First, I’d like to make some remarks about Quebec (French Canadian) cuisine in general, I grew up in Montreal and by the 70s (I had left in ’83) was starting to taste the foods outside the Jewish-Canadian orbit of my youth. One day I should – will – write about that tradition too, as, apart from being my own, the Montreal Jewish kitchen was non-pareil anywhere in the world. For another day.
I suppose as for our foods, famously bagels and corned beef/smoked meat, it’s only the most prominent foods which the larger society notices. The deeper couches, to keep with the French vein, remain known only to insiders so to speak, les initiés. So it is with the foods of the Québécois people. Unless one had experience close to a French community when growing up, in a social sense I mean, the true traditions of Quebec cuisine were only known to their practitioners.
Even in the 1960s though, most people in Quebec, whatever the social background, knew that pork-based tourtière was a famous Quebec dish (une tourte in France). It was probably the same for fèves au lard, the sweet-edged Quebec bean dish. Cretons, a pale, spiced meat spread similar to France’s rillettes, was known by many too in Montreal, as breakfast menus used to feature it as an alternative to bacon or ham. I’ve mentioned Quebec spruce beer in an earlier posting. In the patisserie area, Quebec’s excellent sugar pie – la tarte au sucre – also had fans amongst Quebeckers of all stripes.
Beyond these, the Americanized fast food such as patates frites and later poutine, and hot dogs vapeur (steamed) or “Michigan”, were, for most native English speakers, the face of Quebec cuisine. This was unfortunate as Quebec families for centuries had evolved a repertoire of savoury dishes using the full range of ingredients: meat, fish, eggs, cereals, vegetables, maple and brown sugar. This was real food, in other words. This tradition, before the era of air conditioning and refrigerators, also featured a “summer cuisine” with many distinctive, lighter dishes. As well, Quebec is a very large province of Canada and many foods evolved as regional specialties. Even “national” dishes such as tourtière had particular features depending on which part of Quebec you came from.
One needs to read a book like Lorraine Boisvenue’s Le Guide De La Cuisine Traditionelle Québécoise (Stanké, 1979) to understand the full range of dishes in the French Quebec community at large. The book has sections on soups (some 60 including fish soups), charcuterie, lamb, beef, veal, pork, ham, chicken, turkey and numerous other fowl, tourtières and pains de viande, fish and seafood, game, eggs, vegetables, salads, puddings, pastries, pies and beignets. There is yet more, extending to home-brewing and distilling. It is very clear from the objectives explained in her introduction that the dishes are solidly of tradition, not worked up to write a book that is. They were drawn from a family’s cuisine handed down in the maternal line, either her own or that of friends who suggested the dishes to her. It is a cuisine of oral tradition as she does not rely on earlier published sources for recipes – she didn’t need to.
Amongst its many interesting features, certain herbs were characteristic of Quebec cuisine, especially savory (sarriette) but also a preparation called herbes salés whose roots go back to the first French settlers. Quebec’s gelées, usually a fruit and sugar conserve served cold, are notable too and resemble the Portuguese marmelada. The bouillis need notice too, similar to the pots au feu of France.
With the urbanization and modernization of Quebec society in the 1950s and 60s which have only accelerated since – what was called la révolution tranquille – this culinary tradition, itself an amalgam of old French, British, American and some aboriginal influences, started to disappear. In the cities, people ate a diet similar to most Canadians. This was influenced by industrialized food production and distribution, various American trends including its franchise food systems, and the newer ethnic cuisines introduced by Italian, Greek, Chinese and Jewish Quebeckers. Since the 1980s, in common with many parts of the world, Quebec chefs and restaurants have sought to fuse some of these traditions or create their own freewheeling gastronomies. This has further obscured what belonged uniquely to French Canadians as their own.
No one knew this future better than Ms. Boisvenue. She concludes her introduction with this statement: “Nous ne saurons peut-être pas apprendre à nos petits-enfants les gestes de nos grand-mères; saurons-nous au moins les raconter…” (We likely won’t be able to teach our grandchildren our grandmothers’ ways with food; but at least we can tell them what existed…).
