TORONTO - Most modern cooks would have a tough time deciphering the recipes used by the women who stirred the pots over hearth fires 200 years ago.
Not only has kitchen technology changed — the closest many people get to cooking over a fire these days is while camping or tending a backyard grill — but also the way recipes are written has evolved.
Members of the Volunteer Historic Cooks at Fort York have been culling recipes for years from British, American and Canadian cookbooks of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
"It was recognized as a serious way of studying history, not just the military history that's here at the fort and the battles that were fought and the regiments that were here but also a way of telling their story through their food," said Bridget Wranich, who works with the volunteers who research, test and prepare recipes for the Historic Foodways Program, which was started in the 1980s.
"It is probably one of the most engaging parts of the fort. People walk through, they're taking the military-lifestyle tour, they happen upon the kitchen and are stunned because it's food and it's activity, and there's a fire and they get to sample the food.
"Not to be too cliche, it's almost like it comes alive. It's real," she added.
Elizabeth Baird, one of the volunteer cooks and co-author with Wranich of "Setting a Fine Table: Historical Desserts and Drinks from the Officers' Kitchens at Fort York" (Whitecap Books), said the cookbook was written so people could try their hand at making the Shrewsbury Cakes or Derby Cakes they'd tasted.
"This particular cookbook represents just our sweets. We do a lot of savouries as well, so roasted meats and ragouts and stews and soups and all those things," said Wranich.
"This is just representative of our favourites, the things that people ask for recipes for."
But the original recipes were short on details. "They might just say add water and you don't know how much water," Baird explained, adding they've been very careful in adapting and updating the 30 original recipes in the book.
"We're not embroidering on them. We're just making them a little easier to cook, keeping the authentic flavours, so you get the authentic experience."
The original recipes gave ingredients in weight measurements, so the volume measure that was closest was used.
"Sometimes we've changed the cooking method slightly because they often rub the fat into the flour in a cake where we would be more likely to beat the fat and the sugar together," said Baird, the author of about two dozen cookbooks.
"But whereever we can we keep the original method and sometimes we see things that we can or be a little more detailed than they are so that somebody who reads a modern Canadian recipe can actually make it."
The flavours have also been kept as they were. Chocolate chips would never be substituted for caraway seeds in a cookie recipe.
Mace was popular and rose water or orange flower water were used for flavouring as vanilla was not popular until the mid-19th century. Candied citrus peel was also used for flavour. Currants are found in many recipes rather than raisins, which at that time contained seeds.
There's a recipe for ginger ice cream.
"People can't believe there was ice cream back then. They had no idea that ice cream was available at the time of the fort, which it was," said Baird. "Or lemons. That's surprising and we also do things with chocolate because it was just starting to be used in desserts. It's nice to see people come in here and be surprised."
There's Chocolate Cream which is flavoured with lemon and rosemary that bears more resemblance to a thick creme anglaise than pudding, said Baird.
Solid Syllabubs are basically whipped cream, white wine, lemon and sugar. "It's interesting how these things can go from 1750 or 1825 to 2013 and '14 without any trouble at all," Baird noted.
The food encompasses the time up until about 1830, said Baird, who said it was "thrilling" to be named to the Order of Canada last year for her efforts to raise awareness of Canadian cuisine.
"I've been very lucky with my cookbooks and working at Canadian Living magazine was a fabulous opportunity to tell people about Canadian food and to touch on the new opportunities to learn about food from around the world from people who live right with us," she said.
The upstairs kitchen dates from 1826 and even a roaring fire couldn't heat the far reaches of the room on a recent bitterly cold day. The original basement kitchen is dated 1814.
"The officers, which this (upstairs) kitchen represents, had means and money and ways of procuring the very best that was here so they were eating rather well compared to the soldiers or the ordinary citizens in the town of York or a local farmer," said Wranich.
"These gentlemen were bringing with them lovely china and tea caddies and tea sets and wine to recreate home when they were abroad."
The military men at the site west of downtown Toronto would be surprised to see the condos and commercial buildings that now encroach on the garrison grounds.
"I think that actually tasting the food that people made 200 years ago is a kind of extraordinary experience and we can do it now and it sort of opens up your imagination of what life might have been like then," said Baird.
"And for me as a volunteer it's really an incredible experience because it's ongoing learning and very rewarding and you never ever know everything you need to know about any of this, but you just start where you can and this is a nice start for people to taste Fort York in its earliest days."
Aside from when the kitchen is animated, there are events where the research that goes into the cooking gets a chance to be displayed, such as the annual Queen Charlotte Ball.
On Feb. 22, Mad for Marmalade includes a workshop, lunch and tastings. There's free admission to the fort on Family Day (Feb. 17) and visitors can sample goodies from the hearth. During March break, children can dress up, cook in the kitchen, practise musket and sword drills like an 1812 soldier, or learn about music from the War of 1812.
Adult cooking classes are held throughout the year.
In September there will be a symposium with workshops and demonstrations based on the food of that period.
If You Go...
Fort York National Historic Site is located on 17 hectares at 250 Fort York Blvd. (formerly 100 Garrison Rd.). It's open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 10 to 5 on weekends. Call 416-392-6907 for more information.
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