Thursday, December 12, 2013
Bailey Lapointe Bartlett with tourtiere baked by Mike Frechette
Meat pies, called tourtieres, are special traditions served during Franco-American celebrations like the Christmas holidays, but they’re delicious anytime of year, especially at family reunions. My collection of tourtiers recipes continues to grow as readers send me their family stories about how to bake and serve Tourtieres.
This traditional Franco-American and French Canadian food tradition is just bound to be a joyful conversation starter, regardless of when or where it’s served.
Most important, serving tourtiere at family reunions creates memories for future generations to learn and remember about special Franco-American traditions, like Les Fetes (the Holidays).
Indeed, as any Franco-American will tell you, tourtieres are about more than the flavors of mixed spices and meats baked into each pie crust. They are about families.
Although the flavorful meat pies are traditionally served at Thanksgiving and during Les Fetes (the Christmas season), they travel well to any family reunions where their appearance stirs memories about those who handed their recipes down through many generations. Conversations usually begin with a statement like, “My Memere used cinnamon…..”, and continue like a family home movie of oral traditions, verbally baked into one common two-crusted pie.
Tourtiere discussions transcend time and generations. Nonetheless, only some families wrote their tourtiere recipes. My mother in law Rose Morin L’Heureux wrote her recipe after I requested it and now her beautiful handwriting is as much a family treasure as the ingredients she listed.
But, I also suspect the ingredients she listed changed, from time to time.
For example, some tourtiere meat fillings are made with ground pork while families with deer hunters often use venison. More common are fillings blended with ground or finely chopped meats, like pork with beef or venison. Each recipe calls for the meat and selected spices to simmer for a long time (unspecified) time before pouring the mixture into an uncooked pie shell. Most cooks simmer the meat for at least two to three hours. Mashed potatoes or crushed saltines are often used as a starch to bind the meat, but eggs are not an ingredient added to any of the dozens of recipes I’ve seen.
Tourtiere bakers season their preferred meat with a combination of favorite spices. My mother-in-law added cinnamon and cloves, along with salt and pepper. Others season theirs with allspice and some prefer sage. A modern ingredient includes chopped garlic. This variety raises interest among families who might consider hosting a reunion tourtiere buffet and recipe exchange. It’s easy to create family seasoning packets in labeled clear plastic bags to distribute as heritage favors to those who attend reunions.
It’s even possible to encourage family friendly tourtiere tasting contests. When served as a main course, the tourtieres blend well with favorite potato salads, gelatin molds, and anything with a sweet-sour or tangy flavor.
Summer condiments like pickles, home made relishes and diced beet salad seems to enhance the Tourtiere’s flavor. Our family serves a variety of relishes in small dishes displayed alongside the Tourtiere, something like the array of condiments offered at a curry dinner. Tourtiere purists, of course, like ketchup as a preferred condiment.
Tourtieres are often served in traditional pie plates but some prepare theirs in baking pans where the pastry is spread into rectangles to line the bottom and the top of the filling. Using frozen phyllo dough, instead of pie crust, is another way of re-creating the family recipe.
A culinary history of tourtiere coincides with the French-Canadian colonial immigration experience. This tradition may have started with the essential annual planting of wheat, when the birds called torterelles (ring necked doves) were plentiful nuisances. According to oral traditions, tourtiere pies were first reported to have been made with the meat of a now extinct fowl from the pigeon family called a tourterelle. By the way, the tourterelle was known for its beautiful feathers, craved by fashionable women who wore them in hats.
Colonial French farmers in Quebec were forced to shoot the birds when they attacked precious wheat seedlings. Following a medieval tradition in France where cooking the meat of birds in pies was common, tourtieres quickly became a protein source for the French families.
A taxidermy exhibit of the beautiful torterelle bird is on display in the Bowdoin College Stanley F. Druckenmiller Hall.
A collection of many families' tourtiere recipes, sent to me over the years, are available at the site mainewriter.com. Don’t forget to record your family recipes with a short version of a family story to go with each one! More recipes are always welcome!
Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.
Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.