|my own baked beans|
There is an interesting blogging project going on right now called The Canadian Food Experience Project and I am pretty exited to be a part of it. We will all post on the 7th of each month about the current challenge and the June challenge is to share your first Canadian Food Memory. I have been thinking of this for weeks and I have not been able to pinpoint one definitive Canadian food memory from my own youth. My friends from other provinces speak wistfully of dishes passed down from generation to generation and regional specialties that they pine for when they have been away from home for too long but all I could recall was Lipton Soup, Hamburger Helper and Minute Rice. When I moved to Quebec at 20, I had my first taste of ragoût de boulettes and cretons on toasts and everything changed.
I had a French Canadian grandmother who certainly cooked all sorts of delicious regional treats but I don't recall eating any of them. Because my father did not like that food at all, my own mother did not use any of her mother's recipes so all that I knew of tortiere and pea soup was what my mother would share with me when telling stories of her own childhood. I knew my grandmother made great cookies and could can a leather boot and make it taste great, but that was it.
Growing up, mom made a few dishes that I really loved but they were not anything that I would call distinctly Canadian, they were just some tasty dishes like lemon meringue pie, her doctored up canned baked beans and her version of cabbage rolls passed over to her from an aunt with a Ukrainian husband and they didn't resemble the authentic version at all. They were tasty but cabbage rolls in name only. I wasn't even aware that there were strong examples of regional, Canadian cooking until my move to Montreal. I went there to do makeup for some magazine with my boyfriend at the time, who was a model. I can longer recall what the job was but what I do remember is meeting my very first Montreal friend, Rejean. He was a tiny, flamboyant hairdresser who wore long, flowing silk blouses and sashayed like a runway model. He looked like a delicate little fashion imp until he opened his mouth. Suddenly he morphed into a truck driver from Northern Quebec and he single handedly taught me every filthy Quebecois phrase a girl like me would ever need to have in her repetoire. He also took me to his favourite restaurant for my first Quebecois meal. I am not talking foie gras poutine or duck in a can eaten alongside local hipsters and foodies from all over the world, I am talking the real deal.
If you are from Montreal, you will have been to La Binerie Mont-Royal at least once or twice. It was a down and dirty diner and we snagged the last two stools at the lunch counter. Elegant businessmen, jackets off and shirt sleeves rolled up, sat alongside dusty construction workers and ancient French Canadian retirees, all here for the food that their mother's and grandmothers cooked for them. I let Rejean order for me and we shared his favourite dishes that his own mother made for him growing up in Quebec City. We inhaled a plate of ragoût de boulettes, cretons and feves au lard, washed down with cold Pepsi.
Ragoût de boulettes translates into Meatball Stew, but it is so much tastier than that sounds. To me, it has more in common with Swedish Meatballs but that wouldn't be something I would have shared with Rejean, who was fiercely proud of his provincial treats. This recipe by Ricardo looks pretty delicious but if you don't speak french, you will have to translate it into english because if you google you won't find many authentic recipes written in anything BUT french. I have never tried to make it myself but with all this talk of meatballs, I think it will go on my list of things to make at some point this year.
Now, how to even start with cretons without making it sound kind of disgusting? Rejean very wisely chose to NOT tell me what I was eating until he was sure I was in love with it and had finished half of the plate. To be honest, with his ridiculously thick accent and his rapid fire way of speaking, I don't think I even understood him when he did tell me. It's basically a pork spread made from lots of pork lard and spices like cloves and cinnamon. If you are really lucky, they add some pig marrow to form a sort of natural gelatin so it will congeal nicely.
I warned you. It's kind of like the Marmite of Quebec.
Anyway, it's like a very creamy pate but with a bit of a mealy texture and it's really delicious although it's often a very unappetizing shade of pale grey but don't let that put you off. I still eat it on occasion when I go to La Papillion if i am lucky enough to see it on the menu. You used to be able to get it at Acadia but since chef Matt Blondin has jumped ship for Momofuko, I can't vouch for it anymore. You spread it on little toasts, or baguette and I like to live on the edge and add a dab of mustard, followed by a little cornichon.
I have to admit, I didn't love the feves au lard at La Binerie but I do love a good baked bean and went on to have incredible baked beans during the next five years of my Montreal stay. People are very subjective about their feves au lard and I tend to like them a bit thicker and more robust as opposed to the runny, mildly flavoured beans I had that first day.
During my five years in Montreal I went on to sample so many regional treats. It's a shame that most people only equate Quebec with poutine because although poutine is delicious, it's no lapin à la moutarde or pouding chômeur. Fun fact - pouding chômeur translates to unemployment pudding and was supposedly created for factory workers in Quebec during the depression. It is now considered a classic regional dessert that is almost like a caramel upside down cake but at the height of the depression it was more of a bread pudding when stale bread was all they had.
French Canadian cooking was my introduction to the very idea of regional Canadian cooking and up until that point I didn't even know such a thing existed. I went on to eat all over the East Coast and then on the West Coast but that first lunch in Montreal changed the way I thought about Canadian identity as far as food is concerned.
"Can i please have some pork fat spread and unemployment pudding?"
Those people can certainly cook but they need some help on the name thing.