Chronicles

Let's raise a glass

Let's raise a glass

Aquarelle: Still Life with a Cloak on a Chair, Table with Jug, Cup and Plate, vers 1850-1859
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Crédit: Rachel Emily Shaw-Lefevre, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana at the National Archives of Canada, e001201106

What could be more pleasant, when celebrating a happy event, than “wetting your whistle”, “lifting up your glass” and “sharing a toast”! The colonists of New France were quite familiar with the pleasures of the bottle, drinking twice as much wine as today’s Quebecers, not to mention the multitude of drinks they either imported or made themselves.

The habit of drinking alcohol came from France. Unlike the water of New France, which was excellent, water in the Mother land was often polluted and carried disease. People were right to be wary of drinking it. Alcohol fermentation produces drinks that can be stored for long periods of time and which are sanitized so that French people preferred them over water. In the colony, this penchant for intoxicating drinks continued.

This series of chronicles will give you an opportunity to discover the drinks, as well as the places, objects and rituals concerning the consumption of alcohol, in all of its forms, during the time of New France.

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Well-filled Bottle and Barrels
Well-filled Bottle and Barrels

Peinture: Un habitant en train de boire, 1853-1863. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Cornelius Krieghoff collection, C-005994

In a text written in 1612, Marc Lescarbot reported that, to his amazement, the Amerindians did not eat bread, salt or wine! With this observation, he highlighted the importance of these three foods in French dietary habits. Along with his companions from the Order of Good Cheer, at Port-Royal, Lescarbot enjoyed many fine meals, accompanied by alcoholic beverages. Likewise, those who lived in the St. Lawrence valley did not generally have complaints about their alcohol supplies. Since they had access to products that were produced locally, in addition to a vast range of imported products, they were the envy of those who lived in the Mother country, who generally had to make do with the alcoholic beverages produced in a single region.

When they arrived, the first explorers discovered a wild vine (vitis riparia) that grew abundantly in the colony and had great hopes for the grape growing potential of the land. Unfortunately, the wine that could be made from this vine was not very good. The European species (vitis vinifera), which people tried to adopt for the climate here did not produce results that were much better since this plant required care that few people were able to provide.

Considering the problems they encountered with respect to producing wine, the inhabitants of the St. Lawrence valley opted to import what they needed. For most of them, wine was reserved for special occasions. The table wines that were brought over to the colony included wines from de La Rochelle, from Île-de-France and from Bordeaux, which were imported in large quantities after 1660.

Wine was such a source of prestige that the members of the colonial elite refused to drink anything else, with the exception of certain fine spirits and, in the case of extreme necessity, cider. They were particularly fond of major vintages and liqueurs, which were more expensive and, to a certain extent, gave them a way in which to strand out from the common people. Luxury products such as wines from the Graves region, liqueurs from Spain and Navarre, and wine from Champagne, the preferred drink of Louis XIV, could also be found in the colony.

The imported alcoholic beverages also included the very popular hard liquor. Several colonists drank these beverages morning and night and they would be served to the Amerindians during negotiations. Some of these products came from France while others, such as rum and guildive, cane from the West Indies. These two products were made from sugar cane.  Since they were originally intended to be given to Black slaves, they had a bad reputation.

As for local production, those living in New France certainly were not short of imagination when it came to finding the ingredients they needed to make alcohol. In Acadia, they used wheat, beets and even Jerusalem artichokes. Blueberries, raspberries, cherries and hawthorn berries could also be used to make drinks, in addition to apples which could be used to make excellent cider. The Jesuits and the Frères Charron of the general hospital probably made cider since they had cider presses. However, cider was not as popular as beer.

The imported alcoholic beverages also included the very popular hard liquor. Several colonists drank these beverages morning and night and they would be served to the Amerindians during negotiations. Some of these products came from France while others, such as rum and guildive, cane from the West Indies. These two products were made from sugar cane. Since they were originally intended to be given to Black slaves, they had a bad reputation.

When they had no beer, the poorest colonists used broth, a drink made from a piece of raw dough, containing yeast, that was allowed to ferment in spiced water. They could also make spruce beer, a drink that was very popular among soldiers and sailors. Spruce beer was described by Chancels de Lagrange, in 1716, as a broth of water and yeast in which “the branches or sticky fruit or cone of a wild treed called (…) the pine was infused”, to which molasses was also added.

In order to obtain wine and spirits, most colonists had to go to inns or cabarets. To learn more about these sites where alcohol could be sold, we invite you to return on April 15, 2008.

