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BEST BITES: Celebrating the tourtière, a French Canadian holiday classic

The tourtière that we know today was first written about in the 1840 French-Canadian cookbook, La Cuisiniere Canadienne
Tourtiere Image (1)
Tourtiere

For many, there’s very little that flavours this season more perfectly than a tourtière. It certainly continues to reign supreme as a traditional dish in Québec for Christmas Eve’s night-long celebration, le réveillon, and New Year’s Eve meals.

To understand how it came to be such an integral part of a holiday feast is to dive into a gastronomic past.

Food historians suggest that meat pies are some of the earliest dishes known to humanity, clues to this pointed to recipes dating back to 1600 BC.

And time marched on.

A gift that travelled across medieval Europe, adaptations of such pies were readily consumed in France and England. All were preparations of spiced game meat contained in a crust, oftentimes an inedible crust, nonetheless a useful vessel for the savoury dish.

The earliest instances of this meat pie in pre-Canada can be traced back to Quebec when it was a French settlement. It most likely evolved from the French cipaille, cipâtes or six-pâtes, a traditionally layered dish known by British sailors as “Sea Pie.”

Just to confuse you, by 1611, the word tourte had come to refer to the pastry containing meat or fish that was baked in a vessel called a tourtière. Such is the way history has with us.

The people of the Saguenay Lac-St. Jean region, however, claim the tourtière dish as their invention, traditionally stuffed with cubed meats of wild game, often deer, rabbit, pheasant, or moose.

The pie thickens.

The tourtière that we know today was first written about in the 1840 French-Canadian cookbook, La Cuisiniere Canadienne, perhaps the first French cookbook to be published in Canada. Describing it as “a meat pie made with pork, veal, mutton, chicken and potatoes, each cooked in their own spices before being chopped into tiny pieces and baked in a double-crusted pie.”

Whichever meats were used, with or without the presence of a potato – sometimes even oats from the Scots as a thickening agent – the spices remained a constant. To this day, most recipes contain at least some combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Oh, and a flaky, buttery crust is a given. That’s how far we’ve come since medieval days.

The tourtière has become a cultural treasure since those very early days, with different regions boasting their own versions of the pie, each influenced by what foods are readily available and with strong ties to family recipes. This humble pie has influenced generations of cooks, binding them together in celebration and a deep sense of family history.

It can be difficult to find tourtière readily available in restaurants, but fortunately there is one such place where you can indulge in this very traditional dish. As is their way, the chefs at Miijidaa Café & Bistro in downtown Guelph have borrowed tips from venerable Canadian cookbooks and adapted their own version of Tourtière using elk and pork that celebrates the historical roots and cultures of Canada. Baking in a deep respect for local and sustainable ingredients. You can find their recipe here.

What resonates most with all tourtière makers it seems, is that it's not a dish for one; rather a meal to be shared with friends and family, as Miijidaa can attest.

So while we may not be in Quebec or even celebrating le réveillon, this formidable dish can be found on Guelph’s Quebec Street this holiday season.