On Tourtière, or French-Canadian Meat Pie

Tourtière. There may be no other more polarizing dish in my family than Tourtière. With dozens of variations through Quebec, our family’s version is, at its simplest, a meat pie. The crust, flaky and light. The filling, spiced with clove, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and onion. It’s savory and spiked with flavors most American palates equate with apple pie and gingerbread. And at its best it’s topped with pepper relish. Served most frequently during the Christmas holidays, it’s something that women in my family have been making for hundreds of years, and something my mother, sister, and I still make to this day. As far as I can tell, even among my French-Canadian cousins, we’re the only ones to still carry on the tradition.

It’s a long process. And one that takes a certain amount of patience and grit to get through. I distinctly remember waking up as a kid at six in the morning to the searing, burning miasma of ten pounds of browning onions filling our house, and Mom and Aunt Nicole already giggling and crying downstairs (though to be fair, this is usual behavior for them, regardless of a metric ton of onions).

You really need a meat vat.

You really need a meat vat to make Tourtière. We have 20 gallon steel lobster pot that my godparents gave my folks years ago, and it just manages to do the job. These days Mom and I cook a half batch, which is only ten pounds of meat and four pounds of onions.

I love Tourtière. It smells and tastes like Christmas. But many of my cousins don’t like it, or only eat it if it’s covered in ketchup (which, in Quebec, is an acceptable condiment for pretty much everything save ice cream). My husband Michael tried it a dozen times before finally matching it with the pepper relish and decided it wasn’t horrible. Progress.

Regardless of opinions, those of us who love Tourtière love it with a kind of reckless abandon. One year my grandparents actually drove a pie down to my mom, lovingly delivered in their Chrysler LeBaron. It was abruptly decimated by the dog we got at Christmas. My mom sobbed over the empty pie tin, and the dog burped happily in the corner. Which was followed by a rather heinous bout of doggie diarrhea.

The dog was returned to the pound a few weeks later, and while my folks said it was because she couldn’t be potty trained, I’m pretty sure it was because she ate that Tourtière. Those two issues aren’t unrelated.

Mom has her mom’s recipe, and every year we lose the recipe and then find it again, so by now I’ve pretty much committed it to memory. There really isn’t much other than a list of ingredients. Here’s what we got to make approximately 10 – 15 pies:

  • 5 lbs pork
  • 5 lbs beef
  • 8 lbs onions
  • 1 lb butter
  • 4 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp cloves
  • salt and pepper to taste

A few notes.

We haven’t augmented the recipe in spite of the fact we halve it every year.

We also haven’t updated it to mention that the spices listed are never enough. You have to taste it and taste it and fix as you go. I’d like to say that there’s a special proportion, but really it’s the sort of thing that you figure out over a long period of time. Mom and I have our own “just right”—but that doesn’t mean it’s your “just right”.

Also, my grandmother used to skim the fat off of hers as she cooked it. Or so mom tells me. My guess is that her meat was far less lean than ours, since Tourtière retains a bit of that kitchen sink meat heritage. Since we’ve been making it, we found that if you skim the fat the final result is a bit too dry. So we actually just use a slotted spoon to fill the pie shells later.

I prefer making pie crusts with butter, and there’s a great recipe in the Joy of Cooking for pate brisée that works wonderfully. But let’s be real. Most years we go with Marie Callender’s or Trader Joe’s.

The basics:

Brown all the onions (that’s where the butter comes in), and put them in the bottom of the vat.

Brown the beef in stages, and add it to the vat.

Add spices and salt, and cover just barely with water.

Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for… about four hours? Maybe five? It really depends. For us, we just keep tasting it and we know when it’s right. Real scientific, I know.

When it’s done and cooled a bit, you put it in pie shells. Bottom first, fill it up, then top it off with another crust (and really do wait for the mixture to cool, because otherwise it’ll melt the dough). Do not blind bake! I’ve had disastrous results trying to “amend” the recipe in this regard. But we like to make cool designs on the pie pricks. At the end we take the leftover dough and make trottoir, a sort of jelly-filled pastry (that I like to make into the shape of a fish).

The pies go to the freezer directly, and then get cooked later. 350 for an hour, then done.

Translating Tourtière

While we’ve had a hard time replicating the relish (it’s a green tomato Quebec thing) my brother in law Matt has a fabulous Italian take on pepper relish, and I’ve found that Chow Chow works pretty well, too. Or pickled green tomatoes. The South and Quebec have a surprisingly large amount of things in common when it comes to food.

I have to admit, I’m always a little self-conscious when mom and I bring Tourtière to a traditionally American home. The ingredients really aren’t that strange, but the combination is for many palates. Over the years of gifting our prized pies, we’ve found people from England and Australia really love it, mostly because they have similar dishes there. There’s something comforting and near universal about the meat surrounded by pastry structure (see: pasties, dumplings, knishes, etc.). But it’s what’s in the middle that makes the difference. Tourtière, and all its cousins, is food born out of necessity, spiced and cooked to within an inch of its life likely to cover up gaminess or perhaps offness. Perhaps it’s one of those things you just have to grow up with.

Part of me understands how cinnamon and clove might be off-putting in a pie that’s also packed with meat.

But then I remember that I learned to like boiled peanuts, as absolutely bizarre as they were to me on first try. So the argument is invalid.

I could go on at length about Tourtière, likely I could dedicate a whole book to it. But I’ll close by saying that for me, it represents the holidays like no other dish. Of all the recipes in my DNA, it’s the one that brings back the most memories and the one that I have (thankfully successfully) introduced to my children with the most fervor. As little Southerners, I think they’re primed a little better for the flavor profile of Québecois  cuisine, but they, like me, don’t go a year without it. May their eyes forever burn with the memory of searing onions, too.

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Natania Barron

Fuschia Glittersquid at Glittersquid
Natania Barron is an author, a foodie, and a Crystal Gem. When she’s not writing in imaginary worlds, she’s raising her family, baking elaborate cakes, and burying herself in genealogy research. Her favorite topics at Glittersquid include pop culture, feminism, family history, autism spectrum disorder, adult beverages, and the power of storytelling. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children, two dogs, a cat, and many bottles of wine.
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