Sources
  • FERLAND, Catherine. « Le nectar et l’ambroisie: la consommation des boissons alcooliques chez l’élite de la Nouvelle-France au 18th century », Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 58, no 4, printemps 2005. Pages 475 à 505.
  • GERMAIN, Robert. «Boissons de nos aïeux», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 10 à 13.
  • GERMAIN, Robert. «Les p’tites bières», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 36 à 39.
  • LAFRANCE, Marc. «De la qualité des vins en Nouvelle-France», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 14 à 17.
  • MARTIN, Paul-Louis. Les fruits du Québec: histoire et traditions des douceurs de la table. Sillery, Septentrion, 2002. 219 pages.

Second episode
Innkeeper, get me a drink!
Innkeeper, get me a drink!

Photogravure: L'auberge Neptune, Québec, 1830
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Crédit: James Pattison Cockburn, Illustrated books, albums and scrapbooks, C-012707

Under the French regime, anyone who wanted to “take a little nip” would inevitably head out to the inn or the cabaret, the only establishments that were authorized to sell alcoholic beverages on a retail basis. Frequented by both travelers and local clients, these were places where people could drink, eat and, in the case of inns, lodge. Their names were original: Le lion d’or (The Golden Lion), La truie qui file (The Fleeing Sow), La reine blanche (The White Queen), Au signe de la croix (At the Sign of the Cross)... In Québec, in 1744, while the population was only 5,000, there were already about 40 cabarets and three inns!

From the outside, the inns and the cabarets could easily be mistaken for the other houses around them, if not for their distinctive signs. The cabaret owner was required to post a “stopper”, made of a green branch, and the innkeeper had to post a sign or board. On average, there were five or six rooms in these houses, with the kitchen serving as a common room. Since the manager generally lived there with his family, space was rather limited.

The cabaret owners and innkeepers often combined their trade with other occupations and, when the men were away, their wives took over. They were often quite busy making sure the establishment was properly run. They had to obtain food, candles and heating wood, prepare the meals, serve the wine, cider, beer and spirits, clean the bedding, and welcome the guests. At the time, accommodations were highly variable and the rates were adjusted according to the type of guest, who frequently relied on credit and did not always pay reliably.

Inns and cabarets were generally located on strategic sites, such as on the routes used by travelers, near shipyards and near churches. Several colonists living in the countryside got into the habit of meeting at the cabaret while waiting to go to mass, taking shelter there from bad weather. These were places where the settlers could escape from daily constraints and they played games there and exchanged the latest news. Certain cabarets, moreover, had bad reputations. They were known as places of debauchery, frequented by prostitutes, beggars, thieves and robbers.

There is no need to mention that these places, which resulted in a certain amount of disorder, were closely supervised by the civil and religious authorities. Anyone who wanted to run such an establishment had to obtain good references from a priest or a noble in order to obtain his permit. Following this, he was required to respect several regulations. Among other things, he could not sell alcohol during religious services, he had to close his establishment at a set time, he had to settle his clients on the ground floor or in a yard or garden where they were visible, and he had to limit the amount of alcohol sold to soldiers or servants. Likewise, he was forbidden to sell alcohol to the Amerindians, who were only permitted to drink beer and only in certain cabarets.

In practice, it was not always easy for cabaret owners and innkeepers to apply these rules. They did not always want to limit the amount of alcohol consumed by soldiers, who were their primary clients, or to make drinkers leave when the bells rang, announcing mass. For their part, the authorities did not always keep a close watch, although fines were occasionally imposed and permits revoked.

Those who frequented the inn or cabaret reinforced their bonds of friendship while drinking together. To learn more about the rituals associated with intoxicating beverages, we invite you to return on April 29, 2008.

Sources
  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France. Sainte-Foy, Les Éditions GID, 2001. 367 p
  • LACHANCE, André. Vivre à la ville en Nouvelle-France. Outremont, Libre expression, 2004. 306 pages.

Third episode
The Art of Drinking
The Art of Drinking

Aquarelle: Auberge Pinard, Bas-Canada,
vers 1860-1870
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, William Henry Edward Napier fonds, C-035306

La bonne chère ne sert de guère
Si l’on est point accompagné
Et l’on croit qu’elle est entière
Quand on boit à sa santé.*

Under the French Regime, only the wealthy classes could afford to drink wine on a regular basis. In their circles, adopting the drinks and manners of the mother land allowed them to display a belonging to the aristocratic class. The quest for refinement did not, however, stop with the choice of drinks. It could also be found in the objects, manners and rituals associated with drinking alcohol.

