Here's how French settlers preserved food in the days of New France

This is how French settlers preserved food during the New France


From the beginnings of the colony until the XXecentury, food preservation posed a problem for both urban and rural dwellers. Before advances in technology allowed home canning and refrigeration, the primary food preservation techniques used were drying, smoking, preservatives, and refrigeration.

< strong>Drying

Preserving cod by drying is a common process in America. This photo, taken in 1899 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, shows an impressive volume of fish drying.

Fruits and aromatic herbs from the garden such as thyme, sage, chervil or parsley are the main foods that benefit from this dehydration process. A variety of fish, cod, is also exposed to this form of preservation, which is likely to be found on many tables. 

Native people dehydrate their blueberries and cranberries. Some local fruits, such as cranberries, will benefit from this process with a view to exporting them to Europe.

Certain dehydrated fruits arrive in the opposite direction in the colony, such as currants or Malaga grapes – to name only these two varieties –, prunes from Tours or elsewhere, without forgetting figs.


Although it is well known that the various Aboriginal nations smoke their meat and fish either to eat them or to preserve them, it is less known that the first French people to settle on the territory disdained this way of preparing food. , except for one practice: smoking the ham. This piece of meat is occasionally found hanging from the chimney to benefit from the effect of the smoke.


Preservatives include, but are not limited to, alcohol, sugar, salt, and fat. Alcohol is mostly associated with imported fruit in brandy. 

For its part, sugar is added to the preparation of jams, although it should be immediately specified that at the time of the French colony, the consumption of sweet preparations was limited: the consumption of sugar did not increase considerably among the French-speaking people only from the middle of the 19th century, even if France controlled the sugar market long before this period.

The main preservative used is salt which, contrary to the French reality, does not is not taxed in New France. In this way, cooking fats are preserved – butter, bacon or eel, this Lenten fat –, certain fish such as salmon and sturgeon, not to mention beef. 

Some preparations such as salted herbs add flavor to dishes.

However, salt was occasionally lacking, especially in the 18th century; without salt, livestock perish, salting food becomes impossible and all food security is weakened. 

The colonial administrators did not hesitate to send boats from Quebec to the establishments of Newfoundland fishing for salt. 

A saltworks project developed for the Kamouraska region will never see the light of day, due to a lack of manpower and knowledge. After the Conquest, salt was regularly supplied.

Last, but not least, preservative is melted tallow. It is used to coat eggs. It was on the recommendation of the scientist Réaumur, a French physicist and inventor, that the doctor Jean-François Gaultier adopted this practice; this way of doing things will spread throughout the colony. According to Gaultier, before the adoption of this advice, it was difficult to keep eggs until Mi-Carême.

Note that before the end of the 18th century, among French speakers, marinades were not are not there.

Cold preservation

The cooler at the Château Saint-Louis, under the Dufferin terrace, is a fine example of this. what a cooler might have looked like before it was used at home.

This action is carried out in four ways: by snow, by ice, by freezing and by the root cellar.

In 1683, the intendant of Meulles wrote to his superiors that the colonial climate offered an undeniable advantage: that of preserving meat and poultry by freezing for “four to five months”. When the cold season is well established, pieces of meat are frozen and then hung in attics, both in town and in the countryside. 

During the 17th century, French settlers adopted the Aboriginal way of doing things by digging holes in the ground, burying snow or ice in them, and then storing meat on top: a less expensive version of the cooler.


The richest, such as administrators or institutions as well as butchers, benefit from icehouses: these buildings are huge stone receptacles, filled with snow, then watered with irrigation canals, above which a shed houses various cuts of meat and other foods.

The root cellar, meanwhile, with its cool temperature – from 2°C to 5°C in winter – has the role of protecting fruits (especially apples) and vegetables from the winter cold.

< p>Another way to use the cold is to leave certain vegetables, such as cabbages and leeks, in the gardens under the snow. 

The domestic cooler 

This advertisement for the Dupuis coolers, which dates from 1915, shows the enthusiasm of the population for this technological advance.

These ways of practicing freezing work very well in the 17th century, since it is the coldest century of the last millennium. However, the further the 18th century progressed, the warmer the temperatures and the longer the thaws.

These thaws occur between the months of December and March. Consequence: frozen foods deteriorate and become spoiled, at least for those that are only exposed to ambient air, without the fresh contribution of ice or snow. If the harvest is not forthcoming, food insecurity sets in and amplifies.

The domestic cooler only appeared in the last third of the 19th century. Its use will experience a significant increase after the Great War. Its operation is simple: place a block of ice in the upper compartment and store perishable foods below. 


The Reno canning brand was established in Quebec in 1914. Published in 1920, this advertisement gives pride of place to this method of preservation, which will arouse constant enthusiasm after a few false starts.

The tin can, although it was invented in France before being improved in England in the early 1800s, took time to establish itself in Quebec and Canada. After a few appeared during the century, fish and fruit and vegetable canneries didn't really take off until the 1880s.

In Montreal, from 1889-1890, the S. S. Gareau company produced tomato ketchup, marinades and mustard, but it was an ephemeral adventure! Canned foods were not adopted by Quebecers until after the 1914-1918 war.

In Quebec City, in 1914, the Jean-Baptiste Renaud & Co. launches Old City Manufacturing, which will operate the Reno brand.


Technological improvements in home canning and refrigeration have eased the spring transition and alleviated food insecurity. whether it's the vagaries of the weather (thaws), the shortage of products (salt, in particular), poor techniques (for eggs) or bad harvests. 

It should be added that Lent was superimposed on this agri-food challenge, since during these 40 days of abstinence, the meats risked deteriorating.

►In agri-food terms, the period of the end winter and early spring, when the food stored after harvest begins to run out and spring is slow to set in, is called the “lean season”. 

Cold preservation method dating from 1808

This cold preservation method, which appeared in the February 20, 1808 edition of the newspaper Le Canadien, evokes the future domestic cooler, but it is above all similar to the description of that of the American Thomas Moore. Moore invented a form of portable cooler in the United States in 1802 so that he could carry his butter to Georgetown market from Maryland and thus keep it cool. 

“Manner of preserving meats always frozen during the winter whatever the mild weather.

“We have two chests made, one of which is larger than the other by a foot or a foot and a half; one encloses the frozen meats in the small one which one then puts in the big one on a bed of snow; the space on each side and above is also filled with snow or crushed ice, a cover is placed on top and the meat can be kept frozen until there is no more snow . You only have to be careful to adopt [sic] a tap at the bottom of the large trunk to let the water flow out when the snow [sic] melts and replace it by other snow.”