On a recent trip to Quebec, I learned many facts – and likely a few fictions – about poutine, the traditionally Quebecois mess of French fries, gravy and toothsome, squeaky, cheese curds. It’s piled high in a bowl and eaten with a fork, not your fingers. I’d sampled the Duckfat version chef Rob Evans serves in his Portland restaurant before the trip, but neither of my children had tasted poutine until we hit the Four Seasons Restaurant in Jackman, Maine, for lunch before crossing the border.

Both ravenously hangry and sucked into the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi network because they’d fallen prey to a poor cell signal for a whole 90 minutes as we drove north from Skowhegan, neither kid questioned their dad’s choice of this shared appetizer. They didn’t know what it was to start, but by the bottom of the bowl, they jockeyed for position to snag the last bite. They wondered aloud if all poutine were alike. Fortunately for them, I’d arranged a forced family fun activity for the next day that would answer that question.

“The difference lies in the sauce,” explained our Airbnb Experiences host Sammy, also a sous chef at Faks Café in the Sillery section of Quebec City. From behind a skinny maple island in his apartment’s kitchen, he conducted our poutine cooking class. Traditionally, the sauce is a beef gravy. Oftentimes, there is a choice of chicken. And lately, there’s even a buffalo option – as in wings, not bison. Sammy’s sauce – our favorite of the six poutines we ate during our four-day-trip – was an almost classic French gravy. He layers sautéed shallots and mushrooms with Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, wine and beef broth. His (no longer) secret ingredients are maple syrup and Frank’s Red Hot.

Some controversy exists regarding who invented poutine. One restaurant in central Quebec was serving it circa 1957 in response to a customer’s request. A second restaurant closer to Montreal was the first to list it on its menu around 1964. City folk didn’t start eating it until the early 1970s when a Quebec City chef handed out free cheese curds with every order of fries and gravy. In the early 2000s, poutine was popularized south of the Canadian border as part of the comfort food trend of the time. Since then, chefs have served elevated versions, adding house-cured lardons, seared foie gras and the like.

But nobody, explained Sammy, disputes the fact that it was during a dairy crisis in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when a glut of milk was driving prices down, that farmstead cheesemakers coopted the cheddar-making process as a way to generate fast cash. The method for making mild, fresh cheese curds is a truncated version of that for making aged cheddar cheese. Milk is heated and cultures and rennet are added. The milk coagulates; then the curds are cut, cooked until they separate from the whey, and drained. For cheddar, the curds are pressed into molds and aged up to two years. But fresh curds are salted and then sold, letting cheesemakers see a much faster return. In Quebec, fresh cheese curds are sold by the cash register as a snack, like Doritos.

Over time, fresh cheese curds continue to ferment, a process that changes their taste and texture. For the first 48 hours, the mild, fresh curds squeak against your teeth as you eat them. After that point, the squeak fades but the curds pick up a more cheddary flavor.

Comparing cheese curds. Cheddar cheese is aged for up to two years; cheese curds are made with the same process but eaten fresh. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Silvery Moon Creamery in Westbrook makes several flavors of curds (plain, Tuscan herb and French herb) every other week. In March, the creamery also produces smoky, maple-flavored curds. All told, the creamery made 10,000 pounds of cheese in 2019, of which 1,600 pounds was fresh cheese curds. Cheesemaker Dorothee Grimm believes most of her customers simply snack on them or sprinkle them into salads. But curds melt nicely, too, so she uses them on pizzas and in pasta dishes, mixes them into pans of mac and cheese and melts them between tortilla for quesadillas.

Besides Silvery Moon, State of Maine Cheese Company in Waldo, Crooked Creamery in Skowhegan and Pineland Farms Dairy company in Bangor make cheese curds and sell them at stores across the state. I tried making my own, twice. I got some great whey out of the deal. But the curds themselves  – blame my lack of expertise – were more crumbly than squeaky. In the future, I’ll be buying my curds from the experts. They run between $6 and $9 for an 8-ounce container.

Pineland Farms Dairy Company president Mark Whitney buys milk from Maine dairies, primarily those in Penobscot County that are within 15 to 20 miles of his Bangor operation. The cheese company buys 10 million gallons of milk annually, which translates into about 1 million pounds of cheese; 15 percent of that is sold as fresh cheese curds. Making fresh cheese curds is less labor intensive and more ecologically sustainable as the curds are not aged for months in a temperature-controlled environment powered by fossil fuels.

“The more Maine milk we can make into cheese – fresh or aged – the more we support Maine dairy farms,” Whitney said.

Liquid milk pricing is highly complicated and regulated nationally; Maine gets a bit of a break based on its terminal location on the supply chain, which makes the cost of doing business higher here than it can be in the Midwest. Sarah Littlefield, executive director of the Maine Dairy Promotion Board and the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council, explains that while the national price of liquid milk has increased slightly in the past few months, the industry is still reeling from a 5-year period of all-time low milk prices. “Many farmers have gone heavily into debt to stay afloat with these prices. It’s going to take years and years of sustained higher prices to help dig them out,” Littlefield said. Local cheesemakers negotiate their own milk prices with local dairy farmers so both can sustain their bottom lines.

So by all means, seek out fresh cheese curds to help keep local milk flowing quickly through the local food system. And buy that cheddar when it’s ready, too.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Cheese curds in process. Rudalevige found making them harder than she expected. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Sammy’s Poutine Gravy

This gravy recipe was provided by the chef who taught me how to make poutine. But it’s also good over meatloaf, mashed potatoes and open-faced roast beef sandwiches.

Makes 2 cups

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 sliced shallots

1/2 cup red wine

2 cups beef stock

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons corn starch mixed with 1/4 cup cold water

In a 4-quart pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the mushrooms and shallots and cook, stirring until the mushrooms start to brown and the shallots become translucent, 4-6 minutes. Add wine to deglaze the pan and cook until it is reduced by half, 2-3 minutes. Whisk in the stock, mustard and vinegar. Let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes. To thicken the gravy, whisk in the cornstarch and water slurry. While continuing to stir, let the gravy simmer for 1 minute until it is thickened. Serve immediately or cool to room temperature before refrigerating it for up to a week and reheating slowly before serving.


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