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Alex Cruz of Quebec retailer Société Orignal isn’t sure which language to use. The Montrealer and I have been e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks, trying to finalize a time that works. Our correspondence has taken place in English and French. That’s the way things are in Montreal, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
But Montreal and the province of Quebec, Canada, are not known for “a little bit” of anything when it comes to all things culinary. For the longest time, food in Quebec was viewed as cuisine grand-mère: heavy, carb-laden foods made to fill bellies for long days of physical labor. But over the past decade, grand-mère has seen her cuisine turn haute. The province of Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is a city now populated by appetites who still seek full bellies, but with a more refined touch. This is the land of poutine with foie gras, and where salted fatback is no longer seen as a poor man’s food but a gout-inducing luxury.
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Enter Société Orignal.
At first glance, it appears to be just another high-end online retailer of tasty fine goods. But it’s a company on the edge: the edges of history, the edges of the collective palate, the edges of knowledge. First, there is that name, Société Orignal, which is a play on words. “Société” in French is, of course, society, but “Orignal,” the French word for moose, is only one letter away from original. “We wanted to come up with a word that focused on the words ‘society’ and ‘moose,’ because the moose is one of the most imposing creatures in North America,” Cruz says. “But it is imposing by itself, not because it wants to step on anyone.”
Société Orignal’s small but dedicated staff
Société Orignal could hardly be viewed as stepping on anyone, but it is a force to be reckoned with, let alone admired. It has a small workforce; Cruz does research and development, while his friend Cyril Gonzales takes care of sales in the province of Quebec. Gonzales works with another sales agent who takes cares of national and international sales, while Cruz has his own assistant. Together, they sell pantry items you may not recognize but desperately want to know what they are. A perfect example is a product known as Raw Laurentian honeydew. According to its website, “Honeydew is tree sap that has been gathered and transformed by insects and then foraged by bees. It comes from elevated hives diligently placed high in the trees of the forest surrounding the village of Ferme-Neuve.” Another example of their products would be their riff on caviar: cured wild lumpfish eggs, made from the roe of a fish that is known among Quebecers as poule de mer or sea hen. And then there are the ingredients presented in a manner different from what you may be accustomed, such as immature elderberries, salted and preserved in vinegar.
The list of products offered by Société Orignal teeters on the edge of recognizability, a gastronomic palimpsest. Juniper berries are cultivated immature and brined. Herbal teas are made of clover and balsam fir. For Cruz, it’s about pushing the limits in as many places as possible — from the farmer or forager who provides the raw materials to the chefs who plate it up all the way to the consumer who tastes these flavors.
“What we want to do is push barriers in every culture,” he says. “People freak on Thai food and Indian flavors, but we have things we want them to try and to concentrate on, what you think is maybe forgotten or neglected.” But Cruz isn’t some hubris-laden entrepreneur. During the conversation, he is excited by the unknown possibilities available to him in his native province. “We don’t know everything, so we want to do research and development. It’s not just cool, it could be representative of cooking 100 years from now.”
That devotion to research and development isn’t just a question of good business sense, it’s a responsibility to his customers and his clients. “We are a bridge: On one side you have farming and the other the restaurant businesses,” he says. “To have this bridge you need to maintain it. One day we are searching for ideas in restaurants, the next day on farming and figuring out how things grow in both places.”
Société Orignal seems to be able to do both by cultivating close connections with the farmers and foragers who gather the products it sells. “We see that farming is a great business and way of life, once you start to understand it,” Cruz says. “Trying to express the creativity of agriculture is an important factor we like to share.”
Part of that expression comes in the form Quebec’s terroir. This summer, Société Orignal distributed the Laval melon, an heirloom variety from the Montreal region. “For us, it’s trying to find ingredients that grow well in the soil. What is important is to know how (these things) grow. So it’s trying to understand all those features.”
Cruz’s feet are firmly planted in Quebec’s soil, gastronomically and financially. “(We want) to be able to achieve what we want and keep our independence. We don’t want help from large corporations or government, we just need to keep up distribution of the product we create. We want to have a good time and keep our goals.”
Top photo: Honeydew available from Société Orignal. Credit: Courtesy of Société Orignal
The best ideas often start with a question.
A little more than two years ago, Renée Lavallée was on maternity leave from her day job as executive chef at a Halifax restaurant. She’d also been thinking about leaving that same job, to focus her energies on something else, something new. Something in her neck of the woods, in the Canadian city of Dartmouth, just across the harbor from Halifax.