When serving drinks, the members of the elite preferred the French style. The bottles of wine would be placed on a buffet, along with glasses, and left to the care of a servant. This method served to prevent certain incidents and kept the bottles out of view. The bottles were generally made of thick, dark-colored glass, and were not very elegant on a carefully set table. Several colonial families could not, however, afford this luxury. They would place the bottles or pitchers directly on the table, allowing their guests to serve themselves..

Quality glassware is a great sign of refinement. Colorless glass or crystal, which is difficult to produce, was the most popular. When it was impossible to obtain such glass, good families choose “verre de fougère” (glass made with fern ash) for their goblets and stemmed glasses. It had an excellent reputation since people said that it gave drinks a good taste. Light and fragile, this glass was a transparent green. This is the type of glass that was most often found on dining tables in the St. Lawrence Valley.

In the summer, it was considered good taste to serve cool wines, which was a sign of wealth. In order to cool their wine people could either fill a cooler with ice and then place the glasses bottles in it or place the ice directly in the wine. There was nothing odd about this practice since people at the time were used to putting water in their wine. This served to stretch out stores of this precious liquid when there was a shortage of imports.

Occasionally, wine could be enhanced through the addition of certain ingredients. The Jesuits, for example, produced a spicy, sweet wine called hypocras wine. Some people served wine hot, adding spices such as nutmeg and pepper to it, while others added spirits to it in order to give it more body

In addition to these material signs of distinction, any well-born man could be recognized by his manners. Mastering the art of drinking was part of this. Even if this ancient ritual was also practiced by the common people, it would be more complex for the elite and different from traditions followed in France. Whereas, in the mother land, people started toasting their host first, the inhabitants of the St. Lawrence Valley would proceed in hierarchical order, starting with the most prestigious guest. Such toasts started in about the middle of the meal and continued until it was over.

Well lubricated evenings also gave rise to drinking songs. Élisabeth Bégon provided evidence of this in her letters when she reported that, on certain evenings, the men of the upper echelons of Montreal society would sing so loudly that they attracted the attention of passersby. Some drinking songs were reproduced by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (1786-1871) in his novel Les anciens Canadiens. One of them, Bacchus assis sur un tonneau, was actually published in France, in 1628, in the collection Concert des enfants de Bacchus. Concert des enfants de Bacchus.

Among members of the elite, alcohol was one of the goods voluntarily offered as gifts. Some people, such as the Count of Bougainville and General James Abercromby, also used alcohol to place bets. For example, in 1757, the count bet the general two baskets of wine from Champagne against two baskets of beer from London, that Fort Louisbourg would not fall into English hands before a certain date. The Frenchman lost his wager.

As an inevitable consequence of drinking alcohol, some drinkers would founder in drunkenness. To learn more about the perception of drunkenness in New France, we invite you to return on May 13, 2008.

*Extract from a poem printed on a register from the Ville-Marie seigniorial tribunal dated 1672.

Sources
  • FERLAND, Catherine. «Le nectar et l’ambroisie: la consommation des boissons alcooliques chez l’élite de la Nouvelle-France au 18th century», Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 58, no 4, printemps 2005. Pages 475 à 505.
  • GERMAIN, Robert. «Boissons de nos aïeux», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 10 à 13.
  • LAFRANCE, Marc. «De la qualité des vins en Nouvelle-France», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 14 à 17.
  • LAPOINTE, Camille. «À la table de messieurs Perthuis», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 22 à 25.
  • OUELLET, Lucien. «Bacchus en terre d’Amérique», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 28, hiver 1992. Pages 32 à 35.
  • PRÉVOST, Robert, et al. L'Histoire de l'alcool au Québec. [Montréal]: Société des alcools du Québec: Éditions internationales Alain Stanké, 1986. 239 pages.

Fourth episode
Slouched over a bottle

During all periods and in all social classes, the abusive consumption of alcohol has always been very harmful. The drunken person talks loudly and stammers; his legs turn to rubber and his reflexes are diminished. Our ancestors had typical expressions to describe these types of behavior. For example, people would say that the person who was drunk had been drinking “le vin de singe” (monkey wine) when he would start dancing or playing joyfully, that he had been drinking “le vin de pie” (magpie wine) when he became talkative, and that he had been drinking “vin de Nazaret” (Nazareth wine) when the person laughed and wine shot from his nose.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, drinking was an essentially masculine activity. Moreover, it was believed that drinks that warmed a person were beneficial for virility. When they were in groups, men were strongly encouraged to drink and this started at a young age. Solidarity over the bottle, even to the point of drunkenness, reinforced group membership. In this context, a man who abstained from alcohol was considered abnormal.

