Québec's Gastronomy and French Heritage
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If literature and other types of art are the main points which define a country's or a region's culture, its food and cooking must not be left behind. Thus, without evoking a pretty famous cliché, I'm French and I have always been a food fanatic. As a result, as soon as I moved from Paris to Montreal, I discovered a sharp interest for the local gastronomy. After trying many of the province's specialties, I've decided to focus on Québec's cuisine and in particular on its French heritage in the way of cooking and the approach of food, firstly, examining the multiple origins of Québec's cuisine, secondly, analyzing the huge role France has in Québec's food culture, and thirdly, revealing the chronological evolution of this province's gastronomy starting with the adaptation to local weather and ingredients and the recent rebirth of food patriotism, which has resulted in a fine internationally-recognized cuisine.
The gastronomy of Québec today is a singular melting pot of English, Native Indian and French roots, which has been going through a successful revival that started about twenty years ago.
Québec's gastronomy is mainly based on its French origins, but the type of cooking brought to New-France has been very influenced by the English settlers and of course, by its native population. This is why it is very common in Québec to cook dishes with English origins like meat pies. The native heritage is more obvious when it comes to spices, the use of local meats like elk meat and the pickup of new fruits.
Surprisingly, one of the pillars of typical Quebecker gastronomy is a meat pie. This very English dish was introduced by French immigrants who had lived in the U.S.A and came back to Québec but also from the English who invaded Québec in the second half of the 18th century. This pie is called "Pâté chinois''.
Image source: Flickr.
journalist Maria Francesca LoDico wrote about Quebecker chef François Blais in Canadian Geographic: "The grand-mother
of the acclaimed executive chef at Restaurant Panache Francois Blais would have
made pâté chinois (Chinese pie), a version of the time-honoured English
shepherd's pie discovered by 19th-century Quebec migrants in a town in Maine
Another example of the English heritage resides in the important use of potatoes. In France and New-France, wheat was far more cultivated than potatoes but the situation reversed with the arrival of the English. Jacques Richer wrote in his book "19th century Québec's food customs in rural world": "A large part of the fields is dedicated to the culture of potatoes which are one of the main ingredients of every day's cooking throughout the year."(25) Another typical English food in Québec was cheddar cheese. As Sarah Elton explains in her book "Locavore, How Canadians Are Changing The Way We Eat'', if Québec is famous for its tasty and mostly creamy cheeses, the province became the first Canadian producer of dairies and cheddar cheese in particular when the loyalist arrived from the U.S.A. They were of British origins. They built numerous dairy factories and by the end of the nineteenth century, Canada was producing 30% of the cheddar eaten in the British Empire (168).
Québec's history and culture
also include a major Native Indian heritage. On the cooking level, it is
essential to a Quebecker's menu. The Natives introduced the European immigrants
to the local foods that were available in the region. They showed them how to
prepare, to cook and how to preserve them during the long winters. Sarah Elton
wrote: "without the help of the Native people who taught newcomers how to
prepare food from the wilderness, the Europeans would have not survived. The
First Nations people shared with them their knowledge of both wild foods and
indigenous crops"(168). They shared their knowledge about
local spices, fruits and vegetables,
allowing the immigrants "to flavor their dishes, wild herbs, like chives,
rosemary, sage, and thyme, used by the Indians" as Habeeb Salloum, said in "The Taste of Tradition in Quebec"
(2) published in Americas5.
Thanks to the Natives, cranberry was also discovered by the Europeans at this
period and this fruit is still one the main ingredient of gastronomy in Québec.
Moreover, the hunting and fishing techniques for the local game and fish were
also taught to the newcomers by the first nation people, giving them the
opportunity not to depend on the others' catch and then systematically having
to buy everything.
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We can then refer to Nathalie Cooke's "What's To Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History" when she writes: "even porpoise (marsouin) [meat] was supplied by their Native neighbours" (26) and "Strange foods were made familiar through techniques of preparation - elk in meat pies"(43). Elton also describes the mix of local food to European cooking: "These were added to dishes made with native ingredients, including passenger pigeon, eel from Saint-Lawrence river and beaver tail." (169). All these "new" ingredients were integrated into the already rich and varied French food culture.
