Making biscuits was serious business in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days
Some considered it bad luck to stir the biscuit dough counter-clockwise
It's biscuit-making season on P.E.I. — fluffy handfuls of melt-in-your-mouth goodness to go under P.E.I.'s delicious strawberries, raspberries or peaches, or in a topping for blueberry or rhubarb cobbler.
Dutch Thompson has gathered the stories of and been a guest in the homes of many seniors, who had some serious biscuit-making skills. Of course many of them had been brought up growing their own wheat on family farms, and taking it to the local mill to be ground into flour for their baking needs and to trade for other essential goods.
Mac Dixon's family ran a flour and grist mill when he was growing up in South Melville, P.E.I.
Dixon was 85 when Dutch was visiting with him one day, and who should drop by but JoDee Samuelson, who created a map of all the flour, wool and grist mills and sawmills of P.E.I. — there were once 210 across the Island.
Everyone loved a trip to the mill, to catch up with neighbours who were also getting flour milled.
"It was a pretty good outing for them, because they not only got their grist ground, but they got their horse fed, they got fed themselves — it was a known fact that everyone that came to the mill got a meal, yes!" said Dixon. "My grandmother told me that she fed as high as 14 in one day. That was part of the deal, their horse was fed and they were fed. You'd wonder how they ever made a living out of it."
Neighbours willing to 'lend a helping hand'
When new equipment called a steel roller mill arrived for Dixon's mill on the train, 20 sleighs driven by local people arrived at the train station in Breadalbane to help carry the equipment to the mill.
"Every horse was overloaded a bit," Dixon recalls his father telling him. "They wanted this new equipment and it meant so much to the neighbours for miles around, they were all willing to come and lend a helping hand."
The old mill used granite mill stones, which can still be seen around P.E.I. as yard ornaments. The best mill stones came from the Marne Valley in northern France, and were called French burr — that's what Dixon's used.
Just imagine the thousands of biscuits made on P.E.I. from flour ground using those old millstones! Mac Dixon died in 2011 at age 85.
Dutch's grandmother Henderson swore that the secret to making biscuit and bannock dough was stirring with a clockwise motion only — it was bad luck to stir counter-clockwise, she said.
Lard was scarce and 'terrible good'
Bannock was a favourite of many Scottish settlers on P.E.I. and is made much the same as biscuit dough.
Most Islanders used lard for biscuits and bannock, rather than shortening — it was easier to come by, since it came from pigs that many people raised, slaughtering a pig or two in the fall for a winter's supply of salt pork and lard.
There wasn't always enough lard for everything, however, as Ada MacKenzie of Beach Point, born Ada Baker, told Dutch.
"I've seen people grease their pans, that they're going to set their bread in, with a pork rind. That's how scarce that was," she said.
She recalled having pork fat mixed with molasses as a condiment.
"My land it's terrible good on your bread!" MacKenzie said.
She said her recipe for no-fat bannock with flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk always turned out delicious.
"See, we had the real buttermilk then. We did our churning at home," she said.
MacKenzie's mother baked bread twice a day for her family of 10 using about 10 pounds of flour a day, and made her own yeast.
Heat up the wood stove
Katheen Jelley, or Kay as she was called, was born in 1913 in Freetown-Lot 11, one of 10 children.
She said her mother Annie Henderson cooked bannock using her wood stove. In fact, there was one neighbour who would stop in to their house for a rest on his way to the local store — when her mother saw this man walking down the road toward their house, she'd send her kids scurrying to get some birch bark to get the wood fire burning hot.
"'Here comes John R. Bolger — get some birch bark and kindling, lots of good stuff for the fire,'" Jelley recalled her mother telling her. "And she'd run to the pantry and mix up a bannock, something like biscuits."
The neighbour asked her mother "'Now Annie, how is it you always have a bannock when I come?' She'd just grin, she'd never tell him she made it for him," Jelley said.
Jelley said the wood stove was always going, even during summer, because there was no electricity in rural P.E.I.
"And if you want to get anybody a cup of tea or anything like that, you had to have the stove on," she said.