From My Mother’s Kitchen

by Licia Canton

It wasn’t her choice to come to Canada fifty years ago. Like many others of her generation, she left a rural setting to follow a man to a distant metropolis. No doubt, she would have preferred to not live in a small basement apartment in a cold city where she didn’t have friends and didn’t speak the language. For forty years she worked in a wholesale meat plant with men who were stronger but less efficient than she. Even during the summer she wore steel-toe boots, cotton-covered steel-mesh gloves, a hairnet under a hard hat and a woolen winter sweater under her white butcher coat to keep warm in the refrigerated workplace. She might have preferred tilling the soil under the Venetian sun as she had done as a young woman.

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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!”


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.


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.


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.

Fresh Eggs and Polenta Chips

The CHC’s Canada 150 Blog Challenge for the month of February is: doing without. Last week, Shelley sought advice on the matter from the redoubtable sisters of the backwoods, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. This week, Licia Canton has contributed another story of emigration: from sunny Cavarzere, in the province of Venice to Montreal- North. This is a story about missing home (and eggs fresh from the chicken coop).

by Licia Canton

I have always felt the need to go back “home” – to retrieve the tastes and smells I left behind in my hometown of Cavarzere, in the province of Venice. I was only four years old when my family moved to a basement apartment in Montreal-North. I missed the sunny, rural setting we left behind. I cried a lot that first year.

I cried on my fifth birthday in February 1968. There’s a silent film of me in front of a big cake. My father is encouraging me to blow out the five candles but all I can do is cry. Maybe it was the room full of people from our hometown, none of whom were related to me. Maybe I cried because the cake did not look like the one I had had on my fourth birthday. Maybe I was just unhappy after being uprooted and replanted in a foreign land at an early age.

They say I was a talkative and adventurous child in Italy. But in Canada I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I missed a whole town full of people who knew who I was and who escorted me back home whenever I ventured to the piazza on my Graziella, the little white and blue bicycle I still have 50 years later. That bicycle was the symbol of my freedom. I could go anywhere, and I was safe. In Montreal, I was cooped up in a tiny, cold apartment. My parents wouldn’t let me go out to play. Big cars went by fast, even on des Récollets Street where we lived. I couldn’t play in the backyard because it was reserved for the owner of the duplex who lived upstairs.


I especially missed the foods that I was used to in Cavarzere, those my mother couldn’t replicate. The bananas purchased at Steinberg’s grocery store did not taste like the bananas in Italy. They were big and odourless. The oranges felt like plastic. They didn’t taste right either. Cherries were hard to come by. My mother purchased red and green candied cherries one time. I still recall my frustration at the sight of them. That’s not what I wanted. I did not say so because I was sure my mother had spent a pretty penny for them. She ended up making a cake with them.

Mostly, I missed my daily breakfast routine. I fed myself because my mother was busy with my baby sister, three years my junior. Every morning I went into the warm, smelly chicken coop. The rickety door alerted the chickens, and they all scattered about when I walked in. I looked into every nest before choosing my egg. It was always a little dirty but very warm in my hand. Tap, tap. I cracked it open and drank it on the spot. Yes, there were eggs at Steinberg’s and at the dépanneur at the corner of des Récollets and Prieur streets, just a short walk from our basement home. But they were cold and spotless. Not what I was used to. My mother appeased me by making sbattutino.

Back then, I also missed my grandmother’s polenta crusts: ƚe croste del paroƚo as we call them in Venetian dialect. Every day Nonna Gemma made a big pot (paroƚo) of polenta for her numerous family members. Once the huge polenta was laid out to be eaten, the residue dried up in the pot. She let me scrape the crusts. I liked the polenta chips more than the polenta itself. The chips were a treat for me.

My mother made polenta in Montreal, but she did not have my grandmother’s copper pot. There were no polenta chips to scrape off. I was disappointed whenever I saw the pot soaking in sink.

In the early years, every time I came back to Montreal after having vacationed in my hometown I had to get used to the fruit again. For a long time, that bowl of fruit at the centre of my mother’s table provoked a sense of loss in me.

That is no longer the case today. In recent years, I have seen similar bowls of fruit in the homes I’ve visited in Italy. Italians, too, buy fruit at the supermarket. They also buy ready-made polenta.

Even today, when I am sad or disappointed I crave my mother’s sbattutino. Of course, it is not the same colour as the sbattutino she made for me with eggs from the chicken coop. But I cannot complain about my parents’ decision to emigrate. I know now that it was the right decision: it gave us all a new beginning and many years of happiness. I have gotten over my sadness. And I am also grateful that my early childhood memories are so full.

Text and Photo by Licia Canton