Stuart Forster looks at poutine in Montreal and Quebecois life, and hears about some of the best places to eat the dish in the province of Quebec, Canada.
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Poutine is a comfort food whose popularity has grown markedly in recent years. The classic version of poutine features chips – fries in North American parlance – smothered with gravy and cheese curds.
To understand more about the popular dish I reached out to people living in Canada. I was keen to find out more about the origins of poutine, its popularity in the province of Quebec and the best places to enjoy poutine in Montreal.
(I hope that readers in the beautiful province of Quebec will forgive me for using unaccented English spellings of both Montréal and Québec throughout this post.)
Poutine in Quebec
“The connection between the province of Quebec and poutine is a love affair. I’ve always had poutine in my life,” says Martine Venne, a resident of Montreal who previously lived in the Outaouais region of western Quebec.
Martine pronounces the name of the popular dish in a way that reminds of the surname of Russia’s president. I make a mental note to correct my fifth-rate pronunciation of poutine. From my mouth it sounds more like ‘poot-een’ than ‘puet-in’.
“I used to figure skate or go see my brother play baseball or hockey. We would always go to la cantine and have a poutine with a Sprite or slush or whatever. Poutine has always been part of my life. It’s an easy meal that you’ll do like hot dogs or hamburgers. You have poutine instead of fries or you take a bigger poutine and that’s your meal. It’s probably been part of every Quebecers life,” she says of a dish that people from south of the 49th parallel and overseas tend to regard as a Canadian delicacy.
A delicacy of Quebec
“For me it’s really Quebecois, it’s not as much Canadian, because it was invented in Quebec and we have the great products, such as the cheese to make it really Quebecois,” says Martine.
“You guys can’t even say it!” she jokes. “It’s Quebecois. I hate that we say it’s Canadian! I never feel so Quebecois. Poutine is ours!” utters Martine, laughing.
“Canadians say its Canadian just as we say Justin Bieber’s Canadian. He’s Ontarian; they can keep him,” she continues, drawing a rare analogy between poutine and the popular musician born in London, Ontario.
The history of poutine
The origins of poutine are much debated.
One school of thought suggests that the dish was first served in the late-1950s at a snack bar called Le Roy de la patate in Drummondville, a city approximately 120 kilometres north-east of Montreal. Curds were added to the special sauce prepared by Jean-Paul Roy, who went on to open Le Roy Jucep.
Another view is that poutine was first served during 1957 at a restaurant called Le Lutin Qui Rit in Warwick, about 160 kilometres north-east of Montreal. According to legend, the restaurant’s owner uttered that mixing cheese curds with fries would make a mess, which in the colloquial French of the region is ‘poutine’.
Poutine pilgrims may be well tempted to head to those cities during a road trip in the province of Quebec.
Don’t forget the curds
“Where’s it from really doesn’t matter because what you want is the authentic poutine from a food truck or shack on the side of the road as you’re road-tripping through Quebec. That’s how you should have your poutine when you’re not drunk,” says Martine who likes the cheese curds on her poutine to be squeaky.
“They need to be fresh and extremely squeaky,” she says of the curds. “They need to be a little bit warm, so you don’t want the curds to have been transported some long distance because then they put it in the fridge…The best cheese curds are the ones that you’ll buy from the counter of a depanneur – a corner store – when you’re buying your gas or whatever. That’s where you should take them because they’re a little bit warmed up and they come from the dairy that’s not far away.”
Martine believes that some of the tastiest curds are available for sale by the sides of highways in Quebec. Such snack shacks are termed casse croûtes. They present people enjoying road trips with easy opportunities to taste authentic Quebecois cuisine.
Snack bars such as La Pataterie Hulloise (311 Boulevard Saint-Joseph, Gatineau) with picnic tables and benches outside are worth visiting for authentic poutine.
How to eat poutine
“What’s memorable for poutine is that you share it. It’s really the action of going out with your friends. At three in the morning you come away from the bar or dance floor and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m hungry, do you want to get some McDonalds or poutine?’” explains Martine.
“Well, obviously, it’s always poutine. I guess that’s what’s memorable about it – sharing with friends and stealing someone’s fries,” she adds.
