At Christmas time, there is no dish more quintessentially Canadian than tourtière. Tourtière is a double-crusted meat pie made from ground pork, veal or beef, and flavoured with generous additions of herbs, or combinations of herbs and spices, depending on the recipe and region. Like many Canadian culinary traditions, tourtière is originally from the province of Québec and is an essential part of the yearly ritual of le réveillon, a late-night feast on Christmas Eve that extends into the wee hours of the morning. Like so many iconic regional specialties, the question of what makes an authentic, traditional tourtière remains the subject of much debate, and there are countless regional variations across Québec and other Canadian provinces. Based on what’s available in each region, a tourtière filling might even contain fish or game meats, while some versions involve multiple layers of dough instead of just the top and bottom crust. Each family is sure to have their own perfectly curated recipe, but in the end, a tourtière is characterised by a golden-brown, lightly flaky crust around a full-flavoured, warmly spiced savoury filling.
History of Québécois Tourtière
The traditional Québecois tourtière traces its history back to the 17th century, when Québec was a French colony. Of course, the concept of a meat-filled pastry is not specific to Québec or even Europe, with many cultures around the world having equivalent dishes or snacks. But it’s the particular texture and spices that sets the tourtière apart from other meat pies, and it was already a fixture of Québec’s traditional Christmas Eve feasts by the late 1600s, alongside other meat dishes, seafood dishes, wine, sweets and just about anything a family could afford in those days. The réveillon tradition was most commonly practiced in Catholic households.
When it comes to explaining the roots of the name tourtière, there are a few competing theories. According to one, tourtière is derived from 'toure', an old French word for magpie, a bird closely related to the raven. Magpies were a common source of food in Medieval Europe, mainly because they were both easy to find and easy to catch, and they were thus a typical ingredient in the meat pies made by French settlers in Québec. Another sensible theory suggests that tourtière is so named because the rounded cast-iron dish used to bake sweet or savoury pies was known as a 'tourte'.
Either way, the recipes for tourtière were quick to adapt to local conditions and ingredients. For example, whereas meat pies often include potatoes to round out the meat filling, a recipe that emerged in and around Quebec City would use oats to add extra thickness to the ground pork used in the pie. Thanks to the abundance of cereal grains grown in the region, as well as the extra rich texture they add to the meat filling, oats have remained a key part of tourtière recipes in the Quebec City region right up to the present day.
Traditional French-Canadian Tourtière, and Modern-Day Touches
Elsewhere, recipes for tourtière evolved to include larger cubes of meat rather than ground meat, as well as beef – or even rabbit, pheasant, or moose meat – in place of pork. However, the classic French-Canadian recipe includes ground pork and mashed potatoes mixed into a hearty, savoury mixture. This hasn’t stopped chefs across Québec and the rest of Canada from coming up with more and more exciting versions, including tourtières with chicken, lamb, trout and seafood.
Since tourtière is generously spiced, it’s also a great vehicle for vegetarian substitutes, like mushrooms or lentils. A traditional French-Canadian tourtière is seasoned with summer savoury, a popular herb across Atlantic Canada and is used in much the same way as sage is in other parts of the world. Tourtière will often include smaller amounts of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or allspice.
Pro tips for making a better Tourtière
Much like a fruit pie, a tourtière should have an evenly golden-brown and flaky crust. In fact, the key building block when making any pie is to have a good crust that is nice and crisp without being tough. While butter is usually the ingredient of choice for pastries, the key to a crispy and flaky tourtière crust is to use lard instead. Since lard doesn’t melt as quickly as butter, it is also easier to handle and shape. That said, finding high-grade lard can be difficult, and anything less often comes with a strong pork flavour, so be sure to look for the best quality lard you can find – or stick with butter.
Another step you can take to help give your tourtière that classic eye-catching gloss, as well as an extra crispy bite, is to brush it with an egg wash. An egg wash usually consists of a beaten egg diluted with water, cream or milk, which is then spread in a thin layer on top of a pastry. This helps give pastries, and tourtière in this case, a deeper golden brown colour and extra shine. Because of its high-fat content, an egg wash with cream will give more of a shine, while the protein in milk will contribute to a deeper brown on the crust, so in the end it’s all down to personal preference.
One of the worst things that can happen to your tourtière is for it to have a soggy crust, which is why it’s best to add the filling when it’s cold – otherwise, the extra steam and condensation will add unwanted moisture to your lovingly prepared crust. The best strategy is to cook the filling in advance, perhaps even the day before if possible, and keep it in the fridge until it’s time to put together your tourtière.
You can also defend against the dreaded soggy crust by adding a tablespoon of corn starch or potato starch, in order to help bind the ingredients together and maintain a uniform texture. This is particularly handy if you’re skipping the Québec City-style addition of oats.