The Washington Times - August 9, 2009, 06:15PM

The Port Royale of the North Atlantic by Reed Hellmanm special to Donne Tempo Magazine.

At dawn in Louisbourg, the sun is a diffused circle, barely cutting through the fog stealing in from the Atlantic Ocean. Intermittent rains add to the dreary aspect as they spatter across the glassy bay. A few gulls wheel overhead or stalk through the tide-thrown wrack littering the black sand beach.

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The continent ends here at the outboard tip of Nova Scotia, on easternmost Cape Breton Island. Beyond Louisbourg harbor’s mouth, the North Atlantic rolls away, unimpeded, to Europe.

Louisbourg Harbor, Nova ScotiaIn the early 1700s, France built a massive fortified port within Louisbourg Harbor, designed to dominate the Canadian Maritime and New England coasts. Fortress Louisbourg was positioned to protect the fabulously lucrative cod fishery, a European staple since the 1400s. The bastion also served to guard the ocean approaches to the St. Lawrence River and Quebec.

In its heyday, it was the fourth largest city in North America. By the 1740s, the fortress and the ice-free harbor had become the administrative capital of the French holdings in Atlantic Canada and the home of 700 soldiers and 2,500 civilians, a mix of French Bretons, Normans, and Basques, and Germans, Swiss, Irish, and Africans. Despite the often petulant weather, over 100 trading vessels each year called, bringing goods from France, the French West Indies, the Canadian interior, and New England.

In 1744, the French and British declared war on each other and Louisbourg posed a direct threat to England’s northern Atlantic colonies. Over the next 13 years, the British staged two spectacular sieges, twice captured the fortified city, and eventually leveled it. The ruins lay silent for the next two centuries, disturbed only by the squalling sea gulls and fierce Atlantic storms.

In 1961, the Canadian government decided to reconstruct a portion of the city as a project to employ out of work miners and craftspeople, and as a venue to present life in the first half of the 18th Century. Fifty-five of the original buildings rose from the ruins and Parks Canada staffed them with costumed animators to give life to the period homes, fortifications, and exhibits.

Louisbourg Harbor, Nova ScotiaToday, Fortress Louisbourg is the largest historical reconstruction in North America and offers an unequaled opportunity to touch and viscerally understand a seminal part of the American colonial experience. Modern time travelers can mingle with housewives, servants, musicians, and nobles on Rue Toulouse and Rue Royale.

Fishermen stroll down to the busy waterfront and cod fillets, drying on wooden racks, mingle their perfume with the smell of the sea. At the Dauphin Gates, in the King’s Bastion, and on the towering walls, soldiers patrol and demonstrate their martial crafts.

At the L’Epee Royale and the Grandchamps Inn, visitors can dine in period splendor, or rub shoulders with the working class at the Hotel de la Marine. The home of the fortress’s engineer presents an intimate look at the pinnacle of Colonial Louisbourg’s civilian life. In his kitchen, he employed a staff of four to manage and prepare the meals.

When I joined the Parks Canada historic interpreters working in that kitchen for a day, a window into 1744 swung wide open. Outfitted by the park’s wardrobe specialist as a domestique, I quickly learned my way around the engineer’s expansive and well equipped open hearth and the amazing clockwork spitjack, used as a rotisserie to automatically turn roasting beef and fowl.

Louisbourg Harbor, Nova ScotiaSuspended over the fire, a wrought iron crane dangled a slow cooking stock pot and the andirons held warming bowls with bastings and sauces. We did much of the actual cooking on piles of coals raked out of the fire and shoveled under or on top of various pots, ovens, footed tortieres, or trivets. As with other heritage cooking techniques, successfully using the hearth demands careful attention to the fire and a ready supply of dry seasoned firewood.

Though the recipes are relatively simple, so are the tools and facilities. Other than using the spitjack to turn a roast, we did all preparation chores by hand. Cook Loretta Leahy and her assistants Karen Noonan and Barb Landry handled the time critical and seemingly never ending cooking tasks with practiced grace. And their knowledge of life in French Louisbourg did not end at the kitchen door.

Louisbourg Harbor, Nova ScotiaAll of the fortress’s 150 historic interpreters receive continuing training and formal evaluations twice each season. Additionally, they each portray several characters at different locations around the grounds, giving them wide knowledge Louisbourg’s society. The interpreters work hard to accurately animate a day 250 years ago. All staff members are from Cape Breton and many have been at their jobs for as much as two-dozen years.

I am grateful to Nova Scotia Tourism (800-565-0000, www.novascotia.com), Parks Canada (www.parkscanada.gc.ca), and the staff at Fortress Louisbourg (902-733-2280, louisbourg.info@pc.gc.ca) for their hospitality, resources, encyclopedic knowledge, and willingness to share it all.

I gratefully acknowledge From the Hearth, by Hope Dunton (University College of Cape Breton Press, 1986), as the source for this month’s recipes.