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Since the majority of the
immigrants in what was then called the New-France; where obviously French, they
brought with them a huge part of their culture in which the way of cooking and
the approach of food are pillars. Thus, the French heritage in Quebec's cuisine
is present at every level of food preparation and is visible in the huge
variety of Québec's cheeses. This French heritage made those immigrants
different from the Canadian population of other provinces. This is why Benoit
Aubin writes in Maclean's "Quebec
Saveur": "Quebecers boast a solid reputation as epicurean bon
vivants and, indeed, they drink more red wine than other Canadians, go out of
their way to buy fresh bread at the corner bakery, and can find dozens of
locally made, raw-milk cheeses at the supermarket.''(2) and "Quebeckers are
more fickle consumers, and less price-conscious when it comes to food. They
prefer smaller grocery stores, and expect to be cajoled by daily specials and
elaborate mouth-watering displays. They spend more time shopping for food and
preparing meals than other Canadians.''(2)
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We can notice that even dishes that are now recognized as Quebecker, like the sugar pie, have their origins in French regions. These recipes were brought to the new continent by the first immigrants from France. Katherine Ashenburg writes about it in her "Fare Of The Country; Sugar Pie, Montreal's Winter Comfort Food" published in The New York Times: "sugar pie (using white sugar) found in old cook books from Normandy and Poitou, both centers of emigration to Quebec" (1) and "Montrealers prefer to forget their habitant (as the original settlers of the province were called) roots when they dine out, choosing cuisine they call "français de France." (2).
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Wine, one of the symbols of the French culture was also brought to Canada by the French immigrants. Until nowadays, the wine culture in Québec has proved to be more important than in other provinces. This alcoholic beverage finds many more aficionados in New-France and it is used in recipes like "coq au vin", which is a dish made of red-wine-marinated-baked rooster. This is confirmed by Florence Fabricant in her article "Choice Tables; Quebec's Cuisine: With a Lighter Ladle" published in the New York Times: "We also found that, in Quebec at least, the array of wines has expanded and become more affordable, in contrast to the somewhat limited and overpriced selection generally available about a decade ago." (1)
The French heritage and identity of the first immigrant in Québec distinguished them from the other Canadians, this being the reason of inter-provincial arguments and tensions. The difference of cuisine and cooking, particularly concerning raw-milk cheese production can even be the source of legal fights, a proving example is when Clyde H. Farnsworth, in "Plan to Regulate Cheese Has Quebec Up in Arms" published in the New York Times writes: "This time the confrontation between English- and French-speaking Canada is over cheese." (1). These immigrants were proud of their French roots and cuisine was a great way to remind of their heritage, as Salloum wrote: "In spite of the many influences that have crept in, French Canadians enjoying these evolved foods still consider their dishes to be an important link with France, their spiritual mother country" (3).
When reading about Québec's gastronomy and food customs, it is impossible not to find the word "terroir". But what does the word terroir means? It can be considered as a way of farming and consuming goods in a very local horizon. People who eat and cook terroir will always prefer using an ingredient that was produced in their region, having in mind that foods that haven't been through long transportation are cheaper and of better quality.
has become a major aspect of the province's specific culture and folklore.
LoDico gives a good example of the terroir "atmosphere": "The dish exudes the
pure and distinctive flavours of le terroir, the sense of place and personality
with which the region's soil, climate, tradition and history imbue its
products''(1) . Terroir is now a common way of thinking in Québec and can be a
political argument during national and provincial elections campaigns. Lara
Rabinovitch, the managing editor of the Mc Gill University e-journal of
Canadian food culture, Cuizine, explains
in Elton's book: "It's localism, an intense devotion to the local product,
cultural patriotism through food" (167). Terroir cooking is now a must do for
restaurants in Québec which want to get the "local cuisine" label. "In
Europe, terroirs go back centuries. Think of the vineyards that are 300, 400,
500 years old. Our ancestors brought that sense of terroir to Quebec from
France," (Elton 171). Another essential food this type of restaurants ought to
offer on their menu is a consistent platter of varied but local cheeses.
