Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Reading my way to Quebec

We're hoping to make a trip to Eastern Canada this summer, if all goes well.

So, as is my wont, I've been hunting around, reading my way to Quebec.

In addition to the usual guidebooks and online sources, I've come across a couple of very enjoyable items:

  • Firstly, in the absolutely amazing History of Cartography, published by the University of Chicago Press, and now happily online for the world to enjoy, there is a very interesting chapter: The Mapping of Samuel de Champlain, 1603–1635 by Conrad E. Heidenreich.
    The importance of Champlain to the early seventeenth century mapping of North America is that his were the first accurate maps of the Atlantic coast north of Cape Cod, the first accurate maps of the St. Lawrence River to the eastern Great Lakes, and the first maps to combine English Arctic exploration with that of the French to the south. His maps also show an appreciation for native geographic information, which was so important to French exploration of the interior of the continent. It is clear, however, that Champlain was not primarily a cartographer. His original tasks were resource evaluation and exploration; after 1616 he became an administrator responsible for the smooth functioning of the fur trade and the settlement and governance of New France. Although today he is known among academics for the quality of his maps and writings, to the general public, in Canada at least, he is best known for having established the French presence in their country as a permanent feature that gives it some of its distinctive character.
    What I found most endearing about the cartographical story of Champlain was how eminently pragmatic and practical he was:
    Champlain’s writings suggest that he had a practical rather than classical education. He recorded what he saw without making classical allusions or indulging in speculation. His treatise on navigation, the Traitté de la marine, also points to a practical background—learning through observation and doing rather than schooling.
    Having learned my own (software development) trade mostly by "observation and doing rather than schooling," I felt an instant kinship. And I loved how truly practical he was:
    Within days after he arrived in New France for the first time, Champlain questioned the natives through an interpreter about the geography of the interior. By the time he got to the Lachine rapids, he requested that they draw maps for him. Champlain’s inland mapping began with a rough outline based on native verbal accounts and maps, initiating a practice followed by every French explorer after him.
  • Secondly, although it's not the most current of works, I am certainly enjoying Taras Grescoe's delightful Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec

    Grescoe's interests are far-ranging, and he happily wanders all over the place, from language to government to "cowboy culture" to the press to native relations to weather, and much, much more.

    And he is a witty fellow, making Sacre Blues a much more entertaining read than your typical dry history:

    Quebecois television admen who make the transition from Montreal to Paris report that they have to leave behind a freight car's worth of cultural baggage if they want to sell to the French. The openness, sincerity, and warmth that are featured values in Quebec's television commercials tend to be held in low esteem in France (an oft-repeated aphorism, usually delivered in rapid-fire Parisian, sums up the attitude: "Trop bon, trop con." In other words, if you're too nice, you're also too stupid.) In France, the emphasis must be put on sensual seduction (full, red lips suck on a Gervais ice cream bar), a nostalgia for lost glory (a Citroen flashes past castles on the Loire), and caustic verbal humour, where a mot juste puts a pretentieux in his place (an employee cunningly embarrasses his boss into giving him his France Telecom cellphone at the office Christmas party). The ideal French consumer is the sure-footed wit blessed with an ostentatious and somewhat cruel intelligence. What appeals in Quebec, by contrast, is the generous, warm-hearted boy-next-door whose common sense prevents him from becoming a dupe.
  • Lastly, at least partly for my wife, I've picked up and spent a fair amount of time with Julian Armstrong's Taste of Quebec

    Several aspects of Armstrong's cookbook are notable:

    • It's nicely illustrated, with simple yet beautiful pictures of the dishes-as-prepared
    • The recipes are simple and easy to read. Moreover, Armstrong often, though not always, includes both the French name of the dish and its ingredients as well as the English names
    • Armstrong collected most of these recipes from various well-known Canadian restaurants and chefs, and usually, though not always, includes some additional capsule information about the recipe's source that brings it to life

    The likelihood that we will actually prepare many of these recipes is quite low; I just can't see us fixing Casserole de Lievre et de Perdrix Parfumee a l'Erable (Maple-flavoured hare and partridge casserole).

    However, just reading through the ingredients and preparation techniques is quite interesting, and every so often as you're reading through the book you come across a section like this one, on Jarrets noirs:

    The moist and muddy banks of the Chaudiere River helped give the Beaucerons the nickname jarrets noirs, which is used to this day. It's not that residents had black legs, oldtimers explain. The term refers to the black feet, or hocks, of the horses that pulled their owners' carts, or charettes, along the river to market in Quebec City, where their owners sold their wares and bought such essentials as salt, spices and molasses.

I'm sure there are other sources I should be reading, but for now, these are quite enjoyable.

Have others to suggest? Let me know!

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