First and foremost, the French spoken in Quebec is FRENCH! I have such a pet peeve about people saying that it’s different. French people from France and people in Quebec can totally understand each other… well usually. To me it’s the same as saying that the English of North America is 18th century English (which may be true), but GEESH! we can still understand Downton Abbey, right?
The French started exploring Canada or what they called ‘New France’ at the beginning of the 16th century and found basically the same things the English found when they started to explore the future US of A, native peoples, lots of wild animals and trees. The name ‘Canada’ even came from the French who heard the Iroquois use the word ‘kanata’ to describe their villages. Jacques Cartier is the first to pen the word in his journals.
Along with the language, the French brought their recipes and adapted them. A large part of the French explorers came from north and south-western France, ie, Normandy and Brittany, as well as Aquitaine and Auvergne and so the food reflects influences from those provinces.
Tourtière, a French-Canadian specialty, is a big meat pie filled with pork, beef and vegetables, mashed potatoes and the requisite crust. The word, tourtière, has origins in Latin of course (notice it looks like tarte or torte) and refers to basically what we call a Dutch oven. It was used as an oven by explorers to bake and then became synonymous with the pie.
Tarte au sucre, or sugar pie, one of my favorites, is similar to a pecan pie without the pecans. This pie has its origins in France and Belgium and as the French-speaking explorers moved south exploring the Mississippi, the recipe morphed into sugar-cream pie and is common in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Speaking of sugar, maple syrup, figures prominently in French-Canadian cooking. First referenced by one of André Thevet, a chronicler of the French explorations of the Americas, maple syrup was a large part of the native people’s cuisine and was embraced by the French. There are few things as delicious as Pain perdu (lost bread) or as Americans know it, French toast, slathered with butter and maple syrup.
Oreilles de crises (oh ray de krees), literally, Jesus’ ears is another French-Canadian specialty. Deep fried pig jowls and skin, this marvel of human culinary experience is normally served with maple syrup in ‘cabanes à sucre,’ sugar cabins set up to boil down the maple sap.
It would be totally remiss to write about French-Canadian cooking without mentioning Poutine. Poutine, a heavenly concoction of French fries, cheese curds, and meat gravy, is hands-down Canada’s contribution to the world of comfort food (great as a hangover remedy). The word, most agree, is related to the English word, pudding, although similar sounding words that come from France claim the origin.
And in our days, French influence on the food of Quebec is stronger than ever with restaurants in Montreal and Quebec City featuring foods that fuse the best of cooking technique from France with the local richness of Quebec products and culinary history.