Salt cod–the Gaspe cure


The sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but with baskets let down by a stone. John Cabot, c. 1497

The Blanchette house–a cod fisherman’s homestead

They called it the “Gaspé cure” because the region had a reputation for producing the most succulent and translucent salt cod. The kind of salt cod that Europeans saved for Christmas dinner while slaves in Barbados were fed leftovers and seconds.

But while the fishermen of the Gaspé may have had a lock on quality, cod was the main economic driver all along the Atlantic. That’s because the best and richest stocks in the world were found along the coast of Canada and the northeastern U.S.

“Were” is the operative word.

When Cabot and Cartier bumped into the New World, it was teeming with cod. It didn’t take long for enterprising folks to smell an opportunity and for the hardworking underclass to find a livelihood.

The system that developed had its regional refinements, but basically operated like the coal mines: Merchants “sold” fishing families (and virtually everyone fished) staples and supplies on credit against the season’s catch, and then took salt cod in payment, which they exported around the world.

where the Gaspe cod went

So the merchants controlled the market and the prices—and they assumed the risk involved in lending. The main currency was fish and the result was that people were poor and dependent on the merchant.

Things bumped along like this for several hundred years.

The Forillon Peninsula, like everywhere else along the coast, had its families who depended mainly on fish, and its merchants who sold stuff to them on credit. In this case, William Hyman & Sons was the merchant on the Forillon peninsula.

Taking a break at Mr. Hyman’s store

All the shiny stuff in Mr. Hyman’s general store

Mr. Hyman’s basement vault

When the cod came in the spring, men and boys went out in small boats and fished. Once on shore, they processed their catch, splitting, gutting, removing the backbone and salting it.

Tending to the catch until it was cured was women’s work. In their spare time, women also tended to the garden, the children, and all the old-timey household tasks that we find so intriguing, but that were tedious and time-consuming, yet absolutely vital in keeping the family afloat.

Because most of the season’s catch went to pay off what the family had borrowed from the merchant the previous spring.

After Britain gained control of Canada in 1760 (during that the epic battle on the Plains of Abraham, remember?), British merchants and immigrants began coming to the Forillon coast, mostly from the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. Some of these new arrivals married pretty French girls and wound up speaking French, and some French boys ended up speaking English. It was a polyglot, multicultural community.

Families were large, especial French families. They called it the revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradle). French families might have as many as 15 or 16 children, while English-speaking families seemed to quit at 8.

Which only goes to show that you can lose the battle but win the war.

Life was hard, but it was possible to survive. If you liked fish. The Blanchette house, which the park preserved as an example of this bit of history, doesn’t look much different from houses a few miles away outside the park. Not much different from old houses anywhere, actually.

What IS different, especially to an landlubber like me who grew up after this seemingly limitless resource went the way of the buffalo, is the culture and the history. Economies on both sides of the Atlantic were driven by cod. Battles were fought over the prime fishing grounds. People risked their lives and fortunes for cod.

And then it went away. More on this later.

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2 Responses to Salt cod–the Gaspe cure

  1. Erik 2 September, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Very interesting history. Also sad how a once plentiful resource was depleted so fast.

    • Kate Convissor 2 September, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      It’s such a sad, old story. Human beings will kill, hunt, trample and despoil until the money-maker du jour is gone–down to the very last one. We see the mayhem everywhere we travel, especially in “newer” parts of the world.

      I’ve eaten quite a bit of cod on this trip (there’s still cod, obviously, just not the enormous stocks of a hundred years ago). It’s a wonderful fish.