Canada’s Christmas Pastry:
Deck the Halls? In March?
The day of the American-Canadian Cooking Project approaches and the next item on the menu suggested by Jill in Ottawa has the puzzling name of tourtière. She’s offered no clues, just a very French-sounding name. My instinct and culinary training suggests a few routes to take in my investigation. Perhaps there’s a connection to a torte or pastry of some kind?
I head for my culinary reference books and begin to put together a profile. Larousse Gastronomique actually lists the term, but it describes a round ovenproof mold that is used for cooking or serving pies. The term is also used in France to describe a pie dish, tart mold or flan ring. Okay, that’s odd. I thought I was researching something edible.
As I comb the Internet, I start to find references connecting the tourtière to Christmas, but with St. Patrick’s Day, April Fools Day and Easter approaching, I tend to dismiss these. My obstinacy is perhaps the product of a weary mind chilled by sub-zero temperatures, cranky co-workers and lack of sunlight. Yet, the holiday references continue to surface.
I find an ancient connection to a little bird. The tourte is the Quebec name for the passenger pigeon and there was a pie called a tourte with the meat of the little birdie baked into it. Meat pies were prevalent in antiquity. The Roman cooking manuscript, called Apicius, written around 400 AD, mentioned a version of a meat pie prepared in a bronze pot. In the Middle Ages, the pasty was a dish that resembled a large turnover and was filled with seasoned meat or fish. I spurn any thoughts of Sweeney Todd or Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pie and continue my investigation.
When I finally stumble across the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations, I being to make progress and understand the relationship of the tourtière to the Canadian Christmas celebration and something called the reveillon. The word reveillon means “awakening” in French, and refers to a celebratory banquet that follows Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in France. It traditionally marked the end of a four-week Advent fast. The tradition came to the New World with the French Canadians of Quebec, where it is still celebrated today.
The centerpiece of the reveillon supper in Canada is the tourtière, a savory pork meat pie wrapped in a flaky crust, which is indeed named after the ovenproof pie mold. While there appear to be more versions than the Twelve Days of Christmas, ground pork seems to be the most traditional and beloved filling. There are wide ranging discussions online about the type of pastry used, the consistency of the pork filling, and the aromatic spices – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves – are characteristic of the Middle Ages where this style of pastry was first popular. The meat is simmered in a pot with broth and spices to infuse it with flavor and can be bound with bread crumbs or oats. The Quebec-style tourtière contains ground meat, but the Tourtière du Lac Saint-Jean is a deep dish variety with cubed potatoes and meat. These days, Canadian gourmands are also making merry with turkey tourtière and pastries filled with beef, veal and venison. No matter how you slice it, a tourtière is a hearty way to ring in the holiday season in the dark days of winter.
Now I’m feeling all festive. I think I’ll wrap a few stocking stuffers and jingle some bells. Only 286 shopping days until Christmas!
©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
1 hour ago