Wednesday, March 02, 2005

La mystère de la tourtière

I first had Tourtière at a Cabin à sucre which was one of the first "cultural" events I did upon moving to Québec. A cabin à sucre is the cabin where they boil the maple sap to make sugar and syrup from. Every Canadian knows about the tradition of throwing the hot syrup on the cold snow and rolling it up in a popsicle stick to eat like candy. That in itself is an excellent thing, but here in Québec the trip to the sugar shack is a whole experience. You get to sit at a big giant communal table in a huge old barn with a giant fireplace and a band playing traditional music (with songs about the devil dancing with the prettiest girl in the village and carrying her away).

The tickets are kind of expensive, but you get to eat and eat. And the food was designed to fuel people who are cutting down trees and doing laundry by hand so it's large and easy to eat and full of fuel. The first thing you notice is the old, clear bottles filled with maple syrup, the fire lighting up the amber within (permit me a little lyricism in reference to a moment that was spiritual to me). One of the people in our party, a french-canadian from Ottawa, immediately poured the syrup into his cup and drank it! He explained that all syrups have a different flavor and that it's important to take some time to taste them before you pour it on the food. Like whiskey, I thought! The syrup was incredible, thinner than I had expected, but sweet and complex.

The food was great, especially since it all floated in maple syrup! If there is one thing I've learned from french-canadian culture, it's to not hesitate to put maple syrup on anything, no matter how weird it may seem. The results are always positive. Of special note for me were the fèves au lard (baked beans), the crisps oreilles (thick slice of bacon that looked like ears) and the tourtière. The tourtière is basically a meat pie, but it's almost all meat, with just some potatoes, and it's way thicker and drier than the english ones I'm used to. The crust was thicker and darker as well. I didn't want to stop eating it.

Since then, I've slowly been trying to find a good recipe for tourtière. This has not turned out to be so easy. According to the Larousse, the tourtière is first a casserole dish and second a meat pie made in Canada. Other recipes suggest that a real tourtière is actually more like a casserole, not a pie, with only crust on the top. My previous teacher swore that the only good tourtière was the one that is made with three kinds of ground meat: pork, beef and lamb, in equal amounts. I haven't been able to find that recipe even though she claimed that you could go to any supermarket and they would have a prepared package of those three meats specifically for the dish, with a recipe. I haven't found that in any of my local supermarkets, but I'm not in the most traditional of neighbourhoods.

More interestingly, the same guy who went to the cabin à sucre with us, explained that there was a bird called la tourterelle (I think, I'll have to double check the name with him) that used to be extremely plentiful in the forests of Nouvelle France. He referred to them as des frigos ambulants (walking refrigerators) and because they were so easy to catch, they were the original source of meat for many of the settlers who hadn't yet adapted their hunting skills to this new land. They are now extinct.

Most recipes just call for ground beef. But I'm not satisfied with that. I'm still looking and when I do find a recipe, either for the three meats, or that extinct bird, I'll try and cook one and let you know how it turns out.