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SAVOR THE SEASON: Quebec native makes traditional French-Canadian meat pies

December 21, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Many Tri-Lakes residents of French-Canadian ancestry know about the tourtiere - a traditional double-crusted meat pie of the Christmas season that originated in Quebec. And one Saranac Lake woman - Sylvie Nelson - was busy this week making them for her family and friends.

For a variety of reasons - mainly due to the province's proximity to New York - many residents from Quebec have moved to the Adirondack region over the past 400 years. After all, this neck of the woods was once part of New France starting in 1609 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his native allies first clashed with the Iroquois on the western shore of the lake that now bears his name.

Even after Great Britain won the French and Indian War in 1763, when this region became part of the province of New York, Quebec residents continued to move south. In the 1800s and 1900s, they were lured here for work in the mines or to harvest timber as lumberjacks. Many stayed, and the French-speaking Canadians - mostly of the Catholic faith - continued to keep their traditions alive through the generations. One of those traditions is the making of meat pies for Christmas.

Article Photos

Sylvie Nelson, a Quebec native who lives in Saranac Lake, makes traditional meat pies for Christmas at her home Tuesday, Dec. 18.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

Nelson, who moved to the United States in the 1980s when she was 15 years old, grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, about 50 miles north of Newport, Vermont. She is the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board in Plattsburgh and lives in Saranac Lake with her husband, son and daughter.

Traditional meat pies are usually made with minced pork, veal or beef and potatoes. Wild game is sometimes added.

The ingredients of tourtiere vary from region to region. In the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area and eastern Quebec, the slow-cooked, deep-dish pies are made with potatoes and various meats, including wild game. In the Montreal area, the pie is made with finely ground pork only.

In Nelson's hometown, they don't add potatoes to their tourtiere, and pork is the main meat ingredient. She keeps that part of tradition in her own meat pie, but the recipe she's been using for decades has been altered. She's made it her own since first seeing the recipe when she was 5 years old.

"This recipe is not my grandmother's recipe," Nelson said. "It came from years and years ago, and I kind of tweaked it a little bit. It came from Canadian Living (magazine), but it's the best. Everyone who eats it is like, 'Oh, my God.' I think it's because you have the mushrooms that kind of keeps it moist."

Nelson calls it an "English-based recipe" because of the mushrooms.

"That's my secret because most people don't do that," she said. "My friends, my family, it's become the go-to recipe now. My mother uses it. My sister uses it. I use it. I've shared it with other people."

Nelson's tourtiere starts with a meatloaf mix bought at the local supermarket - ground veal, pork and beef. She adds beef broth instead of water, onions, garlic, celery and mushrooms. But the secret to a good traditional meat pie?

"I think it's all in the spices," she said.

Nelson adds clove, savory and cinnamon. After looking up the recipe in her grandmother's copy of the 1967 classic "Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking" by Madame Jehane Benoit, she saw note added to the recipe in her grandmother's handwriting: "allspice."

"This was my grandmother's. My mom has one. Every good Canadian woman had this," she said.

The meat cooks for about an hour, letting the broth boil down. Then she toasts slices of bread in her grandmother's toaster oven, dating to the 1970s, grinds up the toast in a small food processor and adds the bread crumbs to the mixture.

Then the meat is cooled before spooning it into the pie dish, lined with homemade dough. Nelson uses a pie crust recipe she found in Ricardo magazine, published by Montreal celebrity chef Ricardo.

After rolling out the first section of dough, she lines the pie pan with it and spoons in the meat. Then she rolls out the dough for the top and, in the center, uses a cookie cutter in the shape of a Christmas tree to make an impression. Then she uses her fingers to put water on the lip of the bottom dough, places the top dough over the pan and crimps the dough along the edges. In the center, along the Christmas tree impression, she makes cuts so the meat mixture can vent while it is cooking. Then she trims the excess dough from the dish, saving the leftover dough for the next batch.

The pie should be cooled before cooking. It can even be placed in the freezer if it's made well in advance. Nelson brushes the top of the dough with egg wash before cooking the pie for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees.

As for eating the tourtiere, French Canadians traditionally have it during Reveillon, a dinner based on the word reveil, meaning "waking," because it involves staying awake until after midnight on Christmas Eve. Nelson calls it the "wake" and recalls her own family's tradition.

"Usually the kids would go to Mass earlier, but I think way, way back in the day everybody went to midnight Mass," she said. "We would go to children's Mass at 7, and we would come home and go to bed. My dad usually took us. And the rest of the adults would go to Mass at midnight and then come back. Of course, by then, Santa had come by because he comes at midnight. So they would wake us up. ... We would open our presents, and then after that we would have this big feast and the tourtiere was part of that.

"They would eat drink and be merry until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, and then the next day, get up and travel to other family members."

She also had meat pie at one grandmother's house on Christmas day for lunch and again at her other grandmother's house for dinner. Then they had it for New Year's Day

"It's a staple of the holidays," she said, adding that she even makes it for Thanksgiving. "And New Year's is just as important as Christmas. You know, here on the 26th, the tree comes down and there you go. Not there. You keep your tree until the weekend after New Year's."



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