Ye Story of Caviare
With a Cree Legend of the Sturgeon
From the Manitoba Free Press
MANITOBA yields other harvests than those that are reaped from its fertile soil. The name and fame of Manitoba’s wheat have gone abroad to countries overseas, as well as throughout our own continent; but it is far from being generally known, even in our own continent, that Manitoba has important fisheries. The mental picture which is usually conjured up by the name of this Province is that of a sealike expanse of fertile soil, a prairie empire of “the gold that grows,” a land of wheatfields that stretch to the circling sky. Besides its widespread wealth of prairie loam, of which great areas yet await their first furrowing by the settler’s plough, Manitoba possesses lakes of large extent, and these are furrowed by the keels of fishing fleets which reap rich harvets yearly.
I he Manitoba of to-day is vastly
larger than the Manitoba which, in 1870, became a Province of the Dominion of Canada. It is the only prairie Province that has a sea coast. It is as large as Texas, the largest State in the neighboring republic ; more than twice as large as Great Britain and Ireland; larger than P ranee, Sweden or Spain ; more than twice the size of Italy; larger than Chile. It has the commodious sea harbors of Fort Churchill and York Factory, on Hudson Bay, the Mediterranean of this continent. The building of a railway to Fort Churchill is now going forward as a Dominion Government work, and the opening up of the Hudson Bay outlet for the grain of Western Canada to the European market is definitely embarked upon as a national undertaking. The Bay itself, which is the third largest sea in the world—being exceeded only by the Mediterranean and the Caribbean—yields the northern whale, so prized for its “whalebone,” a single adult specimen being now worth $15,000, the white whale, or grampus, the narwhal, whose tusk, from six to ten feet long, yields a valuable ivory, the walrus, five species of seals, and thirty kinds of edible
fishes. The peltries of the sea and shore remain undiminished, though fur hunting has gone on for three centuries. The great Company which takes its name from the Bay, expends in that region $2,000,000 annually in the purchase of furs, chiefly those of the bear, fox, wolf, wolverine, lynx, skunk, ermine, marten, mink, muskrat, otter, and the renowned beaver ; and of the products of the whale, porpoise and walrus fisheries it also exports large quantities annually to the British markets. Great quantities of sturgeon sounds, or air bladders, from which isinglass is made, are also shipped. The forest products include three varieties each of pine and spruce, two each of elm, ash, poplar and birch, and one each of aspen, tamarack and fir. Smaller growths, suitable for pulp-making, also abound. The existence of such minerals as iron, copper, silver, gold, mica, gypsum, antimony, asbestos and coal has been demonstrated, the deposits, yet untouched, being of vast extent.
Of the lakes of Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg is the largest, being 275 miles long, and from 40 to 60 miles wide, its ■ area being about 9,000 square miles, and its total coast line longer than that of any of the Great Lakes, except Lake Superior. • No other Province or State has entirely within its boundaries a body of water at all approaching it in magnitude. Great Salt Lake, in Utah, is
only one-fifth of the extent of Lake Winnipeg. The largest of its tributaries is the Saskatchewan River, one of the four great rivers of the continent east of the continental divide ; its total length is 1,090 miles. The Red River, 700 miles in length, and the Winnipeg River, 300 miles in length, and many minor rivers, also pour into Lake Winnipeg. The Nelson River is its principal outlet, and connects it with Hudson Bay. Next in magnitude to Lake Winnipeg come Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis, the former 125 miles long and 25 miles wide, the latter 130 miles long and 20 miles wide. Of smaller lakes there are many. The fishing industry is carried on mainly on Lake Winnipeg. This year’s catch on that lake amounted to 8,000,000 pounds, making, at an average value of 5 cents per pound, a total value of $400,000. 'Fhe great bulk of this catch was exported by the Dominion Fish Com-
pany to the United States, consisting chiefly of white fish, which is in great demand. There are also considerable quantities of pickerel, pike, catfish and sturgeon exported. Of caviar the annual export is from $10,000 to $15,000 in value. It goes to Europe, most of it to Hamburg, which is the headquarters of the trade. The little package of caviar accompanying this book is of this year's take on Lake Winnipeg. It goes to you from the Manitoba Free Press with the wish that you may relish your Christmas good cheer with gusto as hearty as that of Peter the Great for his favorite dishes, among which caviar held a foremost place.