But the question was: What and where could this be?
The answer was just a few blocks from her home, in a popular java joint called Two If By Sea, or TIBS for short. The café is run by friends of Lavallée’s, Zane Kelsall and Tara MacDonald. Lavallée asked the duo whether she could host a monthly pop-up dinner at their restaurant. Details were hashed out, responsibilities decided upon and soon the first TIBS Family Dinner came to be. Since then, more than 30 dinners have been served, featuring everything from a whole roast pig to an asparagus-themed meal. The dinners seat about 30 people and tend to be three-course affairs, with desserts made by TIBS’ MacDonald. Servings tend to be generous, keeping in line with TIBS’ penchant for making things on the larger side. (MacDonald’s croissants are as fat and as wide as your fist.) All this for $50, including tax and tip. “If I weren’t doing these meals, I’d be eating them,” jokes Lavallée.
Each evening starts with diners entering the cafe, the space flanked by four long wooden tables adorned with place cards. The communal-style seating is part of the charm, as you never know who will sit next to you. “It’s about the experience of getting together and meeting new people and eating good food,” Lavallée says. “Originally, we wanted it to be like going to your grandmother’s, where people pass food around.” Things have changed a bit since the dinners started; food is now brought to you, rather than served family style. But the mood is still very relaxed, says Renée. “It’s not high-end. It’s casual, solid food.”
Supper clubs invite diners into the chef’s arena
The idea of supper clubs has caught on throughout the area. Unlike some pop-ups that are one-night-only affairs, there is a consistency in the planning and execution of the meals. It also allows chefs from the city’s food establishments to leave their old menus behind. “When we started, restaurants saw it, and some of them did their own version, but most have fallen by the wayside,” Lavallée says.
Back in Halifax, Frederic Tandy has found supper clubs to be a way for him to combine his catering with his love of the theatrics of the kitchen. Tandy runs Ratinaud French Cuisine, a storefront for his charcuterie and take-home meals like quiches and cassoulet. But on certain evenings, customers enter the inner sanctum of his kitchen, turned into a makeshift dining room. “We arrange the kitchen in a way that when people sit at the table they can see the kitchen, how we cook and prepare their dinner,” says Tandy. For him, it was a way to get back into food service, but on his terms. “I missed the plating and the creativity,” he says. “In my catering I do private dinners, but instead of me going to people’s home we decided to bring them into our environment.”
Tandy’s events are little more intimate than others, as he tends to keep the headcount around 10. For him, the smaller seatings are part of the charm. “I believe that supper clubs have become popular because it creates a unique experience,” he says. “It’s very rare that when you go to the restaurant that you are seated with a stranger, but that makes it more interested because you never know who you are going to meet.”
Kathy Jollimore, who writes the Eat Halifax blog, agrees the level of intimacy between diners is part of the charm, but for her, it’s about the connection possible with the people who put them on that cinches it. “The chef is no longer relegated to the kitchen but rather becomes part of the experience itself,” she says. “More and more people want to be involved with their food, to know where it comes from, to meet the farmer, to see firsthand the chef’s process.”
That process can sometimes be a bit intense for the chefs involved. “Poaching 50 eggs within five minutes was a little dodgy,” jokes Renée Lavallée. “But other than that, we haven’t had any major hang-ups. We keep it simple.”
Keeping it simple for these chefs also means keeping it authentic and autonomous. “It’s a chance to be creative again,” says Lavallée. “I don’t have anyone telling me what to do. I can work with suppliers I love and figure what I can and cannot use. It gives me a chance to do what I want to, whether it be Asian, Mediterranean or French Canadian.”
Top photo: Alexis Kelsall (left), the wife of TIBS co-owner Zane Kelsall, and Renée Lavallée at one of the monthly pop-up dinners. Credit: Doug Townsend
The cookbook “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” first published in 1970 and still in print, documented the history of cooking in the Canadian province. The book, written by Marie Nightingale, is still celebrated today. This story is the second in a two-part series and will explore the cookbooks impact on cooks and chefs in Nova Scotia. The first story in the series examined Nightingale’s efforts to write the book.
