Tourtiere: A French-Canadian Twist On Christmas Pie

Dec 23, 2011

If you happen to spend Christmas Eve in Canada — especially Québec — you might lucky enough to be invited to a festive dinner after midnight mass. The feast is an old tradition from France called revellion, and it's something to look forward to after a long day of fasting.

"They'll have a huge feast, with sweets and lobster and oysters, everything," says Thomas Naylor, executive chef to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. "But, in Quebec at least, you'll always have tourtière. It will be the center of the reveillon."

NPR's Lynn Neary visited Naylor this week in the kitchen of the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. to learn how to make tourtière.

Naylor knows about this Christmas Eve custom because many years ago it traveled with French émigrés across the Atlantic to Canada (and to New Orleans). The tourtière is a savory, spiced meat pie which both French and English speaking Canadians love to serve around the holidays. (For more on the history of pie, see Alison Richards' recent story. )

The pie is so beloved in Canada that it has spread far beyond Québec. "The recipe has been altered so many times," he says.

Along the coast, it's made with salmon. And even within Québec there are different variations, Naylor says. There's a ground pork version in Montréal, while some in Québec City prefer game meats. Even within a family you might find different recipes.

I have been at events with Canadians around Christmastime where there can be a little tourtière competition, and everyone brings their own. Naylor agrees: "It's like hockey rivalry."

There is one thing that's usually the same is four spices: cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. Nayor likes to add savory and rosemary to his pie. "It's a very festive flavor," says Naylor. "The use of spices goes back to medieval times. They used to serve them along with sweets."

But the first step in creating a perfect tourtière says Naylor is to make a buttery, flaky pastry shell.

Then Naylor moves on to the meat mixture — he adds pork, water, onion, and celery to a pan. Then he adds the spices.

Naylor lets that mixture simmer for an hour and a half. At the end he mixes in a cup of rolled oats which binds the meat and makes it easier to slice a piece of the pie later on. Once the meat filling has cooled he spoons it into the pastry shell and covers it with a crust. Then it's time to decorate with some of the left over dough.

Once the tourtière is ready says Naylor it is usually served with some kind of tasty condiment or sauce. It could be cranberry sauce, pickled beets, something sweet and sour or "something with a kick to it to pair with the spiced meat and flaky crust." (I like to serve a chili sauce with my tourtière; you can find Naylor's recipe and my chili sauce recipe here.)

All and all, it's a memorable dish. And it's "one of Canada's better contributions to the culinary world," says Naylor.

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