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Indeed, people in Québec maintain a strong "relationship" with cheese; they "have a long history of making cheese" (Elton 160). This history started with the arrival of the French newcomers, it declined in the eighteenth century and is currently going through a revolutionary rebirth. Salloum quotes one of the founding fathers of French cuisine Brillat-Savarin lives on: "A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." (2). Cheeses take a huge place in everyday food, they have been served at every single meal for centuries and represent now a major symbol of the local gastronomical and provincial culture.
The weight of cheese production in Québec's history is so heavy that every time the federal government intends to regulate anything related to dairy products, people in New-France take it as a cultural attack aiming to slowly but surely make the French part of Canadian history vanish. Farnsworth writes about a potential federal regulation on raw-milk cheese production: "In Quebec they are calling it an insult to the French palate and suggesting that it is just another way federalism fails the province. In the rest of Canada people are asking what all the fuss is about." (1). Local politicians even describe the disaster such a regulation would be in Québec: "Jean-Guy Chretien, the agricultural spokesman for the Bloc and no relation to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, warned that the ban could create a "fine-cheese black market," with traffickers smuggling brie like cocaine" (1). If cheese in Québec can be considered as a drug, it is for its daily consumption but also for the numerous different kinds offered.
The large province of Québec includes many different regions and each one produces its own particular crops, livestock breeds and as a result, at least one type of cheese. Thus, Elton mentioned: "Just as in France, [...] people in Québec's various regions are creating their foods, shaped by their landscape and climate. Today, there is cheese making in all regions." (164). Fortunately, the abundant quantity of cheese kinds has not altered nor damaged the quality of the production and farmers tend to be faithful to the old-fashion taste of cheese: because of the new sanitation "the cheese no longer tasted the same, the family stopped producing it." (171). This radical way of considering cheese making seems to be rewarded since Québec's cheeses are winning more and more prizes and are becoming famous internationally.
Among those many Quebecker cheeses, some are recognized worldwide, beating champion cheese nations like France or Italy thanks to the "orange-crusted St. Basile, a satin-textured variety with a delectably mellow pungency , [...], easily one of the best cheeses made in North America" (2) or to the prize-winning Cap-Rond. Cheese is only one part of québec's gastronomy; after a long historical journey, new chefs and restaurants promoting "La cuisine québecoise" in its own right are enjoying an increasing crowd of gourmets coming from all over the world willing to taste and appreciate it.
A long time before the happy story of the revolution of the palate which started in the late seventies, the first immigrants in Québec in the second half of the 17th century had to take into account that their new local environment required some changes in their everyday cooking and food management. They have successfully adapted their way of preparing food, giving birth to a singular type of cuisine which tends to gain more and more renown on Canadian and global levels. When they arrived on the new continent, the first newcomers had to face the difference between the local climate, fauna and flora and what they were used to.
Thanks to the major help provided by the native populations and their obligation of adaptation, they got accustomed to these natural elements. As Jacques Richer says in "19th century Québec's food customs in rural world": "People from France, while keeping many of their traditions alive, had to adapt to a northern country characterized by the length of the cold season and the shortness of summers. They had to take this reality into account in the production of vegetables, livestock farming and food preservation" (183). Then they elaborated preservation techniques based on what the Natives had taught them and applied them to their crops and red meat and fowl. Concerning the harvest, Richer writes: "The beginning of the fall season is the period when the grains and the non-perishables were brought inside. They were stored in cellars or granaries depending on their needs in fresh or dry air. Apples were put into barrels filled with sawdust or dry sand." (189) He wrote the following about meat: "After the butcheries, the most important thing is to preserve the meat during the coming months. Thus, people used to salt or smoke a great quantity of pork or other kinds of meat. When it came to fowl, they precooked it and preserved it in fat. A great quantity of meat was also left in an outbuilding or under the snow so that it froze." (192) The immigrants soon showed a real mastery of food preservation techniques and were then able to adapt their cooking customs to their new province of Québec.
