Québec is bordered on the top by the Arctic, on the west by the Canadian province of Ontario, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the American states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
It is a very cold climate. In early May, there are often still huge mounds of snow here and there in Québec City, and winter comes again early, with snow sometimes starting by October.
The two cornerstones of the Québecois cuisine are bread and meat (particularly pork.) Country-style food dishes (or comfort foods, if you wish) include split pea soup, tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean, pouding chômeur (“unemployed person’s pudding”: dense white cake with butterscotch sauce on it), and the ground pork spread always referred to in the plural as “crétons.” Crétons is often served in restaurants in a small cup to the side, for you to scoop your toast in. Traditional desserts are pies, and homemade-style bread with maple spread (“tartinade”) on it. While it’s not entirely true that in country-style Québec cooking everything has maple syrup in or on it, it is very often present in glazes, in casseroles, or even just at tables in bottles or pitchers.
Baked Beans with lard (“Fèves au lard”, aka “Boston Pork and Beans”) in them were brought up into Québec in the middle of the 1800s by Americans coming to work as lumberjacks. A classic breakfast is baked beans, toasted homemade bread, crétons, eggs, and home fries.
The main gourmet products are cheese, butter, maple syrup, Montréal bagels, Montréal smoked meat, foie gras, and raw-milk cheeses. The availability of these everywhere is the sign of an increasingly prosperous society. Urban foods are poutine québecoise, and those foods that come out of Montréal, such as smoked meat, bagels, etc.
Agriculture is heavily subsidized and protected by the State.
The food inspection agency in Québec is the “Centre québecois d’inspection des aliments et de santé animale.”
Less than 15% of the people in Montréal have access to fluoridated water.
The government of Québec has held a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol since 1921. To promote Québec domestic commercial interests, Québec produced or bottled wines and beers can be sold in corner stores: for anything else, you must go to a government-run alcohol store.
Wine outsells hard spirits in Quebec by a 3 to 1 margin, as of 2005.
Pale beer is called “blonde”; “brown” beer is called “rousse” (meaning “red”.)
In Québec bars, unlike bars in neighbouring parts of Canada or the United States, full meals are not often served, just snacks. “5 à 7” (pronounced “cinq a sept) means “drinks after work” in Montréal.
In early Québec, a starter for bread dough was often made from boiled, grated potatoes, flowers and leaves from hops, and water. The mixture was allowed to ferment, then flour mixed right in to make the bread dough. The dough was kneaded in a large wooden trough reserved for bread called a “pétrin” in France and Québec.
Traditionally, a loaf of bread was a large, wheat loaf of bread (a “miche”) weighing up to 10 pounds (4 kg.) When the wheat harvest was bad, wheat flour was often stretched by mixing it with rye flour, preferably, or if needs be, flour made from ground dried peas.
Baking was done once a week, about 20 loaves at a time. There were some communal ovens in some villages in Québec, as was the habit in France. One, in Saint-Pacôme de Kamouraska, was still being used in the 1930s by 12 families 6 days a week. But it was a sign of prosperity in the new world that many farmhouses had their own bread ovens outside.
The ovens were made on a raised platform of stones cemented together. The doors were made of metal. And over the oven, there was often some form of shelter to protect women while they worked from inclement weather.
A new bread oven would be inaugurated with some holy water from church — or with alcohol.
There was a New Year’s ritual for the ovens called “Battre la vieille année” (“beat the old year”.) At midnight, you’d lightly beat the oven repeatedly, an action that normally might cause your bread to fall. The beating this time, though, was designed to drive out any bad spirits that might have been stuck to the oven’s inside walls all the past year, just waiting for the right circumstances to make your bread fall while cooking. In Québecois legends, the Devil often came to try to interfere with people’s bread ovens. A cross would often be formed in the top of bread dough before baking the loaf.
By the 1880s, Québec agriculture was already heavily specializing in dairy products for export to American, British and Canadian markets.
A complete ban on margarine helped carry elections for Maurice Duplessis (20 April 1890–7 September 1959), who was Premier Ministre (“Prime Minister”) of Québec for over 20 years. The anti-margarine law was confirmed again in 1999, 2003, and in March 2005 by courts. More modern versions of it don’t ban margarine, though: they just say that it can’t be coloured yellow. The law is reputedly designed to protect consumers, to ensure that they can tell the difference between margarine and butter. In November 2005, tubs of yellow margarine were seized from four Wal-Mart stores in the Québec City area, including Levis and Beauport. Affluent middle-class foodies are indifferent to it all; their retort is “who wants to eat margarine anyway?”
Commercial cheese production in Québec began in 1850 with a camembert cheese knock-off called “Crème de Beloeil”, in Sault-au-Récollet, Québec. The Québec oldest cheese still in production — since 1893 — appears to be a Port-du-Salut style cheese named Oka, though now it is made industrially.
Since then, Québec’s cheese industry has been bolstered by import duties to keep other cheeses out, and heavy industry subsidies. As of 2006, there are around 100 cheese producers. Cheeses are made primarily from cow’s milk; goat’s or sheep’s milk cheeses are also made. Many cheeses are takes on French cheeses.
40% of cheese made in Quebec is made from raw milk. In Montréal, there’s even a cheese store called “Qui Lait Cru” (though the entire phrase when spoken in French means “who would have believed it?”, the “Lait Cru” part of the name on its own means “raw milk”.)