The word caviar, caviare, or, as it was called in England more than three hundred years ago, caviary, is, the philologers tell us, cognate with the Dutch kaviaar, and the German, Danish and Swedish kaviar—all de-
rived from the French caviar, former ly cavial, which is traced to the Italian caviale, formerly also caviaro, which the philologers further inform us, is cognate with the Spanish caviar (there is also Spanish word cabial, meaning sausage made with caviar), and the Portuguese caviar and cavial, both of which words mean caviar. The modern Greek word for it is kabiari, the mediaeval Latin was caviarium, the Turkish word is hay yar, and the Russians call it ikra. So much for the name of it. Now for the thing itself. Caviar is the roe of the sturgeon prepared as a table delicacy. As a dish too rare to be known by the gen erality of people, and the flavor of which would not be relished by an uneducated palate, Shakespeare makes Hamlet speak of it, in describing a play which was too fine to be appre
ciated by ordinary minds. “ 'Twas caviare to the general” (meaning the generality), says the Prince of Denmark. Anchovies were likewise regarded as being above the appreciation of any but those of most exquisite taste. In one of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, these lines occur in a passage advising a young lady how to behave so as to be taken for a person of the highest fashion :
“Laugh wide and loud—and vary;
A smile is for a simp'ring novice, One that ne'er tasted caviary,
Nor knows the smack of dear anchovis.”
Caviar was so fashionable that affected traveled men made a point of declaring that they cared for few other delicacies besides it. There is a description of such a coxcomb in “Blount’s Observations,” published
in 1620. `A pasty of venison," it says, makes him sweat, and then swear that the only delicacies be mush rooms, caviare, or snails." In an old play, "The Muses' Looking Glass," one of the characters says,
`Thou dost not k n o v t h e sweets of get ting wealth." To which the reply is made, "Nor thou the pleasure that I take in spend ing it, to feed on caviare and eat anchovies." And Ben John son, describing an affected mu tator of a fine g e n t 1 e man,
writes that lie “doth learn to make strange sauces, to eat anchovies, macaroni, bovoli, f a g i o 1 i and caviare, because he” — the person imitated — “loves them.” The following curious account is taken from D r. M u sc ovy,” a notable book of C r u 1 1 ’ s “Ancient and Present State o f travels which was published in London in I6Q8 :
cavajar (called by the Russians ikary), is made of the roes of two different fishes, which they catch in the River Wolga, but especially near the City of Astracán, to wit, of the sturgeon and the belluga. I will not pretend to describe the first, it being too well known in these parts; but the belluga is a large fish, about twelve or fifteen foot long, without scales, not unlike a sturgeon, but more large and incomparably more luscious, his belly being as tender as marrow and his flesh whiter than veal, whence he is called white fish by the Europeans. This belluga lies in the bottom of the river, at certain seasons, and swallows many large pebbles of great weight to ballast himself against the force of the stream of the Wolga, augmented by the melting of the snows in the spring; when the waters are asswaged he disgorges himself. Near Astracán they catch sometimes such a quantity of them that they 66
throw away the flesh (though thé daintiest of all fish) reserving only the spawn, of which they sometimes take an hundred and fifty or two hundred weight out of one fish. These roes they salt and press and put up into casks, if it is to be sent abroad, else they keep it unpressed, only a little corned with salt. That made of sturgeon’s spawn is black and small grained, somewhat waxy, like potargo, and is called ikary by the Muscovites. This is also made by the Turks. The second sort, which is made of the roes of the belluga, or white fish, has a grain as large as a small peppercorn, of darkish grey. The caviare made of this spawn the Muscovites call Armeinska ikary, because they believe it was first made up by the Armenians. Both kinds they cleanse from its strings, salt it, and lay it up on shelving boards, to drain away the oily and most unctuous part; this being done, they salt it, press it, and put it up in casks containing 700 or 800 weight, and so send it to Musco and other places ; from thence it is transported by the English and Dutch into Italy. That glew which is called ising-glass is made out of the bel Inga’s sounds.”
