An essential thing to understand about food in Quebec: it isn’t exactly French. In fact, when I visited England for the first time in 2000, I was amazed at how much of a culinary heritage we share with those pesky Brits. No sarcasm here: both cuisines embrace cold-weather vegetables, meats baked in pies, and local fare. And this isn’t a bad thing. Good pub grub is about as tasty as it gets in my book, and while French cuisine is certainly one of the world’s finest, it’s not always easy to master or replicate (hours for a roux? Not so much).
But if there is something I treasure most about the French influence in Quebec’s food, it’s pâté.
For the uninitiated and unfortunate, pâté is — as its name implies — a paste of meat and often organs seasoned and shaped into a log and spread on crackers. Or in my case just eaten plain off a fork. Seriously, what?
“There’s just something satisfying about carving out a chunk of chicken liver from a chicken shaped pile of pâté.”
There are as many different pâté presentations as there are animals in the wild, with versions baked in crusts, deep fried, and topped with aspic. It’s usually shaped in a loaf, because that’s apparently the easiest and most appetizing presentation, but I’m a fan of pâté shaped like the source of the animal from which it plucked its liver content. There’s just something satisfying about carving out a chunk of chicken liver from a chicken shaped pile of pâté.
Maybe that’s just me.
What’s amusing to me is how pâté has become hipster food in the States. Expensive, sought after, and added to fancy menus like a sprinkle of truffle oil. But really it’s peasant food, the kind of food developed out of necessity. It’s the old principal: make the not so tasty bits tasty, filling, and nutritious, and you’ve got a winning combination.
Whenever I visit Quebec and find myself in the charcuterie aisle, I’m beside myself with glee.
On a recent visit to Metro with my cousins, I lingered long enough to garner their suspicion.
“What is it?” asked my cousin Martin. He’s Louisette’s youngest son, and my age.
“So much pâté,” I said, gesturing to the wide variety before me.
His girlfriend looked at me sideways. “Oui, pâté. C’est drôle?” It’s funny?
“Non!” I said, laughing. “Pas drôle! Magnifique.”
Saying that there’s lots of pâté in a French-Canadian grocery store is like saying there’s lots of kinds of bread at Costco. It sort of goes without saying. It’s culture. It’s normal.
God, it’s so delicious.
Not only is the selection out of this world — including pâté from kangaroo, boar, and ostrich — but the prices are remarkably low. Less than three dollars for a slice, approximately a third of what I pay here, for perfectly passable pâté. Since charcuterie is my favorite food group (that’s a good group right?) having good pâté on hand can be something of an expensive, though admittedly delicious, endeavor here at home.
But I understand Martin and his girlfriend’s confusion. As a kid, pâté appeared at every family gathering in Quebec. I took it for granted because it’s as ubiquitous as chips and onion dip—come to think of it’s probably pretty awesome on chips. But that’s beside the point. Rarely have I come upon a pâté that I didn’t like, from terrine to mousse and everything in between. You can make pâté at home, in fact, and it’s far easier than you might imagine.
But then there’s cretons.
I’ve read recipes for cretons in my adulthood, but nothing seems to come close to that food experience I had at the age of nine or ten at my Uncle Jean-Yves house. It’s so specific that I can remember where I was sitting in relation to everyone else at the table. Up until that point in my life I had never really experienced bad food in Quebec, at least not bad in the taste department.
My guess is that cretons takes the peasant part of pâté and goes a step further. Recipes call for bread crumbs in the (mostly) pork fat concoction, as well as a variety of spices. But it really doesn’t do a good job of resembling food. At least human food. I’m sure this is simply my experience, and there must be (I hope) cretons out there to change my mind. But eating cretons that winter was one of the most horrifying food moments to date.
I just know that the only reason I tried it was because my cousin Simon, Martin’s older brother, dared me to eat it. Simon had impeccable taste in movies, and introduced me to Star Wars. I trusted him. But he was also the kid who put salt in my water and put ice cubes down my back. I had a terrible crush on him, and of course did anything to impress him.
“What do you think?” Simon asked, smirking.
I shuddered and grabbed my glass of milk, wanting to cry. It burned.
Even now it’s hard to find words. Okay how about: Fat pebbles. Those are words that work. Fat pebbles that taste vaguely of bacon and salt and stuck together with sticky sludge. On a cracker. And those fun little fat pebbles can get stuck in your teeth, too, which is another added benefit. I’m absolutely Team Pork, and I think it’s one of the tastiest, most versatile and interesting meats out there. But this just never worked for me. Blood pudding? Sure! Rooster feet? I’m game. Any sausage or mystery meat, head cheese or meat amalgam I’m usually perfectly fine. But cretons… it’s better left alone.
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