Marie Nightingale’s “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was first self-published in 1970. After its first few printings, however, Nightingale found a new printer with Nimbus Publishing. The book is still a top seller with the company, with more than 200,000 copies printed. “It speaks to the timelessness of the recipes,” says Patrick Murphy, the managing editor at Nimbus. He points out books like “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” help keep Nova Scotia’s culinary traditions alive. “The historical aspect to the book keeps it a favorite. They are classic recipes from this corner of the world, and so there has never really been a danger of them becoming ‘out of fashion’ just by the nature of what they represent.”
‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ serves as a useful tool
For some people, the book represents a culinary heritage that could have easily disappeared. Craig Flinn is a chef and cookbook author. “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was the first cookbook his mother owned, and he still owns the very same copy. For him, the book is not just as a repository of information, but a tool to be used by home chefs. “‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ is about keeping those dishes alive and to the forefront,” he says. “We tend to be a busy culture and we don’t have mothers and granddaughters teaching their kids how to cook anymore. Cookbooks have become more important. ‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ made me understand that every region’s culture was greatly influenced and represented in the food we ate.”
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Buy the book:
By Marie Nightingale
Down East Books,
2011, 208 pages
Part 1 of series:
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Another big fan of Nightingale’s oeuvre is Michael Howell. He’s the president of Slow Food Nova Scotia and a former chef. Like Flinn, Michael remembers his mother owning a copy of the book, an edition he still owns. “It has some food stains that I can almost remember when they splattered the pages,” he says. Howell’s relationship with “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” is special. A few years ago, Nimbus publishing decided to prepare a 40th anniversary edition for 2010. He and Nightingale updated a few recipes, and Howell himself wrote a new foreword for the book. In it he describes the recipes that gave his copy its own distinctive spots and splatters, dishes of “colcannon, baked beans [and] blueberry grunt.” His copy may have lost its front and back covers, but that just speaks to how useful the book has been to him. “I learned that recipes did not have to be complicated to be delicious,” Howell says, “one of the central tenets that my cuisine has adhered to over the years.”
“In most cases, a cookbook has a market span of a year or two,” Nightingale writes in the preface to the 2010 edition of her book. But most cookbooks don’t give readers — as well as those who cook from it — such an immediate connection to their past. A past that could’ve been lost in a food world that values the modern and the contemporary. Not bad for a little book that was published with a plastic coil binding. “I think part of the charm of ‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ is that it is unassuming,” Flinn says. “It’s all about the content, not the glitz and the glam. I think she would be surprised that it’s been around this long. I don’t think she thought she was writing a classic when she started. You feel like you’re buying a piece of history.”
Here is one recipe from the book.
(A dinner of new vegetables)
The recipe below is written as is in “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with very few measurements and relying on the home chef to know exactly how much they would have and want of each vegetable found in the dish. Hodge Podge is usually served in early summer, when the variety of vegetables is at its best in Nova Scotia.
1 cup diced salt pork
1 cup cream
1 cup vegetable stock
1. Prepare new vegetables. The string beans, carrots and potatoes may be cooked together in boiling salted water. Cook the peas and cauliflower separately.
2. Fry the salt pork to a golden brown and add the cream and an equal amount of vegetable stock. Season with chives.
3. Bring to a boil quickly and serve over the vegetables.
From “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with permission from Nimbus Publishing
Top photo: A vintage copy of “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” by Marie Nightingale. Credit: Simon Thibault
The cookbook “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” first published in 1970 and still in print, documented the history of cooking in the Canadian province. The book, written by Marie Nightingale, is still celebrated today. This story, the first in a two-part series, examines the Nightingale’s efforts to write the book. The second part in the series explores its impact on cooks and chefs in Nova Scotia.
For the longest time, the transmission of knowledge in the realm of cookery was an intimate and personal affair, taught by seasoned practitioners to novices. This information was often imparted in the form of notebooks filled with handwritten recipes, each one specific to its author and its region. The recipes found therein would yield recipes for everything from yeasty breads to aromatic roasts, methods of preserving both sweet and savory for long winters, and sometimes even home remedies or a tip or two on how to properly prepare and clean a piece of game or fish.
