Sunday, June 21, 2009

Une Maudite Poutine

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Why is it that the subject of cheese always leads me down a whimsical path? I am already on record in this forum as being a confessed cheesehead (see the May 10 and May 17 postings), and my love of cheese extends to all types and manners of presentation. Probably one of my favorites is just plain old cheese curds, which you can’t find just anywhere in the United States. Not so, however, once you have crossed the border, especially in the heart of Québec dairy land in the Eastern Townships where they are readily available in grocery stores and the neighborhood dépanneur, or quick-stop market. Canada has never been a big consumer of cheese and I am not sure exactly why. Steven Jenkins, in his magisterial 500+ page Cheese Primer, dedicates only two pages to Canadian cheese, or the lack thereof. Most of Canada’s dairy cows are concentrated in Ontario and Québec, and this is where you do find some decent cheese . . . and cheese curds. More on that in a moment.

Having spent part of my youth in Wisconsin, I have grown up eating cheese curds like others eat popcorn or potato chips. They are best when they are fresh, eaten plain, right out of the bag. And they squeak when you eat them, so some refer to them as “squeaky cheese,” or just “squeaks.” Only fresh curds squeak. No two ways about it – you have to eat them when they are fresh.

I am not going to elaborate on the intricacies of cheesemaking. I will leave that to the experts. Suffice it to say, that the making of cheese all depends on what you do with the curds. They are good to eat just as they are, but the processing of curds can lead to a variety of tastes and textures. And the experts will tell you that the best tasting cheeses are produced from raw, or unpasteurized, milk. Curds contain casein, or milk protein, so they have to be good for you. Right?

Well, maybe a couple of intricacies of cheesemaking. You have to know where curds come from. So first off, you take the casein and introduce various bacteria to start the process. Then comes the addition of rennet (produced in the stomach lining of various animals) which encourages coagulation. My mouth is watering already. Once the mixture is allowed to set and the temperature raised a bit, the result is a nice, rubbery (and squeaky) unripened cheese curd. Some are fine cut, and others are course nuggets, depending on what type of cheese one is making. But I am not really interested in the final product here. I am interested in the curds, and only the curds. I recommend the coarse cut curds. Personal preference I guess. Put them in a bag; put them in the store as quickly as possible to guarantee their briny freshness. You buy them, you eat them right out of the bag. They squeak, and I am in cheese heaven.

For many years I thought cheese curds were all you needed to be happy. I was wrong. And so this tale takes on an international flavor as I discovered how cheese curds were taken to the next, and perhaps ultimate, level. I’m talking about “poutine.” Some say the word is derived from the English “pudding,” although I favor the argument that it is a québécois joual bastardization of the French “poutitè,” meaning a “hodge podge.” The conversation no longer revolves just around cheese curd. Now taters and gravy come into play.

There is an urban myth, which may actually be the truth of the matter, claiming that Fernand LaChance, who in the late 1950's ran a small restaurant called Le Lutin Qui Rit [The Laughing Elf], in the Eastern Townships of Québec, was the first person to mix together French fries, unripened cheese curds, and hot gravy and place them before Eddy Lanaisse, a paying customer. In fact, as the story goes, it was Lanaisse who suggested the ingredients in the first place. Having completed the concoction to Lanaisse’s specifications, LaChance confessed “ça va faire une maudite poutine” [what a bloody mess].” Many people who now sit down to their first serving of what is known simply as “poutine,” may heartily agree with him. Not so this cheesehead when he was first introduced to this Québécois delicacy a decade later, in a small casse croûte, or diner, in St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, a town near Montréal, which also lays claim to the distinction of being the birthplace of poutine.

There is also some debate as to the true origins of poutine. There was another fellow over in Drummondville, Québec, who strongly asserted that he was the inventor and his obituary (as did LaChance’s) underscored his claim. Maybe it is a surprise that anyone at all takes credit for poutine; there are some who find it an embarrassment. Robert Bourassa, a former Québec premier once had other places he had to be when asked at a press conference if he ate poutine although I suspect he ate it from time to time whether he would fess up to it or not. Mitsou Gélinas, a well-known singer and actress in her native Québec, eating her first plate of poutine equated the experience with eating "that stuff that’s in your nose.”

Regardless of its origins, poutine is now a mainstay of Québécois cuisine. And it has also spread beyond the border to Québec, to other areas of Canada and even to the good ole USA. I have found it on the menu in such diverse locales as, Portland, Maine and in St. Petersburg, Florida. A friend in Halifax, Nova Scotia recently pointed out to me that poutine is available there for take-out delivery. Will wonders never cease? Some have added other ingredients – BBQ and marinara sauce – to make poutine their own. Martin Picard, Tony Bourdain’s Montréal frère de race (soul brother), serves “poutine au fois gras” at his landmark restaurant Au Pied de Cochon (at $23 Canadian). I will freely admit that I have tried it there . . . and it is wonderful! But I am not sure why this is all necessary. Fries, cheese curds and thick, dark gravy really says it all!

I was reintroduced to poutine several years ago when my family and I stopped for dinner in Errol, a small crossroads village in far northern New Hampshire. There was on the menu along with something billed as a “Mooseburger” which was actually just a large hamburger with melted cheese curds on top. My wife and son had never heard of poutine before and so I shared with them what I knew about it while enjoying the Mooseburger with a side order of poutine. The evening ended with us laughing about a scheme to open a nationwide chain of poutine palaces to introduce Americans to this wonderful Québécois treat.

I have never given up my predilection for cheese curds, and I eat them every chance I can score a bag or two (usually any time I find myself north of the 45th Parallel), but seldom do I have an opportunity to delight in “une maudite poutine.” Over the past year Americans have been talking and voting for change. Maybe it’s time to resurrect the idea of a “Stevie’s Poutine Palace” chain . Maybe this will give the American economy the kick in the pants it has been looking for . . . one bloody mess as a solution for another.

NEXT WEEK: One Step Over the Line - Part 1


  1. Well, Steve, what can I tell you.

    My twelve-year-old just came back from Quebec. Her take on poutine: aaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh.

    'Course now, she's twelve. And as you say, it depends on what they do with the curds, and neither of us can vouch, as authorities, for what was done with these.

    But I must say that my initial take on poutine, coming from her, was:


    Now I'm not so sure.

    (Maine? Disputed Canadian territory. St. Pete's? Snowbirds. ;-) )

    Donn Ahearn

  2. Please tell me where to find poutine in St. Petersburg, Florida. I could kill for it.