They indeed adapted to their new local environment and added Canadian foods to their diet and ingredients. This generated a new type of cuisine made from the melting pot of English, first Nation and mostly French roots based on tradition and regional goods. But less than a decade ago, Québec's Haute-Cuisine business was still in the hands of the "French from France"; all the Chefs were French born and trained and would still immigrate to the province with a feeling of culinary superiority. LoDico quotes Francois Blais, who is at the forefront of the first generation of homegrown formally trained Quebec chefs and the acclaimed executive chef at Restaurant Panache: "French gastronomy based on hundreds of years of tradition is very important. For decades, chefs from France, including Jean Soulard, executive chef at Château Frontenac's Le Champlain, defined French dining in the province. Le Champlain offers the true Parisian experience, complete with flambéed crepes." (4), "Until recently, chefs at such restaurants almost always came from France, we are their children" (4). The situation is now very different.
For about thirty years now, the people of Québec are
increasingly interested in their local culture and cuisine is one of the main
attraction. Québec's food professionals are focusing on ingredients produced in
the regions and are being effectively creative at mixing traditional French
food with "habitant" dishes, thus making their cooking new and singular. Aubin quotes Chef Pinard: "This is not French,
not Mediterranean, not fusion, but totally Québécois. I mean, all this food was
grown and developed here, it is local. We are eating out of our land."
(1). They have succeeded in turning peasant food into sophisticated and tasty
meals thanks to the French savoir-faire, their imagination, their talent and
the local advantages on a food level.
One of Francois Blais' successes is the perfect example of
the combination: "hachis Parmentier made of succulent braised duck layered with
fresh corn, leeks, potato purée and a golden goat cheese crust" (3). This focus
on the land of Québec as a nation is clearly visible in the cooking since chefs
speak in terms of historical change: "The province has undergone 'a revolution
of the palate' -- Quebecers aren't averse to fast food, but they've also
created their own haute cuisine" (Aubin 1). The revival of provincial and
regional pride has generated a cuisine which is now counted among trendy and
refined famous ones and which is giving birth to 100% Quebecker food
restaurants where international food critiques gather and enjoy the heartily
but sophisticated dishes. Chef Pinard concludes: "Creating a cuisine that
celebrates local production and stimulates it has been the noblest
manifestation of Quebec nationalism."(Aubin 2).
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We can say that the story of Québec's cuisine has made a long journey which started in the 17th century and is still going on, a growing crescendo into a fine particular and appreciated one. It went through a period of food discoveries to an adaptation to the local environment in the French eating habits. The French heritage was the basis of it and is still visible at every food preparation and cooking level. The undeniable success it is enjoying is the best evidence of its quality. This success might come from the fact that Québec's cuisine is the result of mix of ingredients and preparations, which have diverse origins and allowed to produce a genuine and authentic cooking while promoting the provincial culture.
Image source: Flickr
Poutine is a Quebecois favorite, a combination of potatoes (English) with a French twist, cheese curd and gravy.
1. LODICO, Maria Francesca. "Reign of Terroir." Canadian Geographic 127 (2007): 47-9. Print.
2. RICHER, Jacques. "Les Habitudes Alimentaires Du Monde Rural Québécois Au Milieu Du XIXe Siècle" http://www.prologue.qc.ca/edgon/universite/alimentaire.htm. Translation: "19th century Québec's food customs in rural world"
3. ELTON, Sarah. "Locavore, How Canadians Are Changing The Way We Eat." HarperCollins, 2010,
4. SALLOUM, Habeeb. "The Taste of Tradition in Quebec." Americas 53.2 (2001): 58. Print
5. COOKE, Nathalie. "What's To Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History", McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009.
