and her required uniform of “Cuban-heeled shoes clomping” on the backyard patio when she carries out the luncheon dishes. (164)

Maple syrup may be quintessentially Canadian, but when it runs through the imagination of this Nobel-prize-winning author, the results are Munro’s uniquely storied varieties.

 

“Alice Munro.” 1978. BC Booklook, 7 April 2008.

Choate, Judith. A Reader’s Cookbook. New York: Red Rock Press, 2012.

Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse.” The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate—A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare. Compiled and Illustrated by Margaret Atwood. Totem Books, 1987, p. 55.

—. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988.

—. Friend of My Youth. 1990. Penguin Books, 1991.

—. Who Do You Think You Are? 1978. Penguin Books, 1991.

 

Text and Photos by: Shelley Boyd

 

 

Land of Cakes

“Canada is the land of cakes.” So states Catharine Parr Traill confidently in the cake section of her Female Emigrant’s Guide of 1854.

It is to one such recipe, for “cup cake” that I turn for this second installment of economical cooking with Traill. It’s “about as good as pound-cake, and a great deal cheaper” says Traill before getting down to the business of ingredients and instruction:

Three cups of flour, one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, and four eggs, well beat in together, and baked in pans or cups. NOTE.—This is a regular American cake.

eggs

eggs, flour, sugar, butter

Not a note about temperature and timing here but readers of The Female Emigrant’s Guide will come to know that there are all kinds of subtleties of skill that comes with hearth cooking. Fires are hot, quick, clear, brisk, slow and slack and dishes may be placed on or near to achieve the desired effect. Adjusting temperatures is not, as it turns out, a mere matter of turning a dial.

Shelley and I wanted to highlight Traill’s Guide this past month because

  1. It pairs so beautifully with the Culinary Historians of Canada, Canada 150 challenge
  2. McGill-Queen’s University Press is soon to release a new re-set edition of the Guide, under the expert guidance of Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas. Look for it this coming June with the title Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, Cooking with a Canadian Classic.

Fiona Lucas joins us below to tell us a little about the book and also speaks to this week’s recipe.

We include encouragement to recreate her recipes, such as a measurements chart and shopping advice. We also explore Canadian foodways in the mid-nineteenth century in relation to today’s tastes and techniques. Take the word “cake.” In Traill’s English youth early in the century, the term “cake” encompassed three basic categories: plum cake (large yeasted or egg-raised fruit breads; also called “great cake”), pound cake (plain butter cakes), and sponge cake (plain cakes made very light by the addition of eggs, yolks and whites beaten separately until very airy; also called biscuit cake and savoy cake). It was also a generic word for any sweet, flour-based baked item, what we’d call a cookie today. By her middle-aged years in Canada, “cake” was encompassing new American forms, like “cup cake.”

batter

 

dishes

Cup cakes were dollops of plain batter baked in little cups, even literally teacups, often paper-lined. Directions generally stipulated one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beaten together, and baked in little pans or cups. This contrasted with the old British pound cake and its one pound each of butter, flour, and sugar. Fancier cup cakes boasting fluted papers and a bit of icing anticipated the decorative icing-laden treats that became briefly all the rage a few years ago. Traill’s recipe was taken without attribution from Mrs Child in The American Frugal Housewife (1832).

ready to bake

For her British immigrant readers, Traill’s cake recipes were distinctly North American in three ways. They were mostly measured by volume (cups) instead of weight (pounds); raised with chemical pearlash, saleratus, or soda, not yeast or multiple eggs; and moistened with molasses, milk, or sour cream rather than softened butter. Inexpensive, quick, small, and simple, with few eggs to whisk, they were very unlike the fruit-laden, yeasted great cakes of her Suffolk childhood. In other words, exactly what busy mothers in the bush with no servants needed.

baked cake

Belying the notion that white sugar was costly and unavailable, her cakes were amply sweetened with it, brown and maple sugars being substituted only if necessary, although sometimes molasses was texturally preferable, as in gingerbreads and Indian cakes.

a slice

Text by Fiona Lucas and Alexia Moyer

Photos by Alexia Moyer