The Poutine dish is more than just a combination of fries, gravy and cheese… it’s a Québec cultural touchstone.
Living abroad means moments of homesickness and for most expatriated French Canadians, this is the best food remedy! Not that it is impossible to make homemade poutine… but outside Québec’s unique dairy and cheese makers zone, it can be challenging. This probably sounds like a very funny thing if you never lived or travelled in La Belle Province*... but I will do my best to make a good description of our humble and favourite greasy dish.
How to make an authentic classic poutine basically, is with:
1. French Fries: double deep-fried unpeeled potatoes (avoid frozen if you can!). Starchy potatoes (like Russet) and vegetable oil (canola or peanuts) are the most suitable. Unlike the big crispy light gold chips generally found in Australia, Québec fries are thinner, softer, and moist with a dark gold coat.
2. Curd Cheese: fresh Québec distinct unfinished cheddar cheese that makes a “squeak squeak” sound and consistency.
3. Brown Gravy: rich sauce with a hint of barbecue flavour (differs from chef’s specialities).
Mmmh… yes. Rule number one is to never feel guilty about the calories or even try to think of a low-fat version! The best poutines are greasy and that’s okay, with moderation, of course!
* La Belle Province is a nickname for Québec but also the name of a fast-food chain that serves poutine among all the greasy favourites like club sandwiches, Montreal hot-dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and souvlakis.
The poutine dish has advanced in Canadian popular food culture since the 50s. But it comes from the province of Québec where the Fromage en Grain (curd cheese) originates. The word “poutine” would come from the English term “pudding”. Many towns in the province centre dispute the invention of the dish. In the town I was born (Thetford Mines), in my childhood, it was called a “mixte” (apparently the original term). I only discovered the word “poutine” when we moved to the Montreal region. At that time, in the early 90’s, the only variations available in most restaurant menus were the “Regular”, “Italian” (with Bolognese style sauce instead of gravy) and sometimes the “Galvaude” (with a topping of chicken breast and green peas).
Years later, that simple mix that is poutine has evolved into a versatile gastronomic trend and I’ve been witnessing this while living in Montreal. A little 24h fast food place my friends and I used to love to go to occasionally, called La Banquise, is now so popular that over the years having a late snack there became just impossible… Locals, students and visitors wait in the line-up for hours until sunrise (to prevent the hangover, they say…). They extended the sitting area with time. Poutine is junk food and was usually found in the old snack bar style “casse-croutes” (greasy spoon diners) and potato shacks (dairy country towns chippies), but has since elevated to the resto-bars (pubs) to the trendy bistros, modern mobile dining (trendy food trucks) and even into many fine dining restaurants. There are a number of variations that chefs have a blast creating specials with. Using more sophisticated ingredients and extra toppings like braised beef, smoked meat, duck confit, pulled pork, chorizo, seafood, foie gras, blue cheese, vegan cheese, etc, etc.
Since the dish boomed as trendy in the early 2000s, it became quite a phenomenon and is known around the world. Bruno Blanchet, a French Canadian comedian actor and author, travelled the globe and started a new life in Thailand. He and his wife opened a poutine restaurant called “Poutine sans Frontières” in Bangkok and many expatriated Canadians have also done similar things. There are poutine festivals that are celebrated in Québec and around the globe, even in Melbourne. An international competitive event called La Poutine Week every year showcases the extreme blow-your-mind untraditional poutines created by participant restaurants. But to me (and my stomach), with some quality French Fries, gravy, cheese and a pinch of ground pepper on top, a regular classic one is just the best. I still find inventing signature dishes very interesting and I have developed some “made in Australia” ones. My Mission Impossible Poutine is the most delectable thing ever. It is pretty simple as only fresh truffle shavings are topped on a regular mixte, but to be able to find both fresh curd cheese and Black Perigord truffle at the same time, can be a tricky one!
Mission Impossible truffle poutine • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2018
Braised beef, pork and duck are one of the most favourite hearty poutine topping in Québec. Pulled pork and poutine are the most popular food served in festival's food trucks, and you can have both in one! My Cider Pulled Pork recipe is another delicious creation slow-cooked with produce from our local terroir. This one is not too rich which makes it great for a more "balanced" poutine dish. I made this one below with air-fried potatoes from the garden, mozzarella cheese, gravy, pulled pork, garlic chive and black pepper.
Pulled pork poutine and apple cider • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
HOME COOKING TIPS
Creating authentic poutine at home, from scratch outside Québec can be a bit of an effort and normally when you crave one, you don’t really feel like cooking. The laziest way is to do the assembly at home and buy take-out chips or frozen, some cheese and heat up some gravy mix. In regional Australia, it is a little difficult. I’ve never really found some French Fries that I like as most restaurants or take-out “chippies” serves frozen ones. For a better result, you have to make your own if you have a fryer (oil or air) or bake julienne potatoes in the oven. You rarely will find fresh curd cheese outside Québec as it is quite exceptional when cheese makers successfully give this a go elsewhere. Some expats are devoted enough to make cheese curd from milk... and I've done it successfully but it takes a whole day to make! You can substitute poutine cheese with mozzarella or grated cheddar but this will then becomes more like a "loaded fries" (an Aussie pub-style dish) which is similar but not the same. As for gravy, if not using a commercial mix, you also have to make it from stock, flour and flavour ingredients. Many Québécois expats have their favourite brand of poutine sauce mix sent by mail by the family. Am I right les amie(es)?
In large cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane there are French Canadian communities and you can find a few restaurants that serve good poutines. In Canberra, there is Caribou Kingston, a West-Canadian style pub serving poutine. I found the pub pleasant, reminding me the years I lived in Alberta (the owner is from Edmonton). The poutine was not exactly the same as an authentic Québec one but is one of the best I had downunder (at the exception of my homemade ones). If any local chefs of the Snowys would want to make a poutine speciality on the menu someday, I’d be more than happy to give my best “poutinology”advises, and test-taste ;).
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