Society

Poutine, The Greasy Canadian Delicacy Tempting Global Diners

The Quebecois soft cheese fries drowned in brown sauce, wants to make it as the "next culinary trend" worldwide

The Quebec delicacy poutine
Hélène Jouan

MONTREAL — Some national culinary "treasures' were never destined for export, which only adds to their status at home. That's how many have seen poutine, a dish composed of soft French fries drowned in gravy and topped with molten cheese curds. It's found everywhere in Canada, from upscale restaurants in Montreal to fast food joints in Vancouver, from highway chains to village snack bars where they're served on traditional aluminum plates. It's a link that culturally unites an entire nation, alongside ice hockey and Leonard Cohen.

Undeniably hearty and of questionable taste, it seems the meal was specifically concocted to be enjoyed after a hockey game or a snowshoeing trip at -20°C. Some Quebecois, however, are convinced that poutine is "the next global culinary trend," like the hot dog, the hamburger, pizza, tacos or sushi.

"Poutine has become international in less than 50 years, while pizza took more than a century to establish itself," says Sylvain Charlebois, a researcher in agri-food sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and author of Poutine Nation, a book subtitled "The Glorious Rise of an Unpretentious Dish." Hot on the heels of his subject, he tasted poutine in Lille, Shanghai, Mooloolaba (in Australia), Dubai and Cleveland, "with a wine-based sauce and powdered mozzarella: disgusting," he says. "But this cultural appropriation is the price of fame."

Café Idéal, Warwick, the birthplace of poutine — Photo: La vraie histoire de la poutine/Facebook

Already adorned with lobster, pulled pork or breaded chicken in certain parts of Canada, the dish can be adapted to all gastronomic traditions — a "lobster, foie gras, golden flake" poutine at the prohibitive price of $417 per serving was even created in Toronto during the International Film Festival in 2018. "The simplicity of its recipe allows for all culinary fantasies," says Sylvain Charlebois.

However, its origins are 100% Quebecois. After several years of investigation, Charlebois is able to confirm that poutine was born in 1957: At Café Idéal, in Warwick (a town in the Montérégie of Quebec), a certain Jean-Guy Lainesse asked the restaurant owner Fernand Lachance to serve him cheese curds on his fries. "That will make you a damn poutine," Fernand allegedly retorted. Does the word originate from the English "pudding"? Whatever the case, Sylvain Charlebois believes that the popularity of this rural and working-class dish was "a symbol of rebellion" touted by French Canadians against the richer, more powerful and urban English Canadians of the time.

A trained saucier added gravy to the recipe.

It was not until 1964 that the "modern poutine" was born, when a trained saucier, Jean-Paul Roy, added gravy to the recipe. A few ambassadors ensured its success: A major Quebec City restaurant added the dish to its menu, Burger King began serving it alongside its traditional hamburgers — today it's considered a "must" in Canadian McDonald's — and one Ontario man took it abroad by launching the Smoke's Poutinerie franchise. The brand now has 120 locations and promises to open 1,300 more soon around the world, including 800 in the United States.

Poutine's growing success is a boon for Quebec. Luc Boivin runs a cheese factory in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and specializes in the production of "cheese curds," an essential ingredient in the recipe. Cheddar cheese is made from cow's milk, which has a rubbery texture the producer refines so the curds don't melt under the hot sauce. Boivin, who also has a chain of "poutine counters' in Quebec, is one of the dish's most ardent advocates.

A Burger King combination with poutine — Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0/Creative Commons

Since the day a poutine made on the French island of Corsica that featured local sausage became a hit, Boivin has been convinced the dish has huge international potential. But he feels is now urgent to protect poutine's identity in order to keep its heritage alive. "Just as the whole world knows that pizza is Italian, everyone should know that poutine is Quebecois," he says. The ideal would be for poutine to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list, a label that the French baguette now enjoys.

The cheese factory CEO is also aware that exporting his cheese curds, which are easy to freeze, is a big opportunity for his industry. He is trying to recruit his cheese-making colleagues to join a unified promotion and marketing campaign. In order to strengthen the brand image of the Quebec delicacy, which is still largely associated with the calories it contains, he is already imagining the creation of a "poutine brotherhood" based on French pseudo-medieval culinary guilds, to encourage new poutine recipes while preserving its identity. "When we associate poutine with Quebec like we associate the Eiffel Tower with Paris, the bet will have paid off," he says.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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