It was my pleasure to help the animators cook most of them.

Stock

A good stock can be served as a course in a meal, or it can be reduced as the basis for a sauce. This makes an excellent bouillon or consommé when clarified. Use in recipes that call for beef broth or bouillon. It freezes well, keeping for several months.

4 to 5 pounds meat and beef bones

4 quarts cold water

2 tablespoons salt

4 celery stalks

2 large onions

4 carrots

2 parsnips (optional)

2 leeks, tops only

1 small cabbage (optional)

Method

Place the water, bones, meat (cut into pieces), and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3 hours. Add vegetables, peeled and sliced, and simmer for another hour. Cool and strain, season to taste.

Dried Pea Potage

The term potage was used in the 18th Century to indicate a large dish of meat or fish with vegetables. A favorite among the fishermen, roustabouts, and longshoremen at the Hotel de la Marne, one bowl can warm a wind-chilled visitor. This recipe serves 8.

Ingredients

2 cups dried peas

1/2 cup dried kidney or navy beans

1 to 1 1/2 pound ham butt

1/4 pound salt goose, smoked sausage, or soup bones (optional)

1/4 pound pork fat or bacon, diced

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

6 to 8 cups beef bouillon

1 large onion, minced

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons flour, more or less

Croutons

Method

Soak peas and beans overnight. (Tip from the fireplace: Salt should not be added to the peas until they have softened. Dried legumes remain hard if the salt is added too soon.)

Drain and add hot water and simmer for 1 hour. Put in ham and other meat, if using any, and continue to simmer until the water is almost evaporated.

In a frying pan, render the fat, remove the dices, and sauté the onion in the fat until just translucent. Incorporate flour until the fat is absorbed.

While stirring constantly, add 1 cup bouillon to make a smooth sauce or fricassee. Simmer 10 minutes. Add the fricasseed onion to the peas along with the rest of the bouillon. Add the bay leaf and sage, adjust the seasonings, and simmer 30 minutes.

Serve with croutons.

Eggs au Pain

We ate this for lunch because the largely Catholic community observed meatless Fridays and Saturdays. Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

2 tablespoons soft breadcrumbs

1/4 cup cream

Pinch of nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

10 eggs

2 tablespoons butter

Method

Soak breadcrumbs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in cream for 10 minutes. Beat eggs well. Beat into crumb mixture.

Heat butter in a pan and cook as for a plain omelet. (Optional: Top with cheese and cover until the cheese melts.)

Louisbourg Harbor, Nova ScotiaHow To Do Up Salt Cod

Once a staple in the diet of millions, salt cod has now become more of a dietary curiosit When buying the salted fillets follow the advice of Menon, author of La cuisiniere bourgeoisie: “choose white meat, black skin, and large fillets.”

Ingredients

1 pound salt cod

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh parsley (1 teaspoon dried)

1 green onion, minced

1 cup milk

Method

Cover the fish with cold water and leave overnight, or simmer for 1 hour. Do this twice, using fresh cold water each time. When the fish is tender and not too salty, prepare a white sauce with the butter, flour, pepper, mild, vinegar, parsley, and green onion.

In a heavy sauce pan melt the butter. Add the parsley and green onion and cook without browning for 3 to 4 minutes. Incorporate the flour and allow it all to bubble for a minute or two. Gradually add the milk while whisking until the sauce is thickened. Cook 8 to 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally. (the more you stir it, the whiter and shinier it becomes).

Add the fish and simmer on a low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.

Beef Brisket a l’allemande

We cooked beef on the ingenious clockwork-driven spitjack, powered by a descending weight. A pan beneath caught the drippings that had olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped onions and garlic added to use as a basting. Serves 8 2 pounds brisket, cut in 4 pieces

Ingredients

1/2 large cabbage

4 cups bouillon

4 onions, whole

4 large spiced sausages

Salt and pepper

String Bouquet garni

2 tablespoons fresh, minced parsley (or 1 tablespoon dried)

1 garlic clove, minced

2 whole cloves

1 bay leaf, crushed

1 small sprig of thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)

2 basil leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1/4 cup green onion minced)

Method

Gather all ingredienets and tie into a bouquet with kitchen string.

Place beef in bouillon with the herb bouquet [bouquet garni] well immersed. Bring to a boil an simmer gently for 1 hour.

Blanch the cabbage; but in 4 wedges, tie each securely with string.

Place the cabbage, peeled onions, and sausage with the meat. Add salt and pepper to taste, continue to cook over medium high heat for 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove the bouquet and arrange the meats in the center of a serving dish, surrounded by the vegetables. Strain the remaining liquid through fine white cotton or muslin, and pour over the beef brisket.

Reed Hellman is a freelance writer living in Alberton, Maryland. E-mail your questions and comments to RHKitchenGuy@yahoo.com.