Canadian Poutine: not simple French fries

The last weekend, while the UK was celebrating the first of May’s Bank Holiday, I finally enjoyed some time with my fellow Italian and Spanish friends (and a couple of English ones too).
It is an obsession of mine to talk about time, and this time the conversation was about how long we have been living in the UK. I am close to almost 6 years, and I must admit that it feels like a lifetime. But I have not only lived in the UK; I have lived in Spain and also in Canada before arriving in Berkshire (and working in Surrey).
What are the memories I have of the places I have lived? Well, of course, all of them are triggered by food. While hunting for French fries on Saturday night, I was again reminded of when I lived in Canada and enjoyed Poutine during the weekends as I walked back home after spending the night out with my (international) friends.

French and English influence on Canadian culinary traditions

To explain what is Poutine, I have to let you enjoy a little bit of suspense while I step back and create a bit more of a context.

Canada, a magnificent country with an extreme width of 9,306 km. It is characterised by diversified regions and a mosaic of different cultures, which makes food consumption behaviour very broad and where the culinary influences are many (from indigenous populations to french and English influences).

In 1608 the first French colony is established in Quebec City. At the same time, the indigenous population (First Nations) were already living on the land, and they knew it very well; they had their culture and their own culinary traditions. The relationship between First Nations and the French was pivotal for the survival of the European populations in the new country. The history of Canadian food cannot be untied from this cultural mix.

In that period (the 1600s), haute cuisine was emerging in France, which means that many culinary changes started with the use of specific glassware and a renewed use of vegetables that were previously considered ‘too rustic.’ Vegetables like mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach were introduced and served with beef stews. 

In 1763, the English joined the French (I will not go into the history of colonisation), and this new wave of immigration further contributed to the mixing of culinary traditions. Sea-pies and meat pies were starting to gain popularity in Canada, and new ingredients were also being used. Grilled flour was used to replace grilled bread as a thickener for sauces. If we were eating in Canada in the 1700s and 1800s, we would be served things like stews, pancakes, and pots of baked beans, most of them originating from the French and the English cohabitation.

French cuisine had a powerful and prevalent influence on Canadian dishes, and most of them survived through the centuries. This is where the idea of Poutine comes from: a simple dish made with French fries and cheddar cheese, sometimes joined by gravy.

Poutine

Poutine (or is it ‘The’ Poutine?) is a relatively young dish if you want to call it so. It was created in the Quebec area around the 1950s. The paternity is attributed to the cities of Drummondville and Warwick; both of them served Poutine differently.
Warwick served Poutine with a traditional paper bag mixed with cheese curds warmed by the hot fries; gravy was served separately at the beginning while later the gravy was simply poured on the whole dish.
In Drummondville, fries were served with gravy on the side with no paper bag, and only later on, customers added cheese as well.

Nowadays we can eat various versions of the classic Poutine and many of them are showcased in the yearly Poutine week that is organised every February. It is a competition between US and Canadian restaurants where poutine-lovers get to vote their favourite version. If you are a traveller, you might have spotted Poutine in France, Belgium but also Japan.

If you want to read more about canadian foods, cheeses and maple syrup products, see some reading suggestions below:

Duncan D. (2006). Canadians at Table: Food, Fellowship and Folklore: A culinary story of Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn

Rioux, Laurie-Eve, Perreault, Véronique, Turgeon, Sylvie L. Textural characteristics of world’s foods. Chapter 4. Textural Characteristics of Canadian Foods pp. 37-51. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119430902.ch4

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