Louisbourg Soldiers’ Bread

A couple of years ago I spent a week on an archaeological dig at the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Louisbourg was a French fortified town founded in 1713 to protect the North American fishery and serve as a western Atlantic entrepôt in France’s imperial network, linking colonies in the Caribbean with Canada and France itself. The town grew very quickly both as a fishing station and trading port, but also as a military installation that allowed France to control access to the Saint Lawrence River. As such, it attracted the attention of both the British and American colonists who conquered it, twice. The first conquest, carried out primarily by American militia, occurred in 1745 and resulted in a three-year occupation before the town was returned to France. The second, carried out by the regular British army and navy, occurred in 1758. The French population was deported to France and ten years later the British leveled the town.

Louisbourg Harbour, 1758

Louisbourg Harbour, 1758

Afterward, a small fishing village slowly grew up beside the old town, but the site of the fortress itself remained largely untouched until the 1960s when the Canadian government decided to resurrect the town as a national historic site and reconstruct a significant portion for visitors to experience life in an eighteenth century colonial centre.

The Dauphin Gate

The Dauphin Gate

Louisbourg Harbour Light

Louisbourg Harbour Light

Archaeological work as been ongoing since then and in 2005 a public archaeology program began for amateurs like me to get their hands dirty.

Participants in the program worked primarily in the De la Vallières yard. De la Vallières was a successful trader in the town and the yard behind his house served as a warehouse and place of business for himself, his employees, and customers. The area is therefore full of archaeology that provides evidence of the kind and extent of trading carried out in the town. Fragments of wine bottles from France, Britain, New England and Spain have been found there. Pottery and ceramics of varying quality from the mundane to the best Chinese porcelain have all turned up in Louisbourg, illustrating the range of goods and the breadth of trading relationships that linked Louisbourg to the globe. Most abundant are the remains of clay pipes used by workmen on a daily basis and tossed away, crushed underfoot as people went about their activities. We also found the remains of a shattered mortar bomb lobbed over the city walls by British siege forces in July of 1758. The De la Vallières yard was a place of business, of leisure time, of trade, and also of war. The dig was a fascinating and invaluable experience.

Digging in the De la Vallières Yard

Digging in the De la Vallières Yard

The people who participated came for all kinds of reasons. As a historian who mostly reads about such things, digging in the ground, uncovering the daily lives of people from 300 years ago, put flesh on the bones of history. Another participant was interested in costume, and was there to learn more about how people dressed at the time and also how the museum today uses costume to create and enhance the experiences of present-day visitors. Another person seemed to be a kind of serial public archaeologist, traveling from dig to dig in the summer months. And then there were the two women in a Winnebago traveling around and looking for unusual and interesting things to do.

In addition to the dig, however, the public archaeology program provided an opportunity to experience all aspects of life in the reconstructed city. For example, archaeologists, historians, and plant biologists have worked together to reconstruct eighteenth-century kitchen gardens from documentary and seed evidence. The photo on the banner of this blog is of one of these gardens. And the food. Using French recipe books and commissary records from the French military, historians have reconstructed, and chefs have remade, the food Louisbourgeois would have eaten. Parks Canada has posted some of these recipes on their website and when I got home I began making eighteenth-century soldiers’ bread.

Each member of the Louisbourg garrison would have received a daily ration of salt pork stew and one six-pound loaf of  bread every four days. Since these were the days before preservatives and Wonderbread, a loaf would have been stale by the second day and hard as rocks by the fourth, so soldiers teamed up into groups of four to share one fresh loaf everyday. It wasn’t a lot, but it got them through.

I am far from an experienced baker, but this bread is the easiest I have made. And it takes very little time (not counting the time needed for the dough to rise). Originally, the king’s bakers in Louisbourg would have used stone-ground whole wheat or rye flour. I have used everything from stone-ground hard flour from the Arva Flour Mill just outside London, ON, to regular grocery store white flour without any trouble. Though, I have had the best results with organic, local flour.

Ingredients

  • ½ tbsp | 8 g of dry yeast
  • 1½ cups | 350 ml of lukewarm water
  • ½ tbsp | 4 g salt
  • 3 cups | 750 ml stone-ground whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup | 250 ml stone-ground rye flour

Directions

  • Follow the yeast package directions to get started. Mix in a large bowl: the yeast preparation, any remaining water and one third of the flour. Beat for at least 100 strokes. Cover and let rise for ½ hour.
  • Beat down and fold in the salt. Add the remaining flour 1 cup at a time until a workable dough forms that is not too stiff. Turn out onto a floured surface and lightly knead until smooth, about 5 or 6 minutes, adding flour as required to prevent sticking. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Depending on the weather, this could take between 4 and 12 hours. Punch down, let rise again until double in bulk. (A second rising improves the texture and taste. This step may be skipped). Punch down and turn dough out on floured surface and knead slightly. Divide dough into 2 equal portions and shape into rounds. Let these rise until the surface of the dough yields to the touch, about a half hour. Place on greased baking sheets and bake in an oven pre-heated to 400°F (200°C) for 25-30 minutes.

Credits

Recipe tested by Chef David Fairbanks, Algonquin College of Hospitality and Tourism. This traditional recipe was submitted by Parks Canada staff.

Making the Dough

Making the Dough

Rising

Rising

Kneading

Kneading

For good directions on how to Knead, go here.

Ready to Bake

Ready to Bake

Ready to Eat

Ready to Eat

So simple.

Unfortunately, as I was baking my latest loaf and writing this blog post, it became apparent to me that the Public Archaeology program at Louisbourg no longer exists. It seems it last ran in 2012. I have written to Parks Canada for confirmation, but as yet have received no reply. Since 2012, the only reference I have been able to find to any archaeology taking place at Louisbourg whatsoever, cites the construction of a new coastal trail done without the input of archaeologists and that managed to destroy a coastal fishing shed and house. For some years now it seems the only scientific excavations taking place at Louisboug, with the exception of the work in the De la Vallières yard, have been of the rescue and site protection variety. As the sea slowly and steadily erodes the site, much archaeology is lost each year and along with it, knowledge.

There has been much attention recently on federal cuts to science and research in Canada, and efforts by the present government to suppress knowledge it finds inconvenient (as I have discussed before). Parks Canada has not been spared these cuts and it seems Public Archaeology and, indeed, most archaeological work at Louisbourg  has fallen victim. It is not only science the Conservatives dislike, but also human sciences, at least those that do not uphold their nationalistic, militaristic, and imperial view of Canada. Rather than research and knowledge creation, Parks Canada now focuses on visitor experience. Where once Public Archaeology filled the August calendar at the Fortress, now there is a rock concert. Not exactly the kind of rock I would hope to find at Louisbourg.

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