La Belle Cuisine: Examining Quebec’s Rich Food Culture

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Quebec has boasted a strong sense of self and a well-developed culinary identity for longer than most Canadian regions. Thanks to a strong, provincially protected agriculture industry, Quebec chefs have access to a veritable cornucopia of local products to create mouth-watering, distinctively Québécois dishes.

As one of the first provinces to be settled (Quebec City was founded as part of New France in 1608), early iterations of Quebec cuisine were heavily influenced by French culinary traditions and the incorporation of indigenous products. “French cuisine of the period was brought over to the new world, but immediately started to diverge because [settlers] simply didn’t have the ingredients they were used to, so they started to incorporate Canadian ingredients,” explains Lenore Newman, associate professor, Department of Geography and the Environment, University of the Fraser Valley and author of Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. Early Quebec cuisine featured “a really strong incorporation of wild food and [we also see] a lot of indigenous techniques incorporated during this period.”

Another key factor that shaped early food traditions was the introduction of cows. As Sarah Elton, food writer and author of Locavore: How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat, explains, cheese making was adopted early and became a significant part of the Quebec economy. “[Cheese] is a really great example of one food that connects all the
way back to the early days and the founding of Quebec City, through to the present.” “There was all this wonderful cheese that you didn’t have anywhere else in North America at the time,” adds Newman. “We have whole-milk cheeses, unpasteurized cheeses that remained a big part of the culture.” She also credits Quebec’s artisanal-cheese industry with laying the groundwork for the province’s burgeoning craft industries. Pork was also a key protein early in Quebec’s history, says Elton.

PROVINCIAL IDENTITY
“Quebec is really culinary [focused] compared to most of North America. We’re all a bit food obsessed now, but it maintained that through a period where everyone else was eating processed TV dinners. So, they have a lot to draw on,” says Newman.

Newman credits the Quiet Revolution — with its renewed sense of Quebec nationalism and Québécois identity — with marking a post-WWII resurgence of Québécois cuisine. “The nouveau Québécois cuisine really came out of that revolution and the sovereignty movement and the idea that this is a [valuable and] distinct cuisine, but it did have to be lightened up a bit for the modern taste,” she explains, adding that this style of cooking can be seen carried into the menus of top Quebec restaurants, such as Joe Beef and Au Pied De Cochon.

This period influenced chefs such as Renaud Cyr and Anne Desjardins, who recognized and showcased the value of Quebec’s local products. The movement was also followed by the implementation of protections and support for the province’s producers, including the Agricultural Land Protection Act (Loi sur la protection du territoire agricole), which protects Quebec’s best farmland, and the formation of the Corporation de la cuisine régionale au Québec, which worked to re-establish and promote Québécois cuisine. “That really does give them a bit of an advantage over some of the other provinces,” notes Newman. “This is why the cuisine is so developed.”

Chef Normand Laprise of Montreal’s Toqué! defines Quebec cuisine as being very focused on local products and producers. He also notes that Quebecers’ adventurous palates have helped shape menus. “Quebec is a place where you can sell everything from squab to rabbit, and every part of the animal is put on the menu.”

Jérôme Cornellier, maître d’hôtel at Légend in Quebec City, identifies sea buckthorn, game meats and maple as key products central to today’s Québécois cuisine. He also notes that foie gras is a staple in Quebec restaurants. “We have this mentality of using only boreal cuisine and local products in Quebec, which is completely different from French cuisine,” he adds.

That said, the province has also been impacted by international influences, particularly in Montreal. “This is very nicely [displayed] at the Jean-Talon Market because, not only do you have a little stand where they make baklava, creperie or Vietnamese spring rolls, but the ingredients that are for sale and grown by farmers are also foods from around the world,” explains Elton.

Jewish immigrants, specifically, have made a lasting mark on the restaurant industry, leading to the creation of Montreal-style bagels, Montreal smoked meat and, subsequently, Montreal steak spice. “There are areas in Montreal where it’s like being in a Mordecai Richler novel where you can go to a Wilensky’s and get bagels at Fairmount Bagel,” says Newman. Lebanese, Haitian and Asian influences are also present, but less so than in other major centres such as Toronto and Vancouver. Quebec offers “a little less of that really heavy Canadian creole,” Newman adds.

There is no denying Quebec’s food culture has been heavily influenced by French traditions, but recent decades have seen truly French cuisine phased out in favour of revisited Québécois classics.

“When I started in the kitchen 35 years ago, all the food was coming from outside of the country and the kitchens were run by French chefs,” Laprise explains. “The food has changed…all of the produce has been coming from here, the chefs are coming from here and the culture is coming from here. This is what has given identity to our food.” However, “We’re still connected with the old traditions like ragoût de patte de cochon (pig’s foot stew) — that is our history.”

Other dishes with long histories in the province, such as tourtière, pouding chômeur, pea soup and cretons remain popular today.

“It’s [a work in progress] and better is coming,” says Laprise. “This is not only in Quebec, but everywhere in Canada. We have to keep pushing because we have the potential; I’m very confident in the future.”

 

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