Winter in 19th-century Canada was always a difficult time for those with little money, especially when it came to putting food on the table.
To survive, it was important for farmers and peasants alike to grow, store and pickle food items to fill the larder for the long, cold months when there was nothing coming out of the ground.
One of the most enduring and reliable choices was soup, says Janet Kronick, historic kitchen co-ordinator in the castle at the Dundurn National Historic site in Hamilton, Ont.
She organized a recent workshop entitled "Stock Exchange: Soups and Stews" that was held in the kitchen of the castle.
"We showed attendees how to make good, basic flavourful stocks for hearty peasant soups using economical meat cuts and fowl bones as well as grains and vegetables," Kronick says.
From an historical point of view, she adds, soup was considered a very versatile food. Economical and nutritious, it was offered as a restorative menu item in taverns and thus the name "restaurant" was coined.
"In the 19th century in Canada all kinds of fowl were used for soup, including pheasant, pigeon, grouse as well as meat such as venison, moose all being delicious game meats," Kronick says.
At the workshops the staff features foods eaten "below the stairs" of the castle by the servants as opposed to that consumed by the gentry who inhabited the grander quarters above stairs.
"The sessions had a blend of those basic stock soups like Scotch broth which contain whatever economical cuts of meat we can find, such as beef and lamb, barley and other grains as well as vegetables."
"It was really about survival and peasant fare," she says. "If you go back to soups and the ingredients being used in more ancient times there is an overlap. The wealthy could afford to bring their ingredients from elsewhere."
"It was expensive to do so and it really made the price of things go very high and out of the range of the average farmer or peasant who relied on locally raised and grown."
But this also meant that cuisines weren't filtering down from above stairs - they came from below, she says.
"Survival requires that you store these greens this way and root vegetables another way."
Kronick says that on another more modern level she is amazed that people buy processed foods to get by.
"It doesn't save money and even our ancestors, such as poor farmers who had to feed an entire family, found it's a way cheaper to make soups and stews," she says. "And they didn't have boneless, skinless chicken breasts in those days, but they knew the flavour for the soup is in the bone."
There are eight more workshops planned for 2009 at the castle kitchen, all with an historical theme.
"The workshops are an opportunity for us to get back in touch with the slow food kind of idea," says Kronick.
For more information on the workshops, visit www.hamilton.ca/museums.
Judy Creighton welcomes letters at 9 Kinnell St., Hamilton, Ont., L8R 2J8, but cannot promise to answer all correspondence personally. She can also be reached by email at jcreighton(at)golden.net.