The Other Poutine (Part I)

Poutine of Nice, France

A Canadian professor and food researcher, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, is writing a book on the history of Canada’s now famous poutine. More specifically, as many with even a passing interest in food history know, it emerged from Quebec in the 1950s.

It is generally agreed it came from small towns (various localities claim the honour) within an hour or so’s drive from Montreal. This entry in Canadian Encyclopedia sets out the learning generally understood.

Based on media accounts Dr. Charlebois will likely offer more definitive origins, so his book is keenly awaited by food enthusiasts and culinary historians.

I grew up in Montreal, and left for Toronto in 1983.  I never saw poutine in Montreal or surrounding towns but we generally went north, to St. Donat and Saint Agathe and the towns in between – we never saw poutine there. French fries with a beef or chicken gravy, yes, also a staple of Montreal taverns as I’ve written earlier. But cheese curds did not form part of this dish, then.

It took time for poutine to escape its small town origins in southeast Quebec and penetrate the large centres like Montreal and Quebec City, but once it did poutine was unstoppable. A more unlikely international food star can hardly be imagined, but food trends and food history are unpredictable by nature.

As many sources show, Canadian poutine is also known in New Brunswick, often to describe a different dish – a potato-and-pork preparation is one. The common element is the mixture of things, as poutine means, sometimes derisively, a mix or hodge-podge of things. In Louisiana, poutine means the same as the English term pudding.

I’d like here to draw attention to the fact that Nice, France has a poutine – that exact spelling, not a similar-sounding word. This poutine is not referenced in the Canadian Encyclopedia or in any other non-French source I’m aware of.

It means a school of very small fish, juvenile fish such as sardines and anchovy. So again the idea of collection or mixture, as for the North American usages. The context is different but still related to food.

See also this page from the travel website See Nice, which states in part:

The fry, or baby fish, of sardines and anchovies, ‘La Poutine’ are generally considered food for other fish. But on the Cote d’Azur the fishermen of Nice fill their nets with these local specialities.

Transparent in appearance, with silvery eyes visible, this jelly-like pulp is best consumed fresh and is a popular cuisine at this time of year. Often served raw, drizzled with olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice so that you can discover the fragrance and flavours.

A French Wikipedia entry gives some information: French-language discussion is of further interest:

The late French culinary writer and food historian Ninette Lyon referred to this poutine in her 1985 “Le Tour Gourmand des Spécialités Régionales” (Marabout, 1985), pp. 218 and 225. She never mentions Quebec or Canada, it is too early anyway (1985).

She states juvenile fish (alevins) are used in galette, a type of pancake, or for friture, a fry-up probably similar to how smelt were prepared in the Thames Estuary. Egg preparations are also mentioned.

I mention this because in the etymological discussions I’ve seen, Quebec, New Brunswick (for old Acadia), and Louisiana are mentioned, but never France, the assumption being apparently that the linguistic construction emerged in French America.

But given this usage in Provence, it had to come from France – and not just the term but the culinary context. Surely they didn’t get all this from us. Even if Provence did not supply many settlers to Quebec (most came from the western littoral), seafaring culture may have brought the term to North America, as likely for chowder, say, or burgoo.

Or, perhaps the term was once more widely known around France and is now restricted to parts of the Cote d’Azur.

It seems likely that “poutingo”, a Catalan pottage or mixture of some kind mentioned in some Canadian discussions, has the same root as the French poutine. An Italian dialectical equivalent for the fish poutine exists as well on the Italian Riviera, and in Nice itself – poutina – where an Italian patois is still spoken.

But we don’t need the Catalan or Italian terms to reach over to Canada: the word is already French.

I can add some personal testimony. I just came back from a few weeks in Nice. I asked older vendors in the fish markets about the Nice poutine. They all knew it, and said in this very month of March the schools arrive for gathering. So at this very time, the pre-Canadian, French poutine will be harvested and made up into obscure but still extant dishes.

(Impressed by the gleaming displays of fish, I asked one vendor if it was true the Mediterranean is becoming fished out. Not at all he said. I said, what about the media accounts of shortages and stock declines? He said, journalists need something to write about to get paid, don’t believe everything you read).*

Now, France may have adapted the English term “pudding”, long ago, into poutine. But we think it is more likely boudin and poutine in France are at the origin of the English term, via the Norman invasion.

Indeed poutine sounds like an alternate pronunciation or spelling of boudin. Boudin, a blood pudding or other sausage type is nothing if not a mixture…

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

N.B. This image shows the importance of March to the local fish harvest, but in a typically French way: the products are all chocolate preparations.


*We are well aware of the many studies in recent years that report fish stocks are dropping alarmingly in the Mediterranean, with almost all edible species being overfished (96% by one report). Nonetheless we found this personal testimony by one fisherman in Nice worthy of mention.


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