Canadian cuisine is notoriously variable and disparate, adopting and incorporating dishes from many immigrant and influential cultures. Indeed an ex-prime minister of Canada once commented that Canada has a cuisine of cuisines, not a stew pot, but a smorgasbord. Some of this diversity can be attributed to the combination of the indigenous First Nations and Inuit inhabitants mingling with the waves of Scottish, English and French colonists, followed more recently by immigrants from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. The native ingredients include berries, wild rice, squash and beans, as well as sea food, such as salmon and lobster, and meats such as moose and deer. These ingredients are particularly important, as the modern Canadian psyche surrounding food seems to place the ingredient, including locality, seasonality and quality, far above the recipe or technique in importance. Speaking of modern Canada, the hunky prime minister himself, Justin Trudeau, has said that the reason it’s so hard to find a typical Canadian food is that there is no typical Canadian, and that Canada should therefore take pride in its amazing diversity of people. Trudeau (are we on first name terms yet?) also favours healthy Asian cuisine and has volunteered a lot of his time to food banks, trying to make sure that good food is accessible to every Canadian… *swoon*.
Maple salmon, wild rice and vegetables
The combination of ingredients in this meal is not stereotypically Canadian, but it does have many Canadian elements. Salmon is a native and much beloved ingredient of Canadian cuisine, eaten fresh when it can be caught during spawning season, or preserved as jerky to be eaten all year. A classic image that springs to my mind when thinking of Canada is the black bear fishing for salmon, possibly narrated by the dulcet tones of David Attenborough. Indeed, this event is thought to be very important for the entire forest ecosystem, as the bears deposit leftovers of their salmon feast, which releases nutrients to the soil and plants. I cooked the salmon under the oven grill, glazed with a combination of mustard and maple syrup, the latter being arguably the most recognisable of Canadian foodstuffs, with the maple leaf taking pride of place at the centre of the county’s flag. It was first collected by indigenous inhabitants prior to European settlement, and can be harvested only during a small window of early spring, by boring small holes into native maple tree trunks, collecting the exuded sap, and then reducing it into a thick syrup either with heat or by freezing it and then removing the ice. Indigenous cooking traditions often include the use of maple syrup where Europeans would use salt: such as to boil meats. Native rituals and legends therefore surround this important commodity, including explaining its development (the work of the legendary spirit trickster Nanabozho, or perhaps wise squirrels?) as well as annual dances in its honour on the first full moon of spring, known as the “sugar moon”. I also made wild rice, which is native to northern America, and has a pleasing black colour. It tasted nutty with a very chewy and firm texture – quite different from normal white rice. This is not surprising given that the two plants are not directly related, but are more like distant cousins. I served these with some fairly stock-standard vegetables, although squash at least is native to Canada. It was a wonderful and nutritious meal, and a lot like the sort of simple fare I would cook in the times before I undertook this adventure. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the addition of a maple and mustard glaze to grilled salmon; it’s delicious without overpowering the subtle taste of the fish.
Apart from maple syrup, poutine is perhaps the most stereotypical Canadian dish. It originates from the province of Quebec, which is the only Canadian province to have a predominantly French-speaking population. Poutine is thought to have been invented in the 1950s, with many restaurants claiming the title of original inventor, and has since spread in popularity to other provinces, even inspiring annual festivals in its honour. Although poutine was originally mocked and was a source of shame for many residents of Quebec, it has now fortunately been re-appropriated and is celebrated with pride across the whole country. In a survey of the greatest Canadian inventions, poutine (number 10) even beat the BlackBerry and the electron microscope. I’ve used an electron microscope, and it is an incredibly ingenious and complicated machine, so I was excited to try its victor. It is not the prettiest of foods that I’ve cooked, and indeed it’s thought that the etymology of the name relates to a slang Quebecois word meaning “mess”. It consists of a base of hot chips/fries, topped with fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. It sounds simple enough, however, there is great debate and pedantry over the details of this concoction. For instance, most insist that the chips be of medium cut and double-fried to ensure a fluffy interior and crunchy exterior. The cheese curds must be made fresh, and squeak when they are bitten into, which is only possible within a day or two of their preparation. The gravy should be made from some sort of poultry, be flavoured with pepper and some acid and have a consistency that is not too liquid, but not too thick. The toppings must be added to the fries immediately before serving, lest they become soggy too soon. I made my cheese curds with milk and lemon juice, as I couldn’t source any rennet or culture, so it wasn’t strictly traditional, but I did concede to deep fry my chips, despite my general aversion to deep frying. I think that I might have been a little ungenerous with my application of gravy for some people’s standards, but it may take me a while to warm up to the “gravy bath” concept. I have never eaten poutine before, and, of course, it was incredibly delicious. I talk some good talk about sophisticated and exotic international cuisines, but the truth is, in my deepest heart, I’m a chips-and-gravy girl. In fact, whenever I see that famous quote that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, I often muse to myself that those poor people must never have tasted chips and gravy. I was therefore very happy to have this meal, but it may be best to limit its frequency to once every few years…
As sandwiches are so easy to make, I often feel that choosing them as one of a cuisine’s four representative meals might be cheating, despite my love for sandwiches of all varieties. My other option for this meal, however, was roast goose, and I could not find a goose for love nor money, so the lobster roll prevailed. Lobster rolls are particularly prevalent in Nova Scotia, an eastern province of Canada, but are also popular (and apparently originated) in the nearby USA region of New England. Nova Scotia, however, boasts the largest ever lobster catch, with a weight of over 20 kg, so I think we can let them have some claim to the rolls. All of the areas of the USA and Canada that favour the lobster roll surround the North Atlantic Ocean, which is renowned for its production of delicious lobster. This dish can be served either hot (with the bun toasted and the meat warmed in a little butter), or cold (with a fresh bun and the meat dressed with mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper). I elected for the latter option, as I have long thought that cold seafood has a cleaner and sweeter taste than hot. I have always fostered a deep love of crustacean meat, as well as sandwiches, so it’s mildly surprising that I’ve never eaten a lobster roll. I was not disappointed, however – I could eat one every day. The mild flavours of the bread, lettuce and mayonnaise complement, but don’t overpower, the subtle and sweet taste of the lobster.
Tourtière hails from Quebec, and is a large pie made with minced meat, onions and potato, spiced with sweet spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. A mixture of pork and beef is traditionally used, although this can be supplemented with wild game, depending on availability. The word tourtière originally referred to the vessel that the pie was cooked in, resembling a deep pie dish. Although served all year round, tourtière is most commonly cooked around Christmas time, especially Christmas Eve, also known as réveillon de noël. Rural French-Canadians traditionally attend mass on Christmas Eve, and then return home to feast on tourtière before bed. Tourtière can also be made on a smaller scale as hand-pies, which are apparently perfect to pocket for a mid-sledding snack during the frivolities of Canadian winter. Historic evidence of meat pies have been found from 9500 BC, and pies of all varieties have sprung up in all regions of the globe across the centuries. The word pie can be traced to Northern Europe, where stiff, thick and near inedible open-topped dough containers were cooked with hearty meat stews inside. It is thought that the wealthy inhabitants of a household would eat the stewy contents, while the tough container would be given to the servants. The endless possibilities for the filling of these containers perhaps drew an association with magpies (called pies for short), who collect miscellaneous items. That’s one of the theories, anyway! Of course, the French and Italians eventually intervened and sorted everything out by adding a lot more butter to the pie crust, therefore rendering it flaky, edible, and, ultimately, even delicious!