Thursday, 27 December 2007

Tourtière, shepherd's pie and reasonable accommodation

Our favourite specialist in 18th century New France, Emmanuel Nivon, gave us a little lesson on the origins of tourtière over the holiday, by the way. We had polished off the potato sausage and sil, (Swedish pickled herring) and gone on to gâteau mocha, the excellent, multi-layered cream, coffee and chocolate cake that Sophie makes from her grand’maman Jacqueline Mercier’s recipe.

There are those who say that tourtière takes its name from the tourte or passenger pigeon once used in the meat pie that is a staple of Quebec and French Canadian holiday food. But that’s not so, Emmanuel said: it comes from the round pan, the tourte, in which the pie was made. The Dictionnaire étytmologique de la langue française agrees: it says that tourtière, which it dates from 1573, has its origins in the Latin vulgate torta, as in round bread or torta panis.

There are as many recipes for tourtière there are Quebec families, but oddly, it did not win the competition for the “national dish” of Quebec, which Le Devoir recently conducted. That prize went to what is called here pâté chinois, or shepherd’s pie.

My first reaction to this story was: this has to be a joke! Think of the hilarious dinner party the London bachelor girl Bridget Jones gave featuring shepherd’s pie. But if Le Devoir’s experts are serious, the fact that the mixture of mashed potatoes, ground meat and corn won is evidence that Quebec has been accommodating reasonably all kinds of culinary and other influences for a long time.

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