Holiday meat pie: Tourtière

If you want to cut to the chase: here’s the recipe!

There’s a traditional winter dish, and especially holiday dish, that causes a bit of confusion and argument in Quebec where I come from: a meat pie called the tourtière.  The first confusion is the number of regional variants (kind of like jambalaya in Louisiana): Quebec is large although the population is small, and back before cars and paved roads and planes, a lot of regional subcultures developed so even cooking can differ a lot from one place to another.  (Continued after the cut.)

Tourtière seems to have developed three different personalities, each of course with a myriad variants that are all the “true” tradition:

  • A pie made of a combination of ground pork, veal and beef, flavoured with onions, cinnamon and clove with a bottom and top crusts, found in the southern parts of Quebec.  People for who it is not a traditional family recipe tend to refer to it as “Montreal tourtière,” sometimes disdainfully.  Oh yes, we do have arguments over whose tradition is more “real!”
  • Tourtière du Lac St-Jean, a mix of cubed meats, preferably game meats like grouse, rabbit, deer, moose or caribou, but often pork, veal and beef nowadays, and diced potatoes, cooked in a deep dish and covered with a single pie crust; the refinement is that you cut a large opening in the centre of the crust after placing it and pour in a quantity of cooking broth before baking in the oven (if you place the broth before the top crust, everything collapses).
  • Cipaille, sometimes called “cipaye” or “six-pâtes“, which resembles the tourtière du Lac St-Jean but usually contains no potatoes and only different kinds of meat cooked in wine and placed in layers, sometimes each separated by intermediate layers of flaky crust.  It too traditionally contains game meat and poultry (to get six different kinds of meat, you have to expand your shopping list…)

Then there’s the arguments about the etymology for “tourtière” (may be from the use of “tourte” or dove meat in earlier days, but most probably from the word for “a round dish” that also gave us “tart”), and “cipaille” (possibly from the six layers of dough, “six-pâtes“, but more likely from the English “seapie“).

Which brings us to the most dangerous argument: is this really a French tradition, or was it borrowed from the English and Scots?  Bring any of these questions in mixed company during the holidays in Quebec, and you’re sure to get a good-natured but energetic argument.

Anyhow, it’s a traditional dish with deep roots; it’s been with us long enough to develop codified variants and to change quite a bit from its original incarnation, whatever that was.  For my part, I was raised with the first version listed here and although I appreciate the others as delicious dishes, this tourtière is the one I think of for the holidays; my mom and grandma still make it.

Like a lot of traditional Quebec cooking, it was originally pretty rich — having been developed by people who were poor, worked hard physically in a cold country, and relished a chance to pack on the calories at special feasts.  During the 20th century when we became more sedentary and gained access to rich food all the time, the culinary trend was to make dishes leaner.  My mom tinkered over the years with the family recipe which started using mostly ground pork, and now she uses only lean beef.

For giggles, let me give you the entirety of the recipe as she wrote it for me over 20 years ago:

  • Meat filling: 1/3 pork, 2/3 beef [she was still experimenting]; savoury, marjoram, clove, cinnamon, salt; 2 chopped onions; 1 celery stalk, chopped; 2-3 tablespoons of water.
  • Mix the ingredients and cook 10 to 20 minutes while stirring.
  • Dough: 4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 1/3 cup grease, 1 cup milk, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt.

That’s it!  I can work with that nowadays that I’m an experienced cook, but when I was younger it was not very helpful.

This season, I was looking at the recipe and flipping through traditional recipe books — Jehane Benoit’s Encyclopédie de la cuisine canadienne, the good old staple from Five Roses’ La cuisinière, Marc Lafrance and Yvon Desloges’ A Taste of History: The Origins of Quebec’s Gastronomy, and Lorna Sass’s To the King’s Taste (no, they’re not all from the same era!), as well as Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible.  I was inspired to tinker with my meat pies and give them a rich, lofty, quasi-medieval holiday taste by adding red wine and accents of mace and orange.  Here is the result.

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