In the case of gentlemen, drinking on a regular basis and occasionally getting drunk was considered very acceptable. At the balls and nocturnal receptions organized by the elite, people occasionally took part in “belles soûleries” (good drunks) as described by Élisabeth Bégon in the letters she wrote to her son-in-law. When writing about such events, she reported that “a great deal of wine was drunk, particularly five bottles by Messers Noyan and Saint-Luc who, as you may think stayed there. Noyan was put into a carriage and taken home.” A little later, Élisabeth Bégon wrote that Mr. Noyan, “fell while trying to dance at Mr. Varin’s […], spilling his drink, with his wig falling to one side and himself to the other”. This type of behavior seemed so usual that Mme Bégon was not offended. Monsignor de Saint-Vallier, for his part, condemned those who encouraged their colleagues to drink, “doing that without thinking of the demon”.

In the case of women, drinking alcohol was much less acceptable. Since, as people said, women were passive by nature, drinking alcohol would detract from their femininity and be harmful during pregnancy. It was also feared that when women lost control, through drunkenness, they would give in to their sensual desires. Women were only allowed to drink when surrounded by their families. They did so moderately, primarily during meals, as confirmed by the observations of Pehr Kalm. He noted that Canadian women drank more water than wine and that they diluted their wine. Women who were weakened or ill were allowed to drink more, in order to regain their strength.

The same applied to ecclesiastic people. They were invited to drink moderately. Nevertheless, the religious communities produced and imported a large variety of beverages. Among senior members of the clergy certain people, such as Monsignor de Laval, chose abstinence as a result of spiritual conviction, in an effort to attain an ideal of purity. For their part, nuns drank very little and essentially only in case of illness. They did, however, offer a few choice bottles when receiving guests.

With alcohol consumption levels so high in the colony, the authorities did have to punish certain excesses. Thus, the Journal des Jésuites reported that, in 1645, Governor Montmagny had two joyful companions, who had drunk a little too much just before Midnight Mass, placed on a chevalet.

Drinking alcohol also caused problems among the Amerindians. They liked alcohol so much that their drinking sessions could last several days, interrupting economic activities and causing havoc in their villages. As of 1633, Champlain prohibited the sale of alcohol or wine to the Amerindians under penalty of fines and corporal punishment. This prohibition was supported by the Sovereign council in September 1663 with penalties of fines for the first offences, and whipping and banishment for recurrences.

This ends our series of chronicles on the drinking of alcoholic beverages during the time of New France. We invite you to return on May 27, 2008 for a new series.

Sources
  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France. Sainte-Foy, Les Éditions GID, 2001. 367 p
  • FERLAND, Catherine. «Le nectar et l’ambroisie: la consommation des boissons alcooliques chez l’élite de la Nouvelle-France au 18th century», Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 58, no 4, printemps 2005. Pages 475 à 505.
  • PRÉVOST, Robert, et al. L'Histoire de l'alcool au Québec. [Montréal]: Société des alcools du Québec: Éditions internationales Alain Stanké, 1986. 239 pages.

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«Bacchus assis sur un tonneau»
Bacchus, assis sur un tonneau,
M’a défendu de boire de l’eau,
Ni de puits, ni de fontaine.
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau,
Il faut vider les bouteilles;
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau;
Il faut vider les pots.

Le roi de France, ni l’Empereur,
N’auront jamais eu ce bonheur;
C’est de boire à la rasade.
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau,
Il faut vider les bouteilles;
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau;
Il faut vider les pots.