The preparation of caviar is a simple enough operation, yet one requiring skill and experience to get the best results. A specially prepared salt, known as caviar salt, is used. The sturgeon roe and this salt are the only ingredients in caviar. The quality of
the caviar depends upon the care in handling it, and in keeping it at the right temperature throughout the whole process. The caviar from Lake Winnipeg is shipped to Hamburg in kegs containing from ioo to 125 pounds. It is said that some of it finds its way back across the Atlantic in one-pound, half-pound and quarterpound jars and tins, as the Russian article. By the Russians and Germans caviar is used as a staple article of diet. They eat large quantities of it with bread, usually made up as sandwiches, or spread on single slices of bread. By gourmets the world over it is greatly relished as an appetizing hors d’oeuvre.* The usual way of serving it is first to make it as cold as possible, without freezing it, and then mix a little lemon juice with it and spread it upon thin, crisp toast, either with or without hard-boiled egg. It is used also as a filling for sandwiches, always with lemon juice, and usually with the addition of chopped hard-boiled egg. It is known that King Edward is specially fond of caviar sandwiches at luncheon. Caviar is never cooked.
^ The sturgeon fishing on Lake Winnipeg is done almost entirely by the Indians. They take the fish in pound nets, and keep them alive in enclosures, or pens, which they make in suitable places near the shore, where the water is not too deep, by driving in stakes and so making a fence to keep the sturgeon prisoners, until they are ready to make a journey in one of their sailing boats, to one of the calling places of the fishing companies’ steamers, or until one of these steamers visits a locality where there is a sturgeon pen. At Fort Alexander, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading nost at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, which for more than a century has been one of the most important posts on Lake Winnipeg, you can always count upon finding some Indians and half-breeds. Of the
* In Russia the passages blacked out in foreign newspapers and periodicals by the censor are colloquially known as Caviar
fishers to be found there, the veteran is Gran pere Lalonde. He is very old —nearer ninety than eighty years, they say. In the summer time he sits on the rough plank platform in front of the store at Fort Alexander, smoking his beloved habitant tobacco and watching the great river change color with the varying sun and wind. In the winter he crouches in his corner behind the stove at his son’s homestead beyond the reserve up the river, shaking his old grey head, and from time to time muttering to himself.
At times he will tell stories of les vieux temps. Some of them are queer
tales, for Gran’pere Lalonde has seen strange things in his time; and if they were less rambling, and if one could write down the old man’s own words, they would make good reading.
The strangest story of all, perhaps, is of the time Gran’pere Lalonde saw l’Eturgeon Royal, the great sturgeon of Cree tradition, the mythical monster which guards the fishing grounds of Lake Winnipeg—the terror of all old-time Cree fishers, and to be propitiated only by the sacrifice of the choicest portion of each day’s catch.
Had I but the gift, I could make
you feel the grip of that weird tale as Gran’pere Lalonde told it to me one summer evening, as we sat waiting for the Beaver's white sails to show around the high poin/ of Elk Island. Nobody will believe the story, but that is neither here nor there. Half Cree in race, Gran’pere Lalonde is almost wholly Cree in mind, and as he grows older the French in him gives way before the savage, his inheritance from an Indian mother.
It was over fifty years ago. Gran’pere Lalonde and his partner, Michel Dupre, were camped for the summer fishing at Pigeon Bay, beyond the Narrows. There they had spread their nets and built their stages, on which the fish were to be sun-dried for use in the coming winter. The fishing had been poor, and they had shifted camp time after time, from Rabbit Point north to their present station.
“I tell you dis, ’Poleon,” said Dupre. “Dere is no luck to us while you kip not givin’ dat way for l’Eturgeon Royal. He is tek de fish out of de net every tarn, quick, for you not nay him his petite bouche. J don’ lak it, me, for to go feesh wit’ you. Some day we go out, an’ dat is all. Dere is no more ’Poleon, no more Michel ! Dat little gel Marie Beauchamp, she no t’ank you for dat, I t’ink me !”
“Sacre! Michel,” said Lalonde, “dat is ol’ Hinjun tale’bout de King sturgeon. I lak see de feesh can kill ’Poleon Lalonde. Pm catchin’ heem in ma net, mebbe soon. I don’ care, me; I t’row no feesh back on de lak’ dat I’m catchin’, no not for de devil heemself !”
