The Acadians are the descendants of French colonists from the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), who also influenced the culture of eastern Quebec (Bas-Saint-Laurent in particular). The European colonists who settled eastern Canada brought with them the tradition of salting various foodstuffs as a preservation method. Herbes salées (“salted herbs”) are a quintessential ingredient in Acadian cuisine. Traditional Acadian herbes salées are produced at a household level, for personal and family use, by salting the leaves of various kinds of onions, including Allium fistulosum (similar to a leek), A. cepa var. aggregatum (shallot and potato onion), and A. schoenoprasum (chive). These plants mature faster than typical onions (A. cepa), an important characteristic given eastern Canada’s comparatively short growing season. The leaves (i.e. tubular stalks) of these plants are chopped and then put in a container with alternating layers of salt. Some family recipes call for the white bulbs to be included in addition to the green leaves, and in some areas it is typical to add the flower stalks and small, purple flower buds. Once the container has been packed with chopped leaves and salt, it is topped up with water and then sealed. Herbes salées can be stored for more than a year, and are used to flavor soups, fricot and other meat stews or seafood chowders, and meat pies. In addition, they can be added to the water in which fish is cooked, to create a court bouillon; or used as a source of salt in any dish that contains a bit of liquid. Herbes salées often replace fresh onion, and they impart a subtler, more complex flavor that resembles a combination of onion and leek.
Herbes salées were present everywhere that Acadians settled, and are referred to in historical documents from the Maritimes, but the product has been in steep decline since the 20th century. The traditional version, which contains only various types of onions, is at risk of disappearing throughout the historical production area. Some salted herb blends that contain other vegetables and herbs are misleadingly sold under the name “herbes salées” (the version of herbes salées traditionally made in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Quebec does contain various vegetables and herbs, according to household recipes, but this product has also almost disappeared). “True” herbes salées are only occasionally found in farmers’ markets (and only in small quantities), and are not available commercially—they have become virtually impossible to obtain for consumers who do not make their own or know someone who does, and many young people are unfamiliar with this product. The availability of fresh, dried, or frozen vegetables all year round, and the rise in popularity of exotic cuisines and products, have compounded the problem. The flavor that traditional herbes salées impart to the dishes in which they are used cannot be replicated with any other ingredient. Additionally, the cultivation of chives and potato onions in household gardens in eastern Canada has declined in recent generations, and the production of herbes salées is often the only reason to continue growing these vegetables rather than buying them. For all of these reasons, protecting herbes salées is an excellent way to protect traditional Acadian food culture.