Tandis que les filles et femmes fileront,
Les hommes et les garçons boiront;
Ils boiront à la rasade.
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau,
Il faut vider les bouteilles;
C’est, c’est du vin nouveau;
Il faut vider les pots.
“Chevalet”
An instrument of torture and punishment, shaped vaguely like a wooden horse, on which those who were sentenced were forced to sit, balls chained to their feet.
Pehr Kalm
Pehr Kalm was a Swedish naturalist. In 1749, he visited Canada and kept a diary of his botanical and social observations.
Monsignor de Saint-Vallier
Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier (1653-1727) was the second bishop of Québec.
Why get upset?
One evening, a man came to Élisabeth Bégon’s home, visibly drunk already. She welcomed him anyway, without making a scene.
Élisabeth Bégon
Marie-Élisabeth Rocbert de la Morandière (1696-1755) was married to Claude-Michel Bégon de La Cour. She is particularly known for her correspondence with her son-in-law Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière (Lettres au cher fils) in which she described the society of her time.
Nocturnal life
Looking for entertainment, the elite in New France frequently organized balls and other receptions. These evenings started late and continued until the next morning, a luxury the working classes could not generally afford.
Old-fashioned expressions
These expressions are found in the Dictionnaire universel contenant généralement tous les mots françois by Antoine Furetière (1727 edition).
Élisabeth Bégon
Marie-Élisabeth Rocbert de la Morandière (1696-1755) was the wife of Claude-Michel Bégon de La Cour. She is particularly known for her correspondence with her son-in-law Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière (Lettres au cher fils) in which she described the society of her time.
Hypocras wine
This is a sweet wine to which spices such as cinnamon, cloves and vanilla are added.
Crystal
Called crystal because it looked like rock crystals, this colorless glass required particular care when being made. The raw materials had to be as pure as possible and efforts were made to eliminate the greenish color by adding a decolorizer such as magnesium to remove the color. In the 18th century, the results obtained in France were imperfect: the glass produced was often pink, ridged and cracked. The English were more successful, using lead oxide as a decolorizer.
From the cellar to the table
With the exception of the major vintages, imported wines were stored in barrels. Using a tap (small copper or cast iron faucet), the wine would be transferred to bottles before being carried to the table. The bottles, which were covered with wicker or globular in shape, were dark in color as a result of the poor quality of the materials used and the fact that the glass was heated with coal. They were imported from Europe with their corks. The first corks were cone-shaped, held in place by string and sealed with wax. These were followed by cylindrical corks that were compressed into the mouth of the bottle. This new method provided a more hermetic seal.
A closely watched business
For the entire time of New France, 125 ordinances and four regulations were enacted concerning inn-keepers and cabaret-owners.
Place of lust
In the 17th century, the cabaret run by Anne Lamarque dite la Folleville was known as a place of prostitution. The Ville-Marie priest also denounced the establishment operated by Simon Guillory, where, according to him, people were involved in “excesses of debauchery, and other scandalous disorders”.
Shelter
When the first “hostel” permit was granted to Jacques Boisdon in 1648, he was asked to locate his establishment near the church, so he could welcome worshippers who needed to warm up either before or after the service.
The Female Cabaret Keeper
One of the women to operate a cabaret was Marie Alix, who was in charge when her husband, Simon Guillory, was involved in the fur trade.
Stoppers
People used the branches of a tree that would remain green a long time to make stoppers: holly, jack pine, ivy. Some cabaret owners even used cabbages. According to a regulation in effect in 1691, the cabaret owners who sold wine solely to be taken home did not have to post a sign but did, nevertheless, have to declare their trade.
Louis Chancels de Lagrange
This author wrote a work entitled Voyage fait à lisle Royalle ou du Cap Breton en Canada 1716, sur la frégate l'Atalante.
Hawthorn berry wine
There are several varieties of hawthorns in Quebec. The fruit from this shrub can be used to make a delicious wine.
Prerogative of the elites
While wine had been the prerogative of the nobility for a long time, its use became more democratic in the 17rth century. The elites who wanted to stand out from the lower classes, sought increasingly expensive products that were not accessible to the common people. In this respect, the colonial elite was no different from the French elite.
Distinguished spirits
Two liqueurs from Hendaye, anisette and fenouillette, were popular with the elite. They were highly perfumed.
Wines from La Rochelle
These wines, named for the port from which they were exported, came from the Aunis, Saintonge, Angoumois regions.
Impressive figures
Wine accounted for 12% of the value of all imports to New France in the 18th century. The Colonists consumed an average of 32 liters of wine per year, compared to 14 liters for Quebecers today. For importing, wines five or six years old were preferred over new wines since they survived the crossing better.
A vineyard in Montreal
Only the Sulpicians had a vineyard worthy of the name, covering an area of four arpents, at the foot of Mount Royal. It does not, however, seem that they produced wine. Other vines were grown in small numbers in the gardens of the religious communities and the members of the elite.
A vine from Europe
The grape was the first European fruit to be introduced in the colony. Champlain made the first experiments when he founded Quebec.
A vine in North America
In southern Quebec, this vine grew in damp forests, near bushes and thickets. Its fruit, which was very acidic, were dark blue in color. When Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence valley, he discovered this plant in large quantities on Île d’Orléans, which he named Île de Bacchus.
Marc Lescarbot
Lawyer and writer, Marc Lescarbot lived in Port-Royal in 1606 and in 1607.