A history of the people and food of Nova Scotia
In places like Nova Scotia, those notebooks contained recipes for blueberry grunt, chicken fricot and maybe some dandelion wine. But tastes change, fashions and fads come about and flavors can be lost in the shuffle. Thanks to people like Marie Nightingale, we never need fear forgetting those tastes.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
Buy the book:
By Marie Nightingale
Down East Books,
2011, 208 pages
Part 2 of Nova Scotia series, coming March 6:
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Marie Annetta Johnston was born (and “bred and buttered,” she joked) in Halifax in 1928. At 19, she moved to the small town of Windsor to work as a radio announcer at a local radio station. There she worked as a contributor to a show called “Good Morning Ladies.” “Before that I had no experience or interest in cooking or baking,” she says. “My grandmother had a maid who didn’t like me to be underfoot — especially in ‘her’ kitchen.”
Marie moved back to her hometown of Halifax and in 1951 wed Laurie Nightingale. She left the workforce, spending her days rearing children and doing volunteer work with various local organizations and festivals, namely a historical festival celebrating Joseph Howe, a somewhat legendary Nova Scotian figure. By the late 1960s, her historical interests diverged from the celebrated to what could have been viewed as mundane. “No one had examined our heritage from a food angle,” she says.
She decided to start working on a cookbook, examining the culinary heritage of Nova Scotians. “I was inexperienced, with no training of any kind,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I could write, and I considered myself to be an average cook. Not much to go on, except my two best friends: determination and enthusiasm.”
Nightingale started gathering research from all over the province. Her sources included historical papers detailing archaeological digs, undated newspaper clippings of recipes and, of course, handwritten cookbooks passed down in families. “At first it was going to be just one menu of traditional N.S. foods,” she says. “But it grew from that, and bit by bit it came together. You can’t tell the story of a people unless you tell what they ate.”
The story of Nova Scotia and the people who inhabit it is like a lesson in colonial history. Nightingale’s book begins with the first people of the area, the Mi’kmaq, moving forward in time to the first French settlers who would later become known as the Acadians. These are followed by the English, the Scots, the Irish, the Germans and New Englanders, as well as freed slaves from the United States. “The book started demanding its own personality,” she recalls. “What is typical in Lunenburg and the German community is not the most typical of the Irish or the Scots, so I started developing my crazy quilt of the major ethnic groups that settled our province.”
With history off the table, it was time to dig into the kitchen. She found herself bogged down with countless recipes to test and try. But this travail would prove to be less than obvious. “Some recipes that I really wanted to include did not take kindly to modern ingredients, and I had to leave them out,” she says. “For instance, a cake in days past would be ready to pour into the pan when a wooden spoon would stand upright in the batter. Nowadays we like our cakes to be light and moist.” Some of the recipes even proved to be inedible. “No dough on earth could rise under the weight of 2 pounds of raisins,” she exclaims. But changes in taste and the quality of ingredients were only the beginning of Marie’s challenge. To write a cookbook for contemporary home chefs meant she must include much more precise details than were given in the handwritten notebooks she plumbed. “Methods were seldom given,” Marie says. “Instructions of ‘Mix, put in a pan and bake’ led to questions of how to mix, what size pan, what oven temperature and how long to bake?”
Her problems weren’t only to be found in the kitchen. Although she found a publisher for her book, suggestions were made that she found to be unpalatable. The requested changes would have left her with a book that she felt would not be indicative of how she thought Nova Scotia’s food ways should be presented. “It had to be me,” she says. “And that’s why I turned my back on the original publishers and decided to have my husband bankroll the printing of the work.”
Marie gathered the help of her friend Morna Anderson for the book’s illustrations, including the book’s iconic cover of a woman near an old hearth, an infant sleeping next to her. The simple line drawings evoke a rustic air of comfort and simplicity. After all her efforts, in 1970, “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was placed on bookshelves in stores. Here is one recipe from the book.
Most early desserts were made from fruits that grew wild and in abundance. A common method was to stew them and add dumplings. Most often referred to as “grunt” or sometimes as “slump” or “fungy,” it often constituted the entire meal. Made with apples, rhubarb, strawberries, the most popular of all was blueberry grunt.
For the berries:
1 quart blueberries
½ cup sugar or more to taste
½ cup water
For the dumplings:
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon shortening
¼ cup to ½ cup milk
1. Put berries, sugar and water in a pot, cover and boil gently until there is plenty of juice. Keep the mixture hot.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a bowl.