6. AUBIN, Benoit. "Quebec Saveur". Maclean's, 00249262, 7/1/2003-7/8/2003, Vol. 116, Issue 26/27
7. ASHENBURG, Katherine. "Fare Of The Country; Sugar Pie, Montreal's Winter Comfort Food" The New York Times, (03.12.1989)
8. FABRICANT, Florence. "Choice Tables; Quebec's Cuisine: With a Lighter Ladle." New York Times (1995): 6. Print.
9. FARNSWORTH, Clyde H. "Plan to Regulate Cheese has Quebec Up in Arms." New York Times(1996): 19. Print.
COULOMBE, Caroline. "Entre L'art Et La Science: La Littérature Culinaire Et La Transformation Des Habitudes Alimentaires Au Québec. (French)." Revue d'histoire de L'Amérique française 58.4 (2005): 507-33. Print. Translation: "Between art and science: culinary literature and transformation of food customs in Québec."
This text is from a dissertation and deals with the evolution of Québec's culinary customs, it was a great help in showing the different steps of evolution in an historical and chronological horizon.
FARNSWORTH, Clyde H. "Plan to Regulate Cheese has Quebec Up in Arms." New York Times (1996): 19. Print.
This text is an article from the New York Times; it deals with the raw milk problem in cheese production. It was a great help because it showed the differences between English and French Canada in the approach to cheese and the fuss existing between the two cultures and the French heritage.
FABRICANT, Florence. "Choice Tables; Quebec's Cuisine: With a Lighter Ladle." New York Times (1995): 6. Print.
This article proved to be very useful because it deals with the French heritage in Québec's cuisine and also shows the melting pot origins of it and how it has been adapted to the local weather and environment.
LODICO, Maria Francesca. "Reign of Terroir." Canadian Geographic 127 (2007): 47-9. Print.
Like the majority of my sources, this article deals with the French and English heritage and melting pot of Québec's cooking
SALLOUM, Habeeb. "The Taste of Tradition in Quebec." Americas 53.2 (2001): 58. Print.
This article highlights the French roots and how France is still linked to Québec, it also shows the Indian roots and how Québec's cuisine evolved.
RICHER, Jacques. "Les Habitudes Alimentaires Du Monde Rural Québécois Au Milieu Du XIXe Siècle" http://www.prologue.qc.ca/edgon/universite/alimentaire.htm. Translation: "19th century Québec's food customs in rural world"
This text was useful because it describes very precisely what a peasant's meal in Québec was made of and how they had to adapt livestock farming and agriculture to the local weather.
ASHENBURG, Katherine. "Fare Of The Country; Sugar Pie, Montreal's Winter Comfort Food" The New York Times, (03.12.1989)
This article was very interesting because it deals with the regions of France from where the first French immigrants to New-France came from, bringing their food customs and recipes with them .It also shows how strong the links with France are still strong.
AUBIN, Benoit. "Quebec Saveur". Maclean's, 00249262, 7/1/2003-7/8/2003, Vol. 116, Issue 26/27
This article puts the emphasis on the differences between Quebeckers and other Canadians by showing they are more epicureans, they drink more wine and eat more cheese, thus proving the French heritage is strong.
GOLLNER, Adam Leith. "The Cheeses Of Warwick.", Maclean's, 00249262, 7/12/2004, Vol. 117, Issue 28
This text focuses on the huge place cheese has in Québec, making Quebeckers the kings of cheese in the whole continent thanks to their French roots.
ELTON, Sarah. "Locavore, How Canadians Are Changing The Way We Eat." HarperCollins, 2010
This book dedicates an entire chapter to the particularities of Québec's food compared with rest of Canada and is another one that focuses on the province's cheese making and how it makes it singular. It also deals with the whole food culture settled in Québec and how the French immigrants had to adapt their way of living and cooking to the local environment. Without the help of the natives, most of them would have died, thus the chapter is also oriented on the native heritage.
COOKE, Nathalie. "What's To Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History", McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009.
This book was very useful because it explains how the French immigrants used the natives' foods and remedies, it also details every fruit and vegetables discovered in New France and how they were perceived, rejected or used by the latter.