“Tek care wat you say, ’Poleon, he’s hearin’ you! He’s mutche manitou, dat feller. He’ll come out de lak an’ keel you dead! Even de Compagnie she pay heem. Antoine Bouvier, at de Fort, put back wan w’itefish in every t’irty for l’Eturgeon Royal.”
“Antoine Bouvier ees wan squaw. Hees hair stan’ up if de win’ blow it de leaf at night. Me; I am French!
T am not fear for Hinjun devil.” And
wrapping himself in his blanket,
’Poleon turned on his side and slept the sleep of the just.
Michel damped the fire with the contents of the kettle and followed his example, as far as his fears would let him. For nearly a month now they had been fishing together, and the whole of that time 'Poleon had steadfastly refused to follow the timehonored custom of throwing back as an offering a fish from each take of the net. Michel passed the night restlessly, and rose in the morning with dire forebodings of disaster.
The morning dawned grey and drizzly. They broke their fast silently and sullenly, as though to avoid harking back to the previous evening’s fruitless discussion. Together they ran their flat-bottomed boat into the water and stepped in.
“Now we shall see,” said ’Poleon, “if dat dam l’Eturgeon Royal has tek’ ma feesh.”
They reached the nets. The first pull brought their hearts with a leap to their mouths. “Jesu, Marie!” cried Michel; “dere is wan honder feesh, if dere is wan in de net!”
The whole length of the net was one silvery gleam of fish. With the boat half full, ’Poleon turned its nose towards the second net. As he did so, Michel stealthily reached forward and lifted a fish by the tail.
“Hoi’ on, Michel; drop dat!” ’Poleon rose, oar in hand. “You t’row out dat feesh, you go wit’ heem, for I hit you wit’ de paddle. I t’ink shame for you, act like wan papoose.”
Michel opened his hand reluctantly, and the fish slid squirming over its fellows to the bottom of the boat.
They reached the second net. Both were trembling with suppressed excitement. The best take of the season was theirs, yet the sturgeon spirit had been denied his sacrifice. Michel’s terror was manifest in his shaking hands and pallid face, and even ’Poleon, despite his vaunted disbelief, was not without some qualms of conscience.
All this Gran’pere had told me in the queerest mixture of English and
Canadian French, interlarded with Cree—his mother tongue. As his story proceeded, the old man’s eyes glistened, he hitched himself forward in his chair, and his pipe ceased to glow, for he waved it in one yellow, wrinkled hand while the other nervously fumbled with the arm of his chair. As he reached again, in imagination, that second net which was to convince Michel of the mythical nature of the “Hinjun devil,” his voice ceased. His hand was arrested in midair, and his eyes dilated, while his body seemed to stiffen unnaturally. In a silence broken only by the river noises and the voices of the children beyond the stockade, I waited for the resumption of his faculties. Presently he broke the stillness. In a low, hoarse voice, as though the terror of it were still with him, he spoke.
“I turn de boat—so ! I put in de oar. Michel, he tek hol’ on de net an’ pull. She is full—full more better dan de las’. Michel haul—p’raps half, an’ de feesh com’ tumblin’ into de boat. I lean over to give heem han’, for she come heavy, when, holy
Mother of Saints, de boat she lift. A beeg wave lak de bottom of de lak’ coom up turn de boat over, an’ dere is no more Michel, no more feesh, no more boat ! Moi—’Poleon—on de
lak, an’ wan beeg nemayoo—arpents long! He look at me wit’ little red eye, an’ turn over on hees side. I see hees beeg round mout, open as wide ma head, an’ so close, so close! I’m not knowin’ anyt’ing affer dat; I t’ink I’m drown, or dat feesh he eat me.
“De nex’ fing, I’m in camp, an’ Michel is dry ma clo’es, an’ feex de kettle for tea. He shake, too, lak me. He say not’ing, lak me. De boat is dere an’ de net, but de feesh, she is ail gone.
“An’ nex’ tam we haul de net, de firs’ fish is t’row over for l’Eturgeon Royal, for I hear heem say close in ma ear lak a w’isper: ‘’Poleon, it is mine!’ I look at Älichel, but he don’ hear it. Me! I’m frowin’ de feesh, begar ! An’ every tarn since dat I haul de net, I’m knowin’ 1’Eturgeon Royal feex hees eye, red, an’ say :
‘ 'Poleon, ’Poleon, it ees mine!’”