Elbow-deep in lard and all-purpose flour is how I find myself celebrating Christmas Eve. A mess of pooling butter and discarded potato eyes lies before me, the fatty glob of pastry between my hands my only source of calm. This is my first Christmas away from my French-Canadian family, who have spoiled me with homemade holiday delicacies my entire life. Delicacies that on this humid Christmas Eve in Trinidad — my new home — I have to learn to make myself. The kitchen is my laboratory, the stove-top my Bunsen burner, and I the mad scientist, vigorously stirring cloves into a mixture of minced pork and beef to create the quintessential Quebecois Christmas dish — tourtière.
I spent most of my childhood in the sunny Turks and Caicos Islands, where my parents met and fell in love in the 90s. I would spend only a few weeks out of the year, a month if I was lucky, in the Canadian province that bore my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother (and my Francophone logging family before that). But the days I spent tobogganing down snowy slopes on Mont Laurier’s outskirts with my papi, André, or visiting Val-David’s Village du Père Noël with distant cousins were more savoury when they ended with a piping hot slice of tourtière, baked by my gruff but loving mami, Lucille.
Tourtière is Quebec’s fattier, gamier and, arguably, tastier answer to the English minced meat pie. Spices, potatoes and a variety of meats, sometimes including wild game like moose or hare, are packed in a tender golden pie crust. Like the Quebecois accent itself, tourtière’s flavours vary by region — and everyone has strong opinions about it.
Historical records of Quebec tourtière, which was likely named for the copper and tin pans the pies are baked in, date back to the 17th century. But hearty pies of the sort have been around for as long as humans have thought to combine pastry with meat. In Europe during the Middle Ages, elaborately-decorated meat pies called tourtes were served to the nobility of England and France. During colonization, these recipes were brought to New France, now modern-day Quebec.
Today in Montreal and much of Quebec, tourtière is made from finely-ground pork and beef seasoned with cinnamon and thyme. In the Saguenay region, where tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean reigns supreme, it’s a deep-dish pie, similar to and likely influenced by the British sea pie of the 18th century, revered for its thick crust, savoury medley of cubed game meats and tender texture.
Some might say that if your tourtière is not tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean, it’s not the real deal. They also might say that eating tourtière outside of the Christmas season or, more specifically, Réveillon (Christmas Eve dinner) amounts to sacrilege.
For many, tourtière is both a source of great pride and of competition. The recipes are confidential — often even within families — and sacred, the passed-down roadmaps that hone this beloved dish to perfection.
No one knows that better than Jocelyne Gingras, co-owner of La Binerie Mont-Royal, a Montreal restaurant that has stood the test of time, serving traditional Quebecois comfort food since the 1930s.
“Our spices are not known by anybody, of course, not even our employees. We keep that very secret,” says Gingras of the restaurant’s épices maison, a highly classified blend of seasonings she concocts herself to flavour their famous tourtière. The restaurant’s homemade pie crust, much to the dismay of customers who ask for the recipe, is also top-secret.
La Binerie Mont-Royal opened in 1938, just one year before Canada joined World War II and Quebec’s official motto, Je me souviens, entered the vernacular. It was founded by Léonide Lussier and stayed in his family for more than 50 years, after which the restaurant changed hands a few times before Gingras and her husband, Philippe Brunet, bought it in the fall of 2005.
Along with the usual documents passed onto new restaurant owners was Lussier’s weathered, hand-written book of recipes, the so-called “Binerie Bible” containing the Lussier family’s more than 80-year-old recipe for Montreal-style tourtière.
For many, tourtière is both a source of great pride and of competition. The recipes are confidential — often even within families — and sacred.
While Gingras and Brunet honour Lussier’s original recipes in many of their dishes, some have been slightly improved. “But not the tourtière,” says Gingras. “It didn’t need improvement. It’s perfect.”
And those who frequent La Binerie Mont-Royal would have to agree. This past Christmas season, Gingras made more than 750 tourtières by hand.
Ask any Quebecer the secret to making the perfect tourtière, and you’ll get a different answer. Gingras says that investing in good quality meats can elevate a tourtière from being a mediocre meat pie to one that is la crème de la crème.
For my own mother, the secret to a perfect tourtière is the spice mixture and moistness of the pie, while for mon mami, it’s the crust. This debate has raged in the Prévost-Gagné kitchens every Christmas season, a battle we fondly call la guerre des croûtes (the war of crusts).
Tradition is important. It is the invisible cord that tethers us to the ones we have loved, lost, or perhaps never knew at all. It’s comforting, like a golden, tender tourtière shared with friends and strangers.
Back in my apartment, I add my own unique take on the Prévost-Gagné tourtière, grating locally-grown Trinidadian nutmeg into the sizzling mixture. I can’t be sure if this tourtière would pass mami’s sniff test — I’ll have to recreate it for her the next time I venture to Montreal’s southwestern suburbs. For me, it’s the slice of Quebec life and fierté (pride) that I sorely miss. It’s my own mark on my family’s legacy.