How the Quebecois came to love poutine

Declared one of Canada’s best inventions, the mess of chips, curd cheese and gravy is a deeply rooted culinary tradition that can span from the classic to the avant-garde.

The day began eight hours earlier in Europe, under the light drizzle of Switzerland’s rain. As the plane began its descent into Montreal through layers of blue, pink and peach-streaked skies, the vast Canadian landscape came into view. Soon we were on the ground, making our way through the buzzing airport, past maple syrup souvenir shops and a cacophony of French and English conversations. Almost immediately, a familiar craving crept up and my stomach began to rumble. Poutine was calling.

Poutine is the ultimate Quebecois comfort food – a pile of thick-cut French fried potatoes, generously sprinkled with fresh cheese curds and slathered with velvety gravy. When in the province, duck into a greasy spoon, stop by a cabanes à patates (roadside chip wagon) or take a seat at some of the city’s haute cuisine hotspots – invariably some version of poutine will be on the menu. As Montreal food blogger Na’eem Adam put it, “we all have a little gravy in our blood”.

Here that gravy is usually made with a chicken, veal or turkey stock mixed with a roux of equal parts butter and flour. The result is a savoury sauce thick enough to coat a spoon and hot enough to warm – but not melt – a scattering of cheese curd. The by-product of cheese making, the curds are separated from the liquid whey of coagulating milk and heated until they reach a doughy consistency. In poutine, their freshness is paramount, measured by an unmistakable “squeak” between the teeth while chewing.

European legacies
Cheese making is a deeply rooted culinary tradition in Quebec. Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, introduced cattle from Brittany and Normandy around 1610. At the time, arriving French brought with them a taste for cheese – as well as the recipes to continue the tradition abroad. As the rate of settlers increased, so did the cattle, and soon dairy farms and cheese making were vital to local economies.

Canada’s history meant that settlers benefited from both French and English influences, and cheese was no exception. After the American Revolutionary War (1775 to1783), a wave of defeated loyalists moved to Canada, bringing the quintessentially English cheddar cheese. With the invention of pasteurisation and the advent of industrialisation in the late 19th Century, cheese production flourished in Quebec. By World War I, Quebecois factories were even exporting cheddar back to England. 

Where cheese curds fall in this timeline is imprecise. The dominant theory points to a milk surplus from Quebec dairy farms around the 1950s. With a plethora of cheddar cheese factories and an excess of milk, the leftover curds found their way into takeaway shops and diners around the province.

Posh poutine
Rumour has it the Quebecois harbour a hint of embarrassment over their love for poutine – an apparent juxtaposition to their branded sophistication. Combining French-influenced style and North American affability, Montreal brims with creativity and swagger. And at one hip eatery, Au Pied du Cochon in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, the city’s penchant for cool meets their not-so-secret love for chips and gravy.

Here, chef Martin Picard makes a play on French-Quebecois flavours with adventurous and brilliantly executed nose-to-tail dishes, throwing in a heavy dose of off-the-wall culinary creativity. Heaps of pork, duck, foie gras and  boudin (blood sausage) dot the calorific menu, and under low hanging Edison light bulbs and butcher-block wooden tables, you dine on fat. The poutine is no exception.

Picard’s interpretation starts with a chicken velouté gravy enriched with pork stock, foie gras and egg yolks. The decadent sauce is ladled over cheese curd-dotted chips fried in duck fat and topped with 100g of expertly seared goose liver. Picard’s poutine is gorgeously fatty, rich, savoury, sublime. It is the kind of dish that inspires scheduled layovers through Montreal just to snag another taste.

A messy history
But poutine was not born topped with a slab of foie gras. Its origins lie 150km northeast of Montreal in the town of Warwick. History points to restaurateur Fernand LaChance who, in 1957, added cheese curds to a takeaway bag of chips at the request of customer Eddy Lanaisse. Legend has it LaChance replied to Lanaisse’s request saying, “ça va faire une maudite poutine” (that's going to make a damn mess). It is argued that the etymology for poutine lies here with LaChance. Others point to an adaption of the English word “pudding”, while some Quebecois claim poutine is the evolution of the local slang, poutingo, or “bad stew”.

