Our treasures of the past: Hundreds of oysters in the Parliament of the Province of Canada, in Montreal

Other times, other customs, it is sometimes said.

Our treasures of the past: Hundreds of oysters in the Parliament of the Province of Canada, in Montreal

Other times, other customs, it is sometimes said. But it's not always the case ! Oyster feasts have long entered the culinary tastes of Europeans... and Canadians!

The discovery of hundreds of oyster shells among the archaeological remains of the parliament of the Province of Canada in Montreal (1844 to 1849) could have gone unnoticed alongside the more spectacular objects unearthed, such as the burnt books of the library or the personal belongings of parliamentarians...

In fact, it is often in considerable quantities that archaeologists find this type of ecofact, in Quebec or elsewhere. During the French Regime, arrivals of this delectable mollusc from Baie Verte, in Acadia, or Baie des Chaleurs, occasionally supplied gourmets in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Not trivial

This discovery in the heart of Old Montreal is not as trivial as it seems, since it takes us to the scene of oyster production for an ever-increasing number of consumers.

It was in the early 19th century that the oyster craze took off in the colony, along with the arrival of thousands of British immigrants and American Loyalists.

The popularity of this shellfish was then such that all the good inns and hotels in Quebec and Montreal placed it on the menu, especially in season, from September to December. Parliamentarians from Upper and Lower Canada surely frequent some of these culinary meccas.

However, the Parliament of Montreal also has its own restaurant – an English-style refreshment room – where tea service and meals are offered.

The presence of very large quantities of oyster shells in the remains of this building burned down in April 1849 confirms a certain predilection for this dish among the political class, both French and English.

The famous Malpeques

To stock up on fresh oysters, Canadians must turn to Prince Edward Island, with its famous Malpeques caught in the bay of the same name, as well as to Caraquet Bay, New Brunswick, or Chaleur Bay. In all cases, it is the same species: the American oyster, Crassostrea virginica.

When Canada was about to become a confederation in 1867, fishing methods changed completely in North America. The use of the dredge, introduced in 1820, but in more common use after 1860 in the United States, certainly encouraged excessive fishing by making it possible to rake the seabed over great distances while reducing the physical effort for the fishermen. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a disease called "Malpeque" greatly reduced oyster stocks in the early 20th century.

This will not prevent archaeologists from finding, in the dumps of this century, shells testifying to the persistent popularity of this seafood on Quebec tables.

► Extract from the book Fragments of humanity from the Archeology of Quebec collection Pointe-à-Callière, city of archeology and history of Montreal, Éditions de l'Homme, Ministry of Culture and Communications