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O Canada! Your immigration websites are flooding to the point of implosion. Could it be because of a sudden hankering on the part of your southern neighbours for Montreal-style bagels, poutine and Molson beer? Probably.
WHAT IS TOURTIÈRE?
But while poutine (gravy and curd-laden fries) might make the headlines, the quintessentially, uniquely Canadian main course dish is tourtière. Hailing from Quebec, but universally consumed by French-Canadians (and food lovers in general), tourtière is a meat pie, but it is the mother of meat pies. It is rich, complex and festive – an ideal centerpiece for Canadian Thanksgivings or Christmas meals (or for those aspiring Canadians in the audience).
Homing in on tourtière as the national celebratory dish for the holidays is the easy part. It was described as early as 1611 in Canada, when imported by French settlers, as a meat or fish pie baked in a pastry crust in a medium-deep ceramic or iron vessel. The original version likely contained pigeon meat (tourtes was the name of a now-extinct breed of passenger pigeon).
But the other half of this column, beyond the culture and history of a dish, is for me to make an ideal version of it. For tourtière, there is no one recipe, much less single filling. It seems best to think of it in terms of a category: warm, savoury pie filled with protein in a yummy crust. A bit fiddly to make (unless you buy store-bought pie dough, which you didn’t, right?), but glorious in the middle of a well-laid table lined with loved ones, and suitably festive to slice into to serve.
4 MAIN TYPES OF TOURTIÈRE
There are four primary types of tourtière, and I had a hard time figuring out which claims primacy. Acadian tourtière focuses on pork, but can contain other meats, like rabbit or chicken, to liven it up.In the Campbellton area it’s even prepped as individually-sized pies, which somehow takes the drama out of serving it. Montreal’s version contains only one meat: pork that is finely-ground, much more finely than most grocery stores carry (the pork resembles ground beef taco meat, rather than the minced pork that resembles beef ground for burgers). This rendition has an almost Sicilian air to it, as clove and cinnamon are added to the meat.
But it gets weirder. Toppings for the pie are largely sweet, from ketchup to maple syrup, chutneys and berry compotes. In Manitoba, clove and cinnamon are flanked by nutmeg, celery salt and mustard powder, with mustard as the standard dressing.
The most iconic (though not necessarily oldest) version is from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and is stuffed with potatoes and a variety of meats that are cubed rather than ground. This makes it more akin to British savory pies. But I’ve found recipes that use fish instead of meat, so I’m at something of a loss as to what to choose. In teaching myself this dish, I opt for this latter version – there’s something about the quadruple-barreled name that gives it an aura of authenticity. Cubed meat and potatoes it is.
HOW TO MAKE TOURTIÈRE RECIPE
I’ll get this out of the way. Making pie crust is a pain in the butt. It’s mostly the mess that makes it so. My wedding ring gets clogged with flour and wet dough, and I have some sort of kitchen deficiency wherein it is impossible for me not to spray my ingredients everywhere, plastering the walls with baking powder, lard and egg yolk.
The temptation to buy pie dough is strong, but Slovenian supermarkets where I live don’t have the right kind of premade dough. Filo yes, puff yes, pizza yes, but not North American pie crust. I decide that it’s my patriotic duty, as a North American and Canadian-o-phile, to make the crust from scratch. Out come the unwieldy pastry wigglers (as I like to call them) on my underpowered, handheld mixer. I mix shortening with flour, baking powder and salt, with the anticipated hailstorm of flour shooting out of the bowl as I mix, followed by the forecast dread of having to clean everything up afterwards. Then the wet mixture (cold milk and water, a beaten egg and a bit of brown sugar). Then the waiting part.
Recipes claim that the dough is easier to work with if refrigerated overnight. They also claim that tourtière is tastier when slow-and-low-cooked overnight. By my math, that’s two nights ahead of time I’ve got to prep this pie. I’m usually throwing dinner together an hour before showtime. This requires more forethought than I can normally muster. No wonder this is saved for special occasions.
Choosing the meat was tricky. The size of the pie recipe I found was for 15-20 people, which is about 2.5 times as many as are likely to come to my Thanksgiving dinner, so I cranked it down a few notches. But the ratio of 4:1 pork and beef rumps to game meat stayed true. The recipe called for caribou or moose. I’m afraid Oliver, my local Slovenian butcher, would’ve had some trouble getting his hands on moose or caribou (I did ask him, just to see the look on his face), and so I settled for venison to get my game on. Next I matched the weight of meats with the weight in potatoes, and cubed it all.
But with the crust sorted and my ingredients cubed and spiced, the rest is easy. Overnight at 300 F (at least 8 hours) with a foil cover, and one hour without, and we’re good to go. The presentation was, well, almost spectacular. I liked the idea of the self-standing pie presented on a platter in the middle of the table. But in practice, the pie crust stuck to my Dutch oven and pie filling yummily leaked out, so my vision of slicing perfect portions at the table to distribute to guests, who would eat with a knife and fork, went “oot” the window, as my Canadian friends might say. Instead I scooped portions onto bowls, rather than plates, and we ate with spoons. It sure tasted good, but I guess I need a bit more practice. Or a Canadian passport. Wonder if that immigration site is working again?