Updated: May 24
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 a 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 pleasant dish.
How to make an authentic classic poutine basically, is with:
1. French Fries: brownish double deep fried fresh cut unpeeled potatoes (and not frozen “chips”!). 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 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 souvlaki.
The poutine has advanced through 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. From the town I was born (Thetford Mines), in my childhood, it was called a “mixte” (apparently the original term). I only started to know about 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 occasionally (La Banquise) is now so popular that over the years having a late snack there became just impossible… Students and visitors wait in line-up for hours until sunrise (to prevent the hangover…). They extended the sitting area with time. This junk food 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 (food trucks) and even into many fine dining restaurants. There are a number of variations that chefs have a blast to create 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 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, 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 will have some “made in Australia” poutines to present on this blog!
HOME COOKING TIPS
To create an 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 easiest way is to do the assembly at home and buy take out chips or frozen, 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” will serve frozen ones. You have to make your own if you have a fryer (oil or air), or go frozen. 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 but so far I’ve simply substituted with mozzarella, cheddar or eye cheese (swiss style). As for gravy, if not using a commercial mix, you also have to make it from stock, flour and flavour ingredients. In large cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane there are French Canadian communities so 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 to the level of Québec poutines that I know, of course, but one of the best I had downunder. 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”advices.
Check out my related posts, recipes and inspirations: (more to come!)