We will start, of course, with poutine: Canada's culinary claim to fame. Many Americans may already be familiar with this French-Canadian favourite since it has grown in popularity all over the world. Fast-food chains like Burger King have started offering it on their menus. But you really do have to come to Canada to get the real deal - and Quebec is where it's made best. It originated in Montreal in the 1970s as a diner food and eventually became a street-vendor favourite. It is essentially freshly made French fries sprinkled with cheese curds (another Quebecois staple) and then doused with hot, homemade gravy, which causes the cheese to melt into a sticky, gooey, delightful mess all over the fries. It's not fine dining, but it's really good! These days there are all kinds of gourmet versions of it that involve fresh lobster, bacon, pulled pork or chicken. It is Canadian comfort food at its finest! Click here for a recipe.
Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, was the birthplace of these sinfully good bars of joy. Its true origins are still mostly unknown but theories about its invention abound. The most popular story is that the recipe was submitted to the editors of a local cookbook in 1954 by one Miss Mabel Jenkins, a housewife from Cowichan Bay. It became so popular so quickly that almost every other housewife and baker in the region developed her own recipe, making it nearly impossible to trace the exact origin. The bar consists of a wafer-crumb base layer (often with coconut flakes), topped with a rich, buttery custard then topped again with a layer of melted chocolate. Nanaimo bars are one of my favourite treats of all time! You must try them. Click here for a recipe.
Another French-Canadian classic is tourtière : a meat pie with a filling of ground pork and ground beef, chopped onion, cloves, diced garlic and a mix of seasonings. The beef is sometimes substituted with ground venison, which adds a sharper flavour. Sauteed mushrooms are also sometimes added to the filling. The hearty pie originated in Quebec in the early 1800s in the Saguenay region of the province and was a traditional holiday dish served on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. Many bakeries and pie shops in Canada carry tourtière year-round, which you can buy frozen or fresh. My paternal grandmother, who was French Canadian, made a wonderful tourtière that she served on Christmas Eve each year. Click here for a recipe.
Almost every culture has its variation on fried pastry. Canada's version is shaped like a beaver tail, of course, and then slathered with all kinds of sinful delights. The treat was developed in 1978 in Kilaloe, Ontario, by Pam and Grant Hooker, who later turned their creation into a small franchise based today in Ottawa, Canada's capital region. The most famous Beaver Tail stand is located in that city's Byward Market, which is always swarmed with crowds of visitors anxious to get their hands on one. Even President Obama had to have one on his visit to Ottawa in 2008! The fried dough is basic and can be sprinkled lightly with brown sugar (my favourite) for a simple treat, or done-up more extravagantly with chocolate sauce, maple butter or caramel. Savory versions include garlic and onion and cheese. Click here for a recipe.
Give a Canadian a butter tart and you give him the world! Butter tarts are considered to be Canada's most popular dessert and opinions are sharply divided about how the filling ought to be made: with raisins or without; with pecans or without? A basic tart shell is filled with a mixture of butter, sugar, syrup and egg (raisins and pecans optional!) and then baked until it is semi-solid with a firm top and a creamy center. Every single Canadian bakery worth its salt will have at least one variety of butter tart available. When our family heads up to the cottage each summer we make sure to stop at the Sunflower Bakery in Perth, Ontario, to get a big box full! They don't last long. Click here for a recipe.
A WORD ABOUT CANADIAN BACON
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Canadian bacon in this post. The truth is, there is nothing Canadian about it. In Canada, we refer to this type of bacon as back bacon or peameal bacon, never as Canadian bacon. It is often sold or marketed in the U.S. as Canadian bacon, or Irish bacon, because of its popularity in those countries. (The reality is, we like the good, old-fashioned strip bacon just as much!)
The best cookbook I've been able to find about Canadian food is this one, Canada's Favourite Recipes, by Rose Murray and Elizabeth Baird, executive food editors with Canadian Living magazine. The recipes are wonderfully simple but don't comrpromise on flavour and there is excellent information about Canada's regional foods, crops, culture and geography. It has full-colour photographs and is a great addition to your cookbook shelf.