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