Woolly Dogs

Quite a long session in the galley this morning making marrons glaces. The recipe is very easy: boil 2 pounds of sugar in 2 to 3 cups of water for 10 minutes; drop in 2 pounds of peeled chestnuts and boil for 5 more minutes. Pour the syrup and chestnuts into a bowl and leave until the next day when you boil again for 5 minutes. Repeat in total five times. Spoon the chestnuts onto a baking tray and put in an oven heated to 250 degrees. Turn off the oven immediately and leave the chestnuts in there for perhaps 20 minutes until they have dried. Cool and wrap individually. Unwrap and eat.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that truffle oil is all too often made with truffle flavouring and not real truffle pieces. There is a similar caveat emptor about marrons glaces: all to often they blend marrons and syrup and extrude roughly chestnut-sized lumps – which are then wrapped in attractive packaging.

You will have noticed that I don’t advocate involving vanilla in the process and I have given no hints on how peel the chestnuts without shedding blood. Or how to avoid burning oneself with the hot syrup – as I did when Minnie, our dog, launched into a frenzy of barking. I think she had heard the dogs on the shoreline – a sound that has echoed around these parts for at least 5,000 years and perhaps longer, given that the oldest dog remains in North America date to 9,900 years ago.

Humans arrived in North America certainly 6,000 years before this – so the thought is that dogs were brought in not by the first wave of people but by subsequent incomers. Though, as archeologists are prone to say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

But the remains discovered so far are definitely dog: DNA sequencing confirms that the Indigenous dogs of North America all came from a common ancestor that had first roamed and barked in Siberia some 14,600 years ago – and consequently that the dogs of pre-contact America were not domesticated wolves or coyotes.

In 1792, when in this part of the world, George Vancouver observed that dogs “were numerous, and resembled Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger… They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England”. A century later, the Hudson’s Bay Company journal describes canoes of the local Cowichan People carrying “dogs more resembling Cheviot Lambs shorn of their wool.”

And the resemblance to sheep was not accidental. The Coast Salish, a grouping of Indigenous peoples of the North-West, had bred these special dogs for their wool. Lydia Hwitsum, a former elected Chief of the Cowichan People and Tribes of Vancouver Island, was told by her mother, who was a weaver, that dog wool was spun into the yarn to strengthen the fibres.

The Coast Salish share linguistic and ethnic roots and the damage done to their heritage since first contact will be apparent in posts to come. Suffice it to say here that there are many Tribes and Peoples around the shores of the Salish Sea who are seeking to recover their Indigenous identity – and textiles are an important part of the process.

One of the most beautiful artefacts in the Seattle Art Museum is a Coast Salish robe – the first to be be woven for a century or more. The robe has a name which translates as Sacred Change for Each Other: for the weaver, Sa’hla Mitsa (Susan Pavel), the ‘sacred change’ is exactly this reassertion of ancient ways, an important cultural affirmation.

Traditional materials were used in the weaving – the hair of wild mountain goats, dyes made from local plants. Goat hair is often the base for Coast Salish weaving but analysis of surviving blankets show that there can be an admixture of other elements – cedar and willow bark, fibres from nettles and milkweed fibre, reeds and, of course, fur from their special breed of dog – the Pomeranian look-alikes that George Vancouver described.

It would be nice to see one of these woolly dogs – or, indeed, any of the Indigenous breeds that evolved over the millennia before contact. But none have survived into modern times – all are gone.

The woolly specimens – and their owners – were pushed out of the picture by the Hudson Bay Company which had its own line in blankets, machine-made and cheap. But much more than this, the Europeans brought savage persecution of all things Indigenous, including dogs, and, just as the incomers brought novel diseases to devastate the people of Indigenous America, so did European dogs – and their contagion wiped out the Indigenous dog population.

Traces of the ancients have been found in two modern American dogs (a chihuahua and a mixed breed dog from Nicaragua) but ironically the loudest resonance is found in the DNA of cells of canine venereal tumours – a cancer suffered by dogs worldwide. In a remarkable piece of scientific analysis [1], the disease has been tracked back to a ‘founder dog’ living in North America 8,225 years ago. And they know it has to be North American because the DNA shows traces of coyote – an animal unique to the continent.


The People of the Salish Sea – a Seattle Art Museum film (dry land begins at about 3 minutes 30 seconds) – https://youtu.be/2tQMZttQV0w

PBS documentary – Song on the Waterhttps://youtu.be/mcpHhITwRjc

The Cowichan Tribes & People – their history, culture and affiliationshttps://youtu.be/R4UyF-MTGkw

Susan Pavel talk on Coast Salish weaving – https://youtu.be/V2A2H5yMBkA

The Paddle Song https://youtu.be/6pFN3Tl9dSo


[1] Ní Leathlobhair, M, Perri, A R, Irving-Pease, E K et al. (47 more authors) (2018) The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas Science, pp. 81-85

[2] Dylan Hillis, Iain McKechnie, Eric Guiry, Denis E. St. Claire & Chris T. Darimont Ancient dog diets on the Pacific Northwest Coast: zooarchaeological and stable isotope modelling evidence from Tseshaht territory and beyond Scientific Reports (2020) 10:15630


Cloud Diver (c)Meirion Harries