The province of Quebec has spent much of the 20th and 21st centuries solidifying a culture that is quite distinct from any other found in North America. It’s thus easy to forget that, at its roots, Quebecois culture is a hodgepodge of various others that were all brought together by historical circumstance. The first settlers in our province came from France, but were quickly exposed to the traditions of the surrounding first nations tribes. After the province was conquered by England in 1763, an infusion of English culture inevitably followed.
Suffice to say, all of these cultures have had their own impact on what is today considered traditional Quebec cuisine. If you’re still wondering what that is, exactly, here’s a rundown of some of Quebec’s most popular dishes with a little bit of info on the history and cultural roots behind each one.
Chances are that if you’re eating a classic Quebecois breakfast, there will be some cretons involved. Cretons is a cold meat spread that is made primarily from ground, salted pork and seasoned with cinnamon, savory, and cloves. The spread can be eaten on its own but is most commonly consumed on toast. The popularity of cretons in Quebec is a result partially of Quebec’s French heritage and partially of the influence of first nations peoples on early French Canadian settlers. The concept of a pork-based paste is most likely derived from rillettes, which is a similar spread that has been popular in central France for quite a while. The use of salted pork, however, likely comes from the early days of settlement in Quebec as French settlers had to learn meat preservation methods (such as salting) from the surrounding first nations peoples in order to survive Quebec’s long and harsh winters.
Baked Beans (Fèves au Lard)
A perfect example of how simple ingredients can be combined to make something delicious. Fèves au Lard essentially consists of beans that are slow-cooked in pork fat and then flavoured with maple syrup. While this dish is considered by many to be quintessentially Quebecois, the dish actually originated from a surprisingly un-French source. Fèves au lard is, in fact, commonly believed to have been brought to Quebec by residents of New England who migrated to French Canada during the American Revolution.
Traditional Quebec pea soup generally consists of dried yellow peas, cubes of salted pork and carrots simmered in water that is seasoned with a bay leaf. As with cretons, the salted pork has its source in French cuisine and in first nations preservation methods. The rest of the soup recipe, however, is derived from general survival tactics used by all those who attempted to settle in the northern half of the continent at one point or another. The use of thick soups was popular amongst all explorers who tried to settle in cold climates as soups are filling, nourishing, and warming in the winter. Peas were also a classic ingredient in many foods eaten by North American settlers as they were easy to dry, store and ship across the ocean from Europe.
Meat Pie (Tourtière)
Another simple, yet delicious Quebecois delicacy, tourtière consists very simply of seasoned ground beef baked into a piecrust. This dish can be traced back to the various points of Quebec’s early history in which French settlers came into contact with British settlers. Meat pie is a classically British dish and tourtière was likely first brought to Quebec by French settlers who had spent some time living in the early American colonies. The dish became a staple of Quebec cuisine, however, after the United Kingdom took control of French Canada in 1763.
Sugar Pie (Tarte au Sucre)
This classic Quebec dessert consists of a single-crust pie that is filled with a mix of cream, egg, flour and brown sugar. While much of Quebec’s cuisine has mixed heritage, tarte au sucre is quite purely French, as the pie is very popular in the French regions of Normandy and Poitu, which were both centres of immigration to French Canada. Some recipes for the dish, however, incorporate a small amount of distinctly North American flavour, calling for the use of maple syrup as a sweetener.
Last but certainly not least, poutine serves as another interesting example of the mixed heritage of Quebecois cuisine. The sauce used in poutine, affectionately referred to as “sauce brune” or brown sauce, is believed to be a unique French Canadian take on gravy. The popularity of potatoes, and eventually French fries, in Quebec, however, has as much to do with the popularity of fries in France as it does with the arrival of potato-loving English and Irish immigrants to Quebec in the 18th century. The use of cheese curds also comes from both English and French sources as basic cheddar cheese (from which cheese curds are derived) are believed to have been brought to Quebec by the English, while the curd itself is believed to have been perfected by French settlers due to the French tendency to experiment with cheese making.