Since I was talking earlier this week about the use of beer in France’s far northern belt stretching from Dunkirk to Strasbourg, what of beer-and-food in another northern francophone belt, Quebec? The use of beer goes back to Quebec’s earliest days, well-before the British took over the province in the 1770s. One might expect there to be a broad range of beer dishes given that wine was never grown in Quebec. In fact this is not so but we first must make a crucial distinction. If we are talking about the new food world since the 1980s, one could say there is a developing beer cuisine in Quebec. Numerous books (I have one or two) have been written to extend Quebec gastronomy by including beer in everything from soup to nuts.
These books take inspiration from Belgian traditions, say, or the writer’s own ideas, and are no less valid for that, but this doesn’t mean the dishes explained have an age-old ancestry. Sometimes this is obvious, e.g., spaghetti sauce with beer, in other cases less so, but if you know Quebec’s food history reasonably well, you can usually tell the difference.
From what I have been able to tell, only a handful of dishes existed which used beer. As to why this is so, it is hard to say. Since Quebec grew no grapes once again, why not use beer in a broad range of dishes? I think the reasons are, first, unlike northern France, Quebec never had thousands of very small breweries. It had comparatively only a few, generally in the larger centres (eg. Montreal, Quebec City, Trois Rivières, Sherbrooke). Second, Quebec was never the most prosperous part of Canada, and I suspect when beer could be purchased, it was used to drink, not cook with. Third, Quebec had and still does a tradition of fermenting apples, inherited from their Norman ancestors. Cider features more than beer in some of its traditional foods.
Despite this, a few beer dishes exist. Ms. Boisvenue gives a recipes for pork stew and beer which involves the meat, garlic, onion, potato, cabbage and apples, brown sugar, clove and dry mustard. Her ham boiled in beer and molasses has an old English ring to my ears, maybe a Yorkshire soldier who mustered out after the British took Quebec married a Canadienne and introduced it to her family…
The great Quebec cookery writer, Jehane Benoit, has a few beer recipes in her extensive publications. There is one with game, beans and “pale ale”. In fact, Lorraine Boisvenue has a similar one, it calls for two pounds of deer, 3/4 lb salt pork, 4 cups beans, a quart of beer, carrot, onion, dry mustard, savory, pepper and salt. This one has no sweetening added, but I think Jehane Benoit’s did (can’t find that book at the moment). Most of the bean dishes in Ms. Boisvenue’s book in fact are sweetened, and there is an ardent debate in Quebec culinary circles whether Boston baked beans are really at the bottom of the famous Quebec fèves au lard, but it doesn’t really matter, the dish is so old it has acquired its Quebec garland of authenticity. Same thing for la cipaille, which probably comes from the English sea pie, which, despite its name, was a meat dish, but one cooked at sea.
Probably sailors brought it to the Montreal and Quebec ports, but who knows? Here is a young Quebec chef’s version: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/cipaille-meat-pies-on-d-is-for-dinner-1.3378571. Ms. Foucault speaks lightly of how the dish is constructed (not of its taste, but how you make it). This ties into Lorraine Boisvenue’s statement that the various words for the dish – the different spellings – don’t correspond to any regional identification, rather all spellings and variations in the recipes attest that each mère de famille had her own version.
Well, as a Quebec native albeit non-resident for 30 years, I offer my notional version: I’ll use Ms. Boisvenue’s “grandmother’s” recipe as the base. It calls for not less than beef, veal, pork, deer or moose, chicken, partridge, hare and salt pork, amongst numerous vegetables and seasoning. Got that? Then, I’ll replace part of her bouillon (stock) addition with beer. Which beer? Any one. Ms. Foucault is right, after many hours slow baking, cipaille will meld into a glorious whole. Molson Export Ale, Creemore Lager, Fuller’s London Pride, Orval Trappist … it will taste great regardless.
Note re images used: The first image above is entitled Quebec, Winter Scene, ca. 1872 and was sourced from Library and Archives Canada/L.P. Vallée/PA-103073, here. The second image was sourced from this Quebec tourism site. The third image, of Set. Agathe-des-Monts in the 1950’s, was sourced at the A Canadian Family webpage, here. The fourth image was sourced from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto, here. Ownership therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.