Many a big night out in the bars of Montreal’s Old Town is followed by poutine. I’ve enjoyed both elements and can vouch for heading to a late-night snack bar for a bowl of poutine as being one of Montreal’s must-try experiences.
“Poutine is booze food for me. Honestly, I can count the amount of times I’ve eaten the dish sober. I can’t stand it normally but after the bar with friends I give in. Nothing soaks up your night out like a heavy 3.00am poutine, it also knocks me out and puts me straight to sleep about 15 minutes after devouring,” agrees Danny Pavlopoulos, one of the founders of Spade and Palacio, which offers ‘non-touristy tours’ of Montreal.
For eight years Danny lived opposite Chez Claudette (351 Avenue Laurier Est), in the city’s Mile End district, which he’d frequently visit for late-night snacks.
Types of poutine
Beyond classic poutine there are many variations on the dish. One version that Danny refuses to eat is vegan poutine. The foie gras, served at Au Pied de Cochon (536 Duluth Est), a restaurant run by celebrated Montreal chef Martin Picard, counts among the most memorable versions of poutine that he recalls tasting.
The gravy used to make poutine has many variations. It’s poured over everything from thick, cleanshaven chips to long, skinny fries still featuring their skin.
“Where I like to go serves the classic poutine and is a big portion. It’s greasy, because I drank before and need the poutine to help with all the alcohol. So I’ll go Chez Claudette, a short walk from the Dieu du Ciel microbrewery,” says Martine recommending the snack bar that’s open 24 hours a day from Thursday to Saturday.
She admits to being a fan of poutine baton, a version of the dish made with pogos – a type of corn dog – smothered in ketchup. “It’s so gross it’s amazing,” she adds enthusiastically, admitting to salivating at the thought of the dish.
Montreal is famed for its smoked meat, a heavily delicacy served at the likes of Schwartz’s (3895 Boulevard Saint-Laurent). At Le Roi du Smoked Meat (6705 rue Saint-Hubert) you can taste it in poutine.
“Poutine italienne – Italian poutine – is famous and you’ll see it in a lot of places,” says Martine, highlighting a version of the dish featuring a tomato-based sauce similar to a traditional Bolognese-style pasta topping. “There’s also a Mexican poutine with guacamole.”
Poutine restaurants in Montreal
La Banquise (994 rue Rachel Est) has been open in Montreal since 1968. Located near La Fountaine Park, the restaurant is open 24 hours a day and serves more than 30 versions of poutine.
“You can have bacon, mushrooms and onions or with chicken. Those are the classics and you can twist it up,” says Martine citing Garde Manger (408 rue St Francois-Xavier), where celebrity chef Chuck Hughes serves lobster poutine.
Poutine in western Canada
“Poutine is a bit of a weird thing here. We don’t really do it right,” says Jodi Holliday, a resident of Regina, Saskatchewan. She admits to not being a poutine purist but knows that the cheese has to squeak.
“I think poutine is integral to a night out, particularly in Montreal. It fills the belly with something substantial instead of just alcohol. Though I am way past the days of staying out all night, we used to get a hot dog from the cart after the bar or, shudder, go to Burger King or something along those lines when I was in my youth. We just didn’t have poutine as an option,” she says, a comment highlighting the growth of poutine’s popularity and availability across Canada in recent years.
“The best poutine in Montreal I had was at Au Pied de Cochon. The poutine had foie gras. It was decadent, it was rich, it was amazing!” she enthuses.
I make a note to head to Au Pied de Cochon next time I visit Montreal. First though, I’ll sink a couple of locally brewed beers.
Getting to Montreal
Air Canada and British Airways operate nonstop services between London Heathrow (LHR) and Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL). The transatlantic flight have a duration of around seven hours.
Accommodation in Montreal
Search for hotels in Montreal and elsewhere in the province of Quebec via the Booking.com website (£):
The pandemic is may be restricting international travel but it’s still possible to make a virtual trip and Explore Canada.
Stuart Forster is a freelance journalist and photographer who writes about travel and food for newspapers, magazines and online publications. He is available for commissions.
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