Nevertheless LaChance indulged Lanaisse, and soon word of his chips-meets-curds creation spread. However, gravy did not enter the equation until seven years later. It was in Drummondville, a small town 50km southwest of Warwick, that sauce married chips and cheese. At a local restaurant, Roy le Jucep, owner Jean-Paul Roy was slathering gravy on his chips when he noticed diners throw cheese curds, displayed for sale on the countertops, into their takeaway bags. He put the mash up on his menu, thereby effectively creating poutine as we now know it. Roy le Jucep still stands in the same spot today.  

Word-of-mouth steadily carried poutine from local villages and cheese-making towns around the province into Montreal, and by the 1980s, poutine was so engrained in Quebecois culinary culture that Burger King and McDonald’s had it on their menus. In 2007, Canadian news agency CBC conducted a survey that rated poutine 10th on a list of Canada’s best inventions.  

Local love
In Montreal today, you can find everything from classic to avant-garde poutine. La Banquise in Plateau Mont-Royal is one celebrated eatery where you can do both – even at 3 am.

A family-run local favourite, La Banquise opened in 1968 as an ice cream shop before growing into a snack bar specialising in hot dogs and chips. Poutine first hit their menu in the 1980s, but when Annie Barsalou took over the restaurant from her father, Pierre, they started to experiment with the dish and never looked back.

Today, La Banquise is a 24-hour dedicated poutine joint with more than 28 varieties on offer, such as poutine with merguez sausages, hot peppers and Tabasco. Lunchtime is saturated with a loyal crowd of nearby workers, while at night the students roll in. This is the kind of rowdy spot you seek out after an evening of boisterous drinking – it is informal, packed and noisy. And their poutines are exactly what you crave after midnight, with fat chips that retain their texture against smooth, well-seasoned gravy. 

Along with late-night greasy spoons, the Quebecois also have a shared love for poutine from cabanes à patates. These roadside food trucks dot the province serving up classic poutines that make purists swoon. Lucky’s Truck is a contemporary take on the traditional, serving up haute street food out of a repurposed Fedex truck that traverses Montreal’s cobblestoned streets. Theirs comes with duck confit, caramelised balsamic onions and a foie gras and red wine sauce. The confit is melt-in-your-mouth, the gravy is full-bodied and indulgent and the onions are beautifully sweet with a touch of balsamic tartness that cuts through the richness of the sauce.

Poutine party
And then, there is Poutine Week, an entire week dedicated solely to poutine. Founded by blogger Na'eem Adam, the first ever celebration took place in February 2013 and more than 30 restaurants featured the Quebecois icon on their menus as the city embarked on a culinary food tour to uncover the best. Diners hopped from spot to spot, taste testing poutines and voting for their favourite on the festival’s website – which got more than 100,000 hits in the week.

From amateur eateries to poutine connoisseurs, the Quebecois spent the week indulging in jazzed-up versions – such as Le Porky Pig at St Laurent Boulevard’s Macaroni Bar, which served theirs with sliced porchetta, fontina cheese and sweet potato fries – alongside the classic, where the focus was on hand-cut fries, perfect gravy and the freshest curds. By week’s end, Poutineville on Ontario Street was voted the best for their General Tao Poutine, made with crushed potatoes, cheese curds, scallions, sesame seed and General Tao sauce, a North American-Chinese sweet, sour and spicy sauce. Next year’s Poutine Week is already in the books for 1 to 7 February.  

The region has not one, but two poutine-related celebrations, with the St Albert Cheese Curd Festival taking place from 14 to 18 August 2013. Held each year by one of the area's most prominent cheese curd producers, the St-Albert Cheese Co-operative, the festival celebrates the factory, the small town about 150km west of Montreal and – of course – cheese curds. This year’s event is particularly meaningful; in February 2013 a fire destroyed the factory. For this village that sits just across the Ontario-Quebec border, St Albert’s has served as the backbone for the community since it opened in 1894 as a collective of 10 milk producers. Today, locals are rallying around St Albert’s, supporting the rebuild and working together to ensure the factory’s survival.

The soul of Quebec
It is perhaps this camaraderie – more so than all of the events, roadside wagons, poutine hotspots and jazzed-up versions – that speak to the deep connection to this iconic dish. Simply, poutine is in the Quebecois consciousness. And from the moment you land in Montreal airport to finding your way through to the city’s beautiful and bustling centre, this feeling of fellowship is palpable, best expressed over a generous plate of warming poutine.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly located St. Albert in Quebec. This has been fixed.