Garlic in the Eastern Townships

Article and research produced by: Storica

Do you know when people started eating garlic in the Eastern Townships? A long time ago, a really long time ago. The Abenaki people, the first inhabitants of the land, criss-crossed the lakes, rivers, and forests for thousands of years. Of course, at that time, the fleshy, bulbous varieties of the garlic we know today weren’t around; Allium sativum hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet! So what did people eat? A variety native to North America (Allium tricoccum), better known in Québec as wild garlic!

In 1972, Québec-born Cree and Algonquin writer Bernard Assiniwi published a book of Indigenous recipes, a diverse collection of mostly Abenaki and Mohawk culinary traditions, but also Cree, Mi’kmaq, Huron, Tuscarora, and others. Fortunately, he identified the cultural origin of each recipe, which gives us a starting point in our little investigation into the consumption of garlic in the Eastern Townships.

First, it’s important to know that traditional Indigenous cooking does not use salt or pepper! To season their soups, salads, grilled meat and fish, the Western Abenaki, who live between Lake Memphrémagog and the Mégantic region and along the Saint-François River, use wild plants such as thyme, mint, wild leek, burnt coltsfoot leaves, woodchips (cedar, walnut, ash), and of course wild garlic!

Among the traditional recipes passed on by Assiniwi, there are various soups made with wild garlic, watercress, squash, or sunflower seeds, as well as recipes for grilled fish, seafood, and game that use garlic as the seasoning. Directly associated with the Algonquin—the major language family of the Abenaki—one particular recipe from this book stands out: Wild Greens Salad. This salad of spring greens includes stems of wild garlic, young watercress leaves, wood sorrel, and dandelion leaves, tossed with sunflower oil, apple cider vinegar, and coltsfoot salt. Why does this salad stand out? We’ll come back to this!

Cleared in the late 18th century by American pioneers (Loyalists and others), then by English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants throughout the 19th century, the Eastern Townships developed a culinary heritage with strong British-American roots. One thing is clear: it didn’t really include garlic. We closely examined the books of farm women’s circles, Anglican parishes, and homemaker committees such as the Universalist Church Lady Societyand the United Church Women Association, everywhere where garlic might have appeared, but we only found onions and sometimes leeks.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that garlic cloves started appearing in printed recipes. Was this a sign of a gradual opening to world cuisine? Was it perhaps the impact of the Francization of the Townships or of important figures such as Jehane Benoît who settled in Sutton in 1956? Her Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking, now considered a foundation of Québécois cooking, was published in 1963!

Between 1990 and 2000, authors such as Julian Armstrong, Laurent Saget, Michel Lambert, and Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny started being interested in regional cooking. They went out into the field, talked with the locals, collected family recipes from the Brome-Missisquoi, Memphrémagog, Haut-Saint-François, and Coaticook regions and … surprise, surprise, the Abenaki spring salad reappeared.

Outside popular recipe books, restaurants, or agri-food circuits, the wild garlic and dandelion salad was passed on from generation to generation behind the scenes. Sharron Rothney, a resident of Eaton Corner, clearly remembers the dandelion salad that her mother consistently made every spring.

Around the same time, in the early 2000s, a novelty started appearing in regional cookbooks: recipes with garlic scapes. For example, Eastern Townships Traditional Cooking, published in 2002, features Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Garlic Scapes and Chicken with Garlic Scapes. So what happened in the 2000s?

We have to go back twenty years when Christiane Massé and her partner at the time cherished a dream of organic farming and food self-sufficiency. In 1988, their project became a reality with the purchase of land in Saint-Malo and the establishment of Le Petit Mas, a diverse vegetable farm at the time. Christiane was interested in garlic and grew some, like other farmers in the region. She tells us that “in the 1980s, people grew a softneck variety of pink garlic. There were a few farms in the southern part of Montérégie, around Saint-Rémi and Napierville, that cultivated somewhat larger crops, but that was about it.”

Very interested in garlic, she researched it extensively. She then heard about a research project on different varieties that was about to be completed in Chambly. The timing was perfect! She went to the place and met the researcher who gave her samples of 25 different varieties in small, brown paper bags. As he gave her the bulbs, he told her that “the Music variety is the best according to our research; it will be the most reliable.” According to Christiane’s tests, this turned out to be true. Excited by this cultivar, she telephoned the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, which put her in direct contact with Mr. Music. For several years, she travelled south of Toronto to purchase seeds from him.

Over the following two decades, she worked on developing trusting relationships with large chain stores so as to have the value and quality of locally-grown garlic be recognized. At first, she met with outright refusals; the chains would only take her organic garlic at the derisory rates that they purchased Chinese garlic. With much patience and encouraged by small victories, she finally managed to clear the path and see her garlic on store shelves.

Not satisfied with being a pioneer in the cultivation and commercialization of Québec-grown garlic, Christiane also made garlic scapes popular … somewhat by accident! “In Asia, they eat the stalks of garlic. They’re frequently found in markets. In Ontario, they call them garlic scapes. In the early years, I didn’t know that this was something people eat. It took me about a decade before I started using some. One day in late July, I had some so I chopped them up, put them in oil in the fridge, and then forgot about them.” To her great surprise, when she rediscovered her jars in the fall, the mixture had fermented and increased in flavour and complexity. She then commercialized the product which she named garlic flowers. “In Québec, people called them fleurettes d’ail, but I didn’t like that name,” so she called them fleurs d’ail, a term whose literal translation of garlic flowers also existed, to her great surprise, in Ontario.

Christiane before 2000 presenting the galic flowers into a food show

Today the recognition of Québec-grown garlic is well established, while garlic scapes have become part of the regional culinary heritage for over twenty years already. So we’ll take advantage of this moment to honour a decidedly local recipe: the garlic and dandelion salad with a Le Petit Mas twist.

Hazelnut and baby dandelion salad with garlic vinaigrette

Picture by: Storica

Here is a recipe that you can make at home inspired by the many versions of the dandelion salad found throughout the Eastern Townships. Some make it with salt pork and onions (Julian Armstrong, 1992); others with bacon lardons (Association de la Culture et du Patrimoine d’Abercorn, 2007); sometimes the greens are braised in vinegar (Michel Lambert, 2017) or served raw with wild garlic and a hard-boiled egg (Laurent Saget, 1995). The following is a loose interpretation inspired by ingredients used by the Abenaki and products easily found in grocery stores.

For complete recipe: page recipe Bon appétit!

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