3. Cut the butter and shortening and add enough milk to make a soft biscuit dough.
4. Drop by spoonfuls onto the hot blueberries mixture. Cover with foil for 15 minutes. Serve hot.
From “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with permission from Nimbus Publishing
Top photo: Marie Nightingale, the author of “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens.” Credit: Courtesy of Saltscapes magazine
It is both subtle and complex, warming and inviting. It reminds us of pumpkin pies, mulled ciders and wines, of so many things fall and wintry.
Its history is wild and varied, spanning centuries of myriad uses, from medicine to perfumes. It is a global thing, originating in the spice islands of Indonesia, yet has marked the world and its food with its wonderful flavor. But in my house, nutmeg’s historical significance starts with my grandfather.
My grandfather Augustin Comeau was widowed when he was well into his 70s. He lived in a two-story house atop a hill that overlooked the neighboring shipyard. When I was a kid, I thought the village he lived in, La Butte, was named after the hill he lived on.
His grandchildren, my sister and I, would occasionally pay him a visit. He would make simple foods he knew well, like Salisbury steak served with boiled potatoes and canned vegetables. We were never in the kitchen with him when he made these things, except when he would make sugar cookies.
The recipe came from a cookbook for a baking powder company. My grandfather had received it long ago, when he ran a general store back in the 1950s. When his wife became ill, Augustin took care of her and the home, doing the cooking and cleaning. Wanting to assuage his sweet tooth, he learned to make these cookies of a bygone era. They are crisp and a little crumbly, something you would dip into your tea or coffee. They are neither cloyingly sweet, despite their name, nor particularly chewy, which is what most cookies strive for these days.
The recipe was foolproof, simple and direct: butter, sugar, eggs, a small amount of milk and flour. A couple chemical leaveners — it was a cookbook made by a baking powder company after all — and pre-ground nutmeg. My grandfather knew better. “C’est mieux quand c’est frais,” he would say. It’s better when it’s fresh.
Addition of nutmeg evokes fond memories
The dough was easy enough that children could make it under the watchful eyes of an adult. And so we did, measuring and mixing along. It is one of the first things I remember making. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. I have very few food memories from that age, but this is one of them. The raw dough tasted floury, buttery and bland. But then my grandfather would bring out the nutmeg in its own little rasp.
It was an old thing, even then. The rasp had belonged to his mother, a rounded hill made of tin, with tiny pointed openings all over. You could place your nutmeg inside the rasp, hidden inside the little hill, covered by a small flap. The rasp had been well used, as its tiny points were dulled. Still, they were able to coax out tiny wisps of nutmeg shavings into the dough. My sister and I would eat bites of this raw dough, unable to wait for the finished product.
After Augustin passed away, the cookies became known as “les cookies à Grand-Père,” or grandfather’s cookies. Every year during the holidays, my mother, my sister and I pull out the butter, the sugar, the eggs, the small amount of milk and the flour. And then the nutmeg, still nestled in the same rasp. It doesn’t get used anymore, as it is now completely dull with wear. I am usually the one who grates the nutmeg, on a microplane rasp my mother bought at a hardware store.
The instant the first wisps of soft spice land on the dough, I experience my own Proustian moment. The old house, the texture of my grandfather’s voice, the taste of the dough. And then my sister or I will mention that these were the cookies we made with Augustin. And it all happens with this small seed, nestled in an old rasp that doesn’t work, but that we keep around for old time’s sake.
Augustin’s Sugar Cookies
Adapted by Simon Thibault
Yield: Roughly 3 dozen cookies, depending on size
½ cup (115 g) butter
1 cup (200 g) sugar
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) nutmeg, or more to taste
1 tablespoon (15 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
2½ cups (325 g) flour, sifted
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking soda
2 teaspoons (10 ml) cream of tartar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).
2. Cream the butter, sugar and nutmeg together until pale white.*
3. Add eggs, milk and vanilla, and stir until smooth.
4. Sift together the flour and other dry ingredients.
5. Incorporate dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, creating a dough.
6. Roll the dough into two logs, wrap in plastic film and chill for one hour.
7. On a floured surface, roll the dough until it is a little more than an ⅛ of an inch thick.
8. Cut into desired shapes, using cookie cutters. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, even a small water glass will do the trick.
9. Place in oven and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the edges turn golden brown.
* The original recipe stated to add the nutmeg with the rest of the dry ingredients. Adding it earlier during the creaming stage allows the flavor to bloom in the dough much better.
Top photo: Nutmeg. Credit: Simon Thibault