Back to the Future: Comparing Quebecois and French Cuisines

Back to the Future: Comparing Quebecois and French Cuisines

By Philippe Noeltner

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Image source: Flickr Montée de Lait

Slowly ailing from the fog, hovering over the St-Lawrence river, a boat could be seen, at first distant and calm modeling its shape revealing to be imposing and grandiose in all its might, this boat made of woods with sails engulfed with hopeful winds softly calling for a new world and life, was carrying in its storage the culture that would become the proud and unique Quebecois way of life. This boat not only carried a culture but culinary items from the homeland, France. Fast forward this picturesque scene and sit at the Banquise restaurant on the St Laurent Blvd. with a poutine to master and conquer, you will notice that food has definitely a nature of its own in this beautiful province. The French refuse to identify the hybrid Canadian-European varieties, much like a bastard child out of wedlock. Whereas French food has evolved from a sophisticated, rich and refined cuisine that can be considered as snobbish, so heavy with various protocols and etiquette to the point of losing your appetite.

When comparing Quebecois to French food, we should understand that food in this case has two altered meanings for these territories. In the French traditions, cuisine is cherished and affiliated with different regions each carrying its different amounts of sunlight and richness of soil. Properly divided, we can recognize a dish's flavour by its use of herbs, spices and meats. To add, dishes are arranged in a way that would make impressionist painters blush with envy. We can recognize ounces of colors, vibrant contrasts, subtle touches of artistry, conveying the recipient of dish to a magical journey of history and masterful storytelling through the palate. In deep contrast with France's artistry and regional traits, the Quebecois cuisine is more practical.

The Quebecois cuisine obscurely originated from the French fur traders that carried over their love for meat well into the unforgiving and wild Canadian forests. The extreme fat content of the dishes plays in the setting that these meals were surely consumed: a fur trader's dinner needed to be synonymous with greatness, achievement, and comfort of going to sleep well fed. The high in protein diet was much needed for these adventurers to remain alive and not subside while facing the perilous Canadian elements. The Quebecois have followed this "lard loving" habit into their modern cuisine obviously certainly carried in their ex fur trading genetic pools. Any 'bon appétit' that you will hear in Quebec could be the last two words you will hear before succumbing to a biologically driven fat and pork bloodthirsty rampage.

Without doubt, one can try to compare famed dishes from each culinary tradition and draw comparisons, rankings of various sorts and enter in heated debates with the two local populations. Looking at the Quebecois cuisine, the heavyweight champion in all categories is disputed between various meat pies, duck related dishes and maple syrupy goodness. The essential French titleholders are the blanquette of veal, "cassoulet" (a savoury chef discretionary combination of duck legs, beans, sausage, pork, mutton, and goose), crepes, chocolate mousse and the famed "coq au vin" (rooster in red wine).

Without reservation and to the dismay of many, we do have a champ that is found in both cuisines, where Quebecois and French can come together to celebrate hand in hand: the ever so controversial foie-gras.  More than a delicious, miraculous curiosity, this particular and divisive dish makes some cringe at the fact that it is in fact the prepared liver of a stuffed and force fed living duck. The noble duck is fed daily and in a regimented manner top notch grain through its oesophagus until its liver explodes, becoming the prized possession and the main attraction in the dreams of salivating meat and animal hungry Quebecois and French souls. Full of protein, full of flavour, this onctuous pate is seen on the dinner table with almost a hint of machismo in the grins of the about to be eaters. However, these duck liver enthusiasts are faced with harsh criticism from animal rights associations on the debatable way from which this marvellous foie-gras was obtained to which Quebecois can utter 'tarbernacle d'ostie d'PETA' and French 'imbeciles d'PETA' after some glasses of Sauterne wine. Each cuisine has its complex arias and mundane choruses(to change) while others have but we cannot really compare Poutine accorded with Molson Beer to a subtle Coq au Vin accorded with a Beaujolais red wine, this would be telling our inner wood chopping ancestor that he or she isn't up to par with our inner French aristocratic ancestor.

Undeniably, these two cultures have differences but emerge from common roots. One has most practical motives in its recipes, while the other thrives in the emergence and discovery of art forms in our everyday meal. Needless to say, we can all wonder if these two culinary cultures will have a similar future. We can only imagine what the new breed of chefs and new generations will invent on which path they will choose to go, to create a new trail or follow the beaten paths leading to the same kitchens. In fact, we can only argue that culinary culture is a mere reflection on the actual cultural activities taking place at the time recipes were daydreamed about. To wonder where Quebec's culinary culture will evolve to, we should reflect on where the Province has set its sails.

Has the province's quiet revolution vanished or strengthened? Has the province's population been filled with mostly Anglophones from other provinces or ever so present and filled with 'Fleur de Lis' pride? Has Quebec's cultural heritage vanished or been strengthened? One must ponder these questions to realize and understand if Quebec's native and euro-amalgamated cuisine will subside or thrive, will Quebec's cuisine be mingled, fused and accepted with the culinary roots from its most recent waves of immigrants?

When you walk on St. Catherine Street's looking for a bite to eat, the status quo isn't the marvels that I have noted earlier but the derivative of ancient culinary cultures such as Vietnam, Japan or even Lebanese. A fair assumption to make would be that Quebec's food culture can be a mere reflection on its current immigration patterns. Will the remnants of French cultural heritage in our dinner plates vanish to be replaced by a Falafel sandwich and a sushi? The same reflections can be acknowledged for in France, where the country of saucisson and jambon seems to now doubt its roots, ancient and part of world heritage in preferring to install Halal restaurants to match the religious doctrines of its recent immigrants in their respective neighborhood. France's restaurants are going through the same face lift that Quebec's restaurants are going through, becoming part of a global movement of reliable, bland and safe food that is affordable and tirelessly available at all hours of the day. Is the changing and globalizing world becoming a threat to cultural heritage or is it bringing the best out of new immigrated cultures right on our door steps? Should we embrace the globalization of our world at the expense of ancestral and ritualistic dishes or should we follow Quebec's brave quiet revolution, in an attempt to rescue what is slowly disappearing, our customs, habits and our own recipes.

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