A taste of Toronto’s past

16 Nov

Today I headed off to Fort York, the military garrison which marked the first beginnings of Toronto as a modern settlement.  Fort York was built in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe admidst fears of an American invasion, and a town, York, established 2 km east of the fort.  The threat of war came and passed in 1793 but Fort York saw genuine action during the War of 1812 fought between America and its northern neighbours.  As American forces advanced towards Fort York its British commander, Major-General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, ordered that the garrison magazine be blown up, an explosion which caused many American injuries and bought the British some time, though the Americans still occupied the town of York for six days, looting, destroying and burning homes.

Toronto old and new – the Officers’ mess of Fort York framed by part of Toronto’s contemporary skyline

After its role in the 1812 war Fort York saw no further direct military action and active troops left for new barracks in 1841.  Nevertheless the fort continued to be used by the military until the 1930s and after their departure the fort was turned into historic site, open to the public .

Originally lying directly on the lake shore subsequent filling in of the lake means that Fort York is now nestled between the two dominant transportation features of this part of town; the Gardiner Expressway and the railway tracks.  While November might be characterised by cold, misty and damp mornings I had warming sunshine and only a threat of black clouds on the horizon for my visit.

I enjoyed my visit round the fort, which is due for something of a makeover in the next couple of years, including a new visitor centre and a reappraisal of the site’s original lake shore position.  It was fun seeing the barracks and imagining life in their cramped but regimented quarters, with up to 100 sharing in each three roomed block.  I especially enjoyed the fact that the fort does sleep overs for children so that they get the chance to experience a glimpse of military life in the early 19th century; I bet they love sleeping in the rough soldiers’ bunk beds!

The new kitchen in the officers’ mess, with the kitchen fireplace and dresser; the line of jars of historic ingredients on the dresser reminded me of all  Susanne Groom’s hard work for the representation of the royal kitchens at Kew Palace, investigating the spices and supplies that had passed under the nose of George III’s kitchen clerk.  

However, the part of my visit which really got me going was the discovery of the working kitchen in the officers’ mess.  A few glowing logs in the kitchen’s fireplace hinted that there was definite historic cooking activity at the site.  As my audio guide pointed out food was of high importance to the officers, dinner being not only an occasion for fine dining but also the social fulcrum of army life.  The kitchen would been the site of fevered activity and almost unbearable heat, ensuring that a fitting meal was served to the waiting officers on the other side of the baize door.  Further exploration of the officer’s mess led me down a set of steep basement steps, to the site of the oldest surviving kitchen in Toronto and the mess’s original kitchen.  A great fireplace dominated the east wall while a drainage channel ran through the floor and wine cellars and a garrison safe for gold and money lay in rooms beyond.


The basement kitchen in the officers’ mess with its brick fireplace and drainage channel beneath the stone floor; turned over to wie keeping duties in 1826 this is Toronto’s oldest surviving kitchen. 

To return to the historic cooking.  I was impressed by the range of facsimile historic cookbooks for sale in the museum shop and particularly excited to see that there was a poster advertising a whole range of historic cooking events and workshops, from trifle making to a marmalade celebration.  My attention was particularly caught by a workshop for historic mince pie making.  Now, I’ve had a go at historic mince pies before since Mr Kim doesn’t really believe in mince pies without meat, but I’d never been entirely satisfied with my results.  Here was the perfect opportunity for me to really find out what they should taste like and all perfectly timed for Christmas into the bargain, the course being run on 2 December.

My enquiries into booking led me into a lovely chat around the subject of historic cooking with the ladies in the museum shop – I enjoyed telling them the story about the survival of the royal kitchen table at Kew which was just too big to move out of the kitchen.  They informed me that not only does the shop sell the real mince pies – which are highly popular – but that the site has a volunteer historic cooking team – would I be interested in joining?  What could be a better way to get to know a site than through the reconstruction of historic food.  I was whisked away to the kitchen of recreation to meet some of the team, headed up by Bridget Wrainch. I was immediately offered some 1830s gingerbread samples, being tested in readiness for the fort’s frost fair, to try.  What a great recruitment strategy – the gingerbread, rich in molasses, was more than enough to win me over but was quickly followed by some chicken curry, in preparation as the potential lunch dish for the Marmalade Day in February.  In amongst the warm waft of spices mingling from the curry and gingerbread trifle biscuits were been prepared and the whole kitchen had an air of bustling efficiency combined with deep passion and enthusiasm for the delights and mystery of historic cooking – a wonderful introduction as I shall definitely be returning to learn more about the food of Fort York from the working side of the kitchen table.


2 Responses to “A taste of Toronto’s past”

  1. Mrs C November 18, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Just catching up with a spot of blog reading as I do an early morning feed for Master C. Fascinated to hear about the mince pie workshop and wondering if recipe there was the same as that used in the UK at the time, or whether there were local Canadian additions. Someone recently accused me of lying when I said that mince pies used to contain real meat!

    • maplesyrupandcastersugar November 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

      Thanks for the comment; I’ll let you know when I’ve been on the workshop, though I think it may well be an English recipe we’re using since the site was home to British Army troops. Hoping that they will meet with Mr Kim’s approval!

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