The first documented Listeriosis outbreak from a raw-milk cheese in Quebec occurred in 2002 from April through to October inclusive. It affected 17 people. Though Listeriosis is not a reportable disease in Québec, there were no deaths that could be tied to the outbreak. The name of the cheese factory has been mostly suppressed in government reports, but it was a cheese factory that used milk from its own cows. The listeria, however, was not in the cow’s milk, and may have entered the factory in mud from the outside.
Both cheese and “beurre fermier” (“farmhouse butter”) are made from unpasteurized milk. Quebec’s Health Ministry has tried to discourage the production of raw milk cheese from time to time, though in the debate about unpasteurized milk and cheese, the unpasteurized butter is almost always overlooked.
Quebec is a very modern, North American society, and all major international food chains are present. Despite this, home grown restaurant chains such as St Hubert and LaFleur remain very popular.
Though there are many different kinds of poutine, Québecois have come to love their fast food version, poutine québecoise.
Fast food available includes poutine québecoise, Pizzagetti, steamies, guedille, smoked meat sandwiches, as well as the standard pizza, hamburgers, etc.
The Québecois love vinegar and use it on their fries, as do the Brits and Canadians. They prefer though the plain white spirit vinegar over the more flavourful malt vinegar that the Canadians and Brits do.
Street food is banned in Montréal on the basis on hygiene, with the exception of a few ice cream carts occasionally granted temporary special permission to be in some parks. Many suspect the hygiene reason is being used as an excuse by “highbrows” who think the idea of streetfood is beneath Montréal, and by those who are lobbied by restaurants who don’t want the extra competition. Montréal used to have street vendors: even bread and milk were sold by people on the street in the 1890s. By the time of World War I, there were chip waggons on the street, and hot dog vendors by 1930. But it was all shut down by government decree in 1947.
As of 2004, 76% of the maple syrup produced in the world is produced in Québec. Of the rest, 18% is produced in America and the remaining 6% produced in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. To celebrate this abundance in the early spring while the maple sap is flowing, the maple sugar camps where maple syrup is made become social centres, where people come for a meal, activities and dancing to live music in huge log halls. You buy tickets that cover the entire evening. Activities include “tire sur neige”, which is hot maple syrup poured on a trough of snow outside, which congeals enough for you to roll it up on a wooden stick to eat.
Inside, seating for the meal is along long tables with ketchup, relish and pitchers of maple syrup on them. The food served is country-style: pea soup, crétons, baked eggs, ham, baked beans, potatoes, wieners, and oreilles de crisse. You drizzle maple syrup on everything on your plate, even the eggs.
A heavy indulgence now in meat at events like this during Lent shows how far Québec has come from being a strict Catholic country. Eggs were also forbidden during Lent, so they became a treat at Easter. At Easter, when they were allowed again, they’d be served with that other springtime treat, maple syrup.
National holidays in Québec include Easter (either Good Friday or Easter Monday, depending on the employer), Journée nationale des patriotes (“National Day of Patriots”) — Monday closest to 24 May, Fete Nationale des Québecois (Québec National Celebration — 24th June), Christmas and New Year’s Day. The first of July is also a holiday, which is used as “Moving Day” in Québec.
Quebec food is regional in the sense of preferences and in the sense of what is usual. It is not regional in the same sense as the French concept of “terroir”, where certain foods have been tied to certain regional soils for centuries.
That being said, many recipes are definitely from particular regions of Quebec, and the food does show the first, initial signs of evolving into a collection of regional cuisines. Even with something that most regions make, such as tourtière, there will be variations that people will recognize as being from a particular region.
- Abitibi-Témiscamingue: Reputed to grow the sweetest strawberries in Québec. Also caviar from Broad Whitefish (Coregonus nasus), and trout;
- Bas-Saint-Laurent: Smoked fish and eel;
- Beauce: Maple syrup;
- Bois-Francs: Cheeses, geese, foie gras;
- Charlevoix: Herbes salées, veal;
- Îles de la Madeleine (Madeline Islands): fish and seafood, including seal;
- Lac St-Jean: Tourtière, broad beans, blueberries;
- Laurentides: Beef from Mont-Tremblant;
- Montréal: Known particularly for the quality of its Jewish delicatessens. Everyone has their favourite place to buy bagels, and will often disparage bagels from any other place. Largest food markets are the Jean-Talon and Atwater markets. Food from almost anywhere in the world is available in hundreds of different ethnic restaurants;
- Rivière-du-Loup: Salt Marsh Lamb (“agneau de pré salé”);
- Rougemont / Montérégie: Apples and apple products.
Literature & Lore
“I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation.”
— Madame Benoît. Québecois Food Writer. 1904 – 1987.
Bain, Jennifer. The saviour of syrup. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Toronto Star. 22 March 2006.
Dougherty, Kevin. “It’s not nice to fool Mère Québec!”. Montréal, Québec: Montréal Gazette. 6 November 2005.
Haldane, Maeve. United rashings. Montréal, Québec: Hour Magazine. 31 March 2005. Retrieved August 2005 from http://www.hour.ca/food/food.aspx?iIDArticle=5692.
Lejtenyi, Patrick: To vend or not to vend? Local city councillors opine on the potential return of sidewalk hot dog stands. Montréal: Montréal Mirror. 2002.
Penner, Rolf. Québec’s Margarine Madness. Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. March 2003. 26 September 2005.
Tremblay, Marie-Christine. Les fromages des Dépendances du Manoir. Montréal (Québec). Magazine Madame. Retrieved August 2006 from http://www.magazinemadame.com/madame/client/fr/Cuisine/DetailNouvelle.asp?idNews=179&idsm=354
Webb, Margaret. Quebec’s cider houses rule. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Globe and Mail. 13 September 2006.