The Conversation – I recently saw a culinary invention that made me think about “tourtine.” The dish, as its name suggests, is a hybrid of tourtière and poutine. Poutine cheese curds and sauce are added to the tourtière’s pie filling, along with festive ingredients such as shredded meat and the inevitable foie gras.
The tourtine is so successful that its creators, the owners of the Baron BBQ restaurant in Saint-Ambroise in Québec’s Saguenay region, were overwhelmed by the demand. They had to redirect all their production and double their staff just to keep up.
The dish, offered just in time for the Christmas season, seems to reinvent two of Québec’s culinary classics. But beyond the buzz marketing (which we wish for all restaurant owners during these times), what relationship does it have to Québec’s gastronomic heritage?
My research revolves around the cultural representations of food and cuisine, particularly how gastronomic imagination resonates with our individual and collective identities, with our aspirations and quests for meaning.
The traditional Québec meat pie is not the first example of a dish that combines existing recipes. Pizzaghetti had its heyday in popular culture a few decades ago in restaurants with “Italian and Canadian” kitchens. This Québec invention is still offered by many establishments and is even found in the frozen food section of supermarkets.
Another inventive crossbreed, the cronut, has been an undeniable success since 2013. It’s a delicacy whose croissant-like puff pastry is filled and fried like a doughnut. The cronut is in fact not unlike its creator, Dominique Ansel, a Frenchman living in the United States who has opted for the blending of traditions.
The crossing of distinct culinary recipes is always revealing. Pizzaghetti undoubtedly suggests a naive enthusiasm for Italian gastronomic traditions that we didn’t hesitate to throw onto the same plate. The cronut, on the other hand, presents the meeting of France and the New World, of long history and innovation, of the artisanal bakery and the snack.
But what does the combination produced by the tourtine say? To understand it, we must examine the two dishes which compose it. Both the tourtière and poutine are emblematic of Québec’s culinary tradition and are even seen as national dishes. However, they have very distinct meanings.
Tourtière is one of the pièces de résistance of Christmas and New Year’s tables in Québec. It is based on local ingredients and, depending on the region, it can be prepared with farmed meat, game or even fish.
In addition, the dish provokes debate — another sign of its cultural importance. Does its name really come from the now-extinct birds called tourtes (or tourte voyageuse, known in English as the passenger pigeon) that were supposedly used to make it? Is its origin French or British? Is the real tourtière the one from Lac-Saint-Jean, which contains potatoes, the one containing only pork and minced veal (sometimes called “pâté à la viande”), or the cipâte (a layered meat pie) from the Bas-du-Fleuve (the lower Saint Lawrence area)? The number of variations of the tourtière indicate that it occupies a true place in Québec gastronomy.
It is also a dish that — although seldom cooked in homes now — is still very much loved by consumers, especially during the holidays. The seasonal market for ready-to-eat tourtière (fresh or frozen) crosses categories, bringing together artisanal producers, intermediate players such as niche grocery stores, and of course mass distributors. It’s simply a must on the menu and can certainly be considered Québec’s national dish.
Poutine is quite different and its history is much more recent.
It was born at the end of the 1950s in the agricultural region of Centre-du-Québec, the cradle of the cheese curds that are its indispensable ingredient. It only became popular in the 1980s, thanks to urban distribution that also changed the conditions of consumption. At that time, it acquired the iconic status of an unpretentious fast food and even a bit of a scoundrel, a beer sponge that we like to swallow after a night of drinking before going to sleep.
The meanings carried by poutine are very different from those of tourtière. It is imbued with a certain rural vintage imagination, but also with values such as brash Americanism, joyful excess and a love of nightlife. It may be relatively new when compared to tourtière, but poutine is now part of Québec’s culinary heritage.
What happens when you mix tourtière and poutine? This gesture may offend purists and I am not convinced that it is gastronomically pleasing. But it is nevertheless interesting to combine the various backgrounds linked to each of the dishes — history meets modernity, the family meal meets the nightly snack taken between friends. The tourtine modernizes the tourtière, or traditionalizes the poutine.
The tourtine, and its success with consumers, perhaps reveals that in this pandemic year, we feel the need to rethink the traditional dishes of the holiday season. There won’t be big family dinners and endless feasts. Our meals will be more modest. For some, the holidays will be marked by difficult personal and professional conditions, even by illness or mourning.
In this context, we want to keep the tradition that binds us to the past, so precious and reassuring in uncertain times. But why not add something playful, a bit of humour and invention, joyful excess and the memory of friendly repasts taken outside? This is what the tourtine offers.
I would be surprised if it becomes our new national dish, but for now, it meets a need. I almost